S1: Sleep plus members. I’m here to remind you to take the sleep survey. It’ll be open through April 1st. This is your chance to tell us what you think about sleepless and sleet. It will only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate.com slash survey.
S2: In January of 1992, a container ship called the Evergreen ever laurell left Hong Kong bound for Seattle Tacoma in the northern Pacific.
S3: It hit rough seas, not exceptionally rough, but the North Pacific in winter is always pretty rough, and the waves and conditions were stormy enough that 12 containers fell overboard. Donovan hoehn is a writer. Out of one container, there emerged boxes and out of the boxes there escaped packages. And those packages, each one contained for bath toys.
S2: These toys were blue turtles, green frogs, red beavers and yellow rubber duckies. And there are more than 25000 of them. Collectively, they became known as the friendly floaties and they floated across the ocean for years, some travelling distances of 17000 miles.
S4: When Donovan learned about them more than a decade after the original spell, he became completely fascinated and just the image of containers falling over or bored of the toys going adrift. I just wanted to imagine it.
S5: Donovan turned his fascination into a book called Moby Duck The True Story of twenty eight thousand eight hundred bath toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists and fools, including the author who went in search of them as the Moby Duck. Part of this title suggests one of these friendly floaties always stood out once they began washing ashore.
S4: You see the first news stories about this event, and right away it’s it becomes rubber duckies and only the rubber duckies.
S6: This is Decoder Ring, a show about cracking cultural mysteries. I’m Willa Paskin. Every episode we take on a cultural question, habit or idea. Crack it open and try to figure out what it means and why it matters. Perhaps now or at some point in the past, you had a rubber ducky in your life. This adorable kids toy is so ubiquitous in bathtubs. The world over. So commonplace. You may never have asked yourself why the rubber ducky? Why not a blue turtle, a green frog or a red beaver? In this episode, we’re going to ask just this. We’re going to look at the rubber ducky, where it comes from, why it stayed with us and all of the places that his floated, too. So today on Decoder Ring, why are we so awfully fond of the rubber duck?
S5: There are two things that are central to the rubber ducky as we currently understand it.
S7: The duck itself and the bathtub that it floats in.
S8: The kind of bath that a rubber ducky can float in, though, is a very specific kind of bath, a leisurely kind one fed by warm water and indoor plumbing. And needless to say, this kind of bath is relatively new in the 1860s.
S9: Expert opinion was nearly unanimous that the best kind of bath was a brief plunge in cold water.
S10: This is a quote from an article about the history of bathing by the historian Jackie S. Wilky. For the most part, hot baths were a no no, as was actually relaxing and enjoying the water. Lounging in the bath was thought to be actively detrimental to one’s health and particularly that of children. But this started to change.
S11: Around the turn of the 20th century, hot water and indoor plumbing became more widespread, and soon upper and middle class people living in cities had bathrooms more or less as we know them. As we developed a greater understanding of germ theory, baths spread to the poor as well. In York City, for example, a law was passed for public health reasons mandating bathtubs, though not toilet, be included in all tenement apartments. This is why some old New York City apartments have bathtubs in the kitchen. Those tubs wouldn’t necessarily have had hot water. This is where you get the term cold water flat.
S10: But by the 1920s, warm baths in porcelain tops were relatively widespread as bath go from a cold plunge to something more drawn out and pleasurable, something leisurely. A whole new market opens up for bath accessories, including for bath toys.
S5: And a version of the rubber ducky was right there from the very start.
S12: What would really disorient people today is if they were solid.
S5: Christopher Bench is the chief curator at the Strong Museum of Play, which has a collection of hundreds of rubber ducks which likely evolved from hunting decoys.
S12: They were conceived of as being chew toys for pets or chew toys for kids. They were solid. They wouldn’t float. They were basically a chunk o rubber.
S5: By the 1920s and 30s, though, toy ducks are starting to look more familiar. They’re floating. For one thing, for another, they’re no longer made out of rubber. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published in 1928, D.H. Lawrence makes mention of celluloid ducks given to a baby. You can see another plastic celluloid duck, which looks a little more realistic than what we’re used to bobbing around in a bathtub in the opening scenes of the 1934 version of Imitation of Life. You in the years immediately after World War 2 with the rubber ducky as we know it, comes into existence in the post-war era. There’s this huge new capacity for plastics manufacturing. Is when you also see the rise of plastic toys like Barbie and Frisbee. And when two men on opposite sides of the world. A Russian sculptor living in America and an industrialist in Hong Kong, simultaneously but independently come up with a rounded, stubby, cute plastic duck. Voila, the rubber ducky.
S10: Now, I don’t want to insult the yellow rubber ducky, which has a bunch of things going for it, like it’s cute. It’s gender neutral. It’s an appealing color. But as I learned its backstory, I started to feel like its popularity was based on more than a little luck. Like if someone had started mass producing adorable plastic whales, turtles, otters, frogs.
S13: Could that have become the bath toy of the 20th century? The toy duck does have something going for it that these other cute animals do not for similitude.
S10: Stick with me now. Turtles, fish, sharks, dolphins, whales, beavers, frogs and on and on. Typically spend their time underwater, surfacing occasionally. But a floating plastic toy cannot mimic that behavior.
S14: It can’t stay submerged with a floating plastic toy. Can do exactly is what a duck does, float right atop the water.
S5: The other animals that sit atop the water are also feathered waterbirds. And the only other feathered waterbird nearly as common as ducks in children’s literature and toys are geese.
S14: And I can definitively say geese are not as cute as ducks. The kind of duck that is born yellow with an orange beak like a rubber ducky is a breed that Americans call the Peking duck.
S15: And oddly, it grows up to look very much like a short necked goose with white feathers and an orange bell.
S5: Anyway, Tosa versus Militated into the bucket of things the rubber ducky has going for it, along with the rise of mass produced plastic. Changing ideas about how a central playfulness is to child rearing and its brate appearance, which is perfect for toddlers. For all these reasons, plus at least a dash of happenstance. By the 1950s and 60s, it has become the iconic bath toy, the teddy bear of the bathtub. Selling over 50 million copies.
S8: So so are there other bath toys with the 1940s and 50s that were really popular that we’ve just completely forgotten about?
S16: It is mostly rubber ducks. I think the rubber duck is the preeminent one around this time.
S5: You start to see the rubber ducky popping up in classic children’s books like Harry the Dirty Dog and The Snowy Day in 1969 when a new children’s television show called Sesame Street premiered on PBS. One of its characters, a puppet named Ernie, had a rubber ducky as his transitional object.
S5: I have to say, when I went into this episode, I’d assumed that it was Ernie and Sesame Street who had made the rubber duck a big deal. But in fact, the rubber duck was already a big deal. Ernie and Sesame Street just gave it a.
S18: Roberto Clwyd, you.
S19: The song Rubber Ducky was written by Jeff Moss, arranged by Joe Raposo and sung by Jim Henson. In-Character as Ernie, it was in many ways ahead of its time a viral video before virality or videos were a thing. After debuting during the show’s first season, an episode that aired in 1970, it became a sensation, selling more than a million copies and making the Billboard charts where it peaked at number 16.
S20: It’s the first where it’s pretty clearly targeted to a pre-school age kid.
S5: Chris M.A. is the host of the Slate podcast Hit Parade. An expert on the Billboard charts.
S20: It was still appealing and smart enough to be enjoyed by their parents. But there’s no question what Sesame Street is aiming at. And Aragao what rubber ducky? What target demographic rubber ducky is aiming at?
S7: So you’re saying like a rubber ducky really gave us babies are eventually.
S20: Yeah, baby shark and kids bop. It’s really helping to give birth to the children’s recording phenomenon, which, you know, everywhere from Barney to kids BOP is now a multi-million, probably multi-billion dollar industry.
S5: Regular listeners to this podcast will know that baby shark, which we did a whole episode about, is a long existing song that relatively recently went viral and made the Billboard charts. And no, don’t worry, we’re not gonna play it. Rubber ducky and baby shark have a lot in common. Both are charting viral sensations big with preschoolers that feature bright yellow water animals.
S7: That’s right. Baby shark is, perhaps not coincidentally, rubber ducky yellow.
S5: Working on this episode, I couldn’t help but think of the rubber ducky as a potential roadmap for baby shark, a set of directions on how to stay relevant for decades that, if followed, might foretell baby sharks future if it’s lucky, because since debuting in 1970, Rubber Ducky has never really gone away.
S7: Here’s Little Richard singing on Sesame Street in 1995. You make back down.
S21: No doubt. We’re not swingers.
S22: Here’s the actor and rapper Daveed Diggs performing a version for Sesame Street’s YouTube channel in 2017.
S23: I got my wrap it back in the tub. I sing the song to my kids in the bath sometimes.
S5: Robert Ducky, your though on You know what I Can Sing to my kids in the Bath. Some of the songs that were more popular than Rubber Ducky when it first charted in 1970.
S24: Songs like Make It With You Buy Bread.
S25: They it with you or lay a little love in a Robin Maxx.
S5: Rubber ducky has, in other words, been really sticky for a really long time, and that isn’t just because of small children. It’s because of the adults. Those children grow up to be adults like Chris Melaniphy.
S20: The thing about rubber ducky is it’s actually quite a witty song. And speaking as someone who was born in the early 70s and lived on Sesame Street, I could probably sing every word of it to you right now. It’s also fairly sophisticated, even a teeny bit Cole Porter like in the way it makes rhymes. You know, when I squeeze you, you make noise. That’s one line I absolutely love.
S5: Kids who grow up playing with a rubber duck, singing rubber ducky are likely to become adults who feel fondly, nostalgically about rubber ducks and the wholesome symbol Sesame Street ish times they represent. If such adults become parents, they’re likely to purchase a rubber duck and sing about it to their own child who will grow up and do the same thing. Rubber duckies are being passed down from generation to generation. It’s a pattern that explains the long javadi of a number of old fashioned toys.
S16: It goes adult toy buyer to the next adult generation of adult toy buyers. Christopher Bench of the Strong Museum of Play again. That’s the case for a number of the toys that have been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. I think a radio flyer wagons, for instance, that kids probably aren’t clamoring for them. But these Grown-Ups who say, oh, I turned out all right, I had a Radio Flyer red wagon. I’m gonna give my kid a radio flyer red wagon. And you’re talking about exactly the same phenomenon.
S7: Chris thinks this also explains the eternal recurrence of the Slinky and says that there have been micro cycles of this sort of behavior about hello, kitty and pound puppies. It’s nostalgia as much as anything that is maintaining the ducks. Popularity and nostalgia is a grown up affliction. So now I’d like to introduce you to some Grown-Ups who are particularly dedicated to the rubber duck. In the late 1990s, Jody Davis had just moved to Florida and needed to furnish her house.
S26: So I went to the store and of course I was buying towels and things like that. And they had rubber duck. So I picked up a rubber duck. Well, then the next time I went to get something, there was another rubber duck. And soon my bathtub had quite a few rubber ducks. Well, I then discovered eBay.
S8: And you know what happens when you discover eBay, a collection of 400 rubber ducks, which is what Jodi has today.
S22: They’re mostly displayed in her kitchen. Many in little ceramic bathtubs on shelves. She’s made especially for them.
S27: When I walk by, my rubber ducks get a little. You know, they catch my eye. They just make me smile.
S22: Besides being a rubber duck enthusiast, Jodi even designs her own rubber ducks. Leg one with a quilting theme. Says Jodi is an avid quilter.
S27: I work through my friend Crystal because he gets a lot of designs done. And so I drew it out and he had his sculptor.
S22: Sculptor Clay Wolfe is the creator of Silverdocs, which was founded in 1997 as a kind of boutique, upscale rubber duck company. The company took off when Wolf got a gig to design a custom duck that looked like the basketball player Allen Iverson for a Philadelphia 76ers stadium giveaway. It was a huge success.
S5: He’s been designing custom docs for corporate clients and selling dogs that look like famous people online ever since.
S28: Here’s Craig listing some of his celebrity docs Dukkha Natur, The Pond Bombshell, The Floating Stones, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Harry Ponder They’re Amazing Looking, The Bohemian kwaku City.
S29: Another One Bites the Duck. You have no idea how big a duck market is. I didn’t either. Danny, who thinks rubber duck right? There are duck stores all over the world to sell nothing but duck. There are collectors who have collectors in the thousands. It is humongous.
S5: Craig Ducks are very detailed that Allen Iverson duck has cornrows, brown skin, a Sixers jersey, hold a basketball and my favorite detail, a little mustache, fuzz running over its beak. There is something really appealing about it and all of the rest of the ducks, too, which include ones made in the image of Shakespeare, Elvis, Carmen, Miranda and amazingly, even the comedian Lisa Lampanelli.
S30: I don’t think people know what they’re what they’re responding to. It’s like it’s like iconic. Another no one sits there. And. I like this because there’s something round and nurturing about the shape and all. It’s not it’s pre-verbal emotionally. Respond to it. They don’t know what it is, but there’s something very soothing and endearing and whimsical.
S31: I think what Craig is saying is that rubber ducks, even ones made to look like Spock, carry the charge. The coziness of childhood.
S30: I can tell you, we sold millions of them.
S5: This number kind of blew my mind. Craig saying he has sold over a million rubber duckies to adults and they’re a big business for grown ups in other ways as well. The rubber ducky isn’t trademarked. It doesn’t belong to anyone. And so everyone is free to try and cash in on it. Walk into any Wal-Mart or Target, an addition to a wide variety of rubber duckies. You’ll see the image of the rubber ducky on shower curtains. Bathmat soap dishes. Shower Wan’s and soap. And this brings me back to Donovan hoenn, who you heard from at the beginning of this episode. He’s the author who became obsessed with the friendly floaties, the rubber frogs, turtles, beavers and ducks that fell off a containership in 1992 and when bobbing around the ocean for years. He became totally fascinated not only with the spill, but with a supply chain and everything else having to do with the plastic toys. But before getting into Donovans explorations. I just want to explain that though he grew up in the 1970s, had a rubber ducky and was nicknamed Donovan Duck by his mother. He’s not some rubber ducky guy. He was never that into his.
S32: It wasn’t yellow. It was as a kind of a somewhat hideous specimen, had white plumage, a green topcoat, headdress of phallic had. The posture of a penguin, but it was delightful because when you squeezed it, it looked vaguely scatological or out of its feet.
S5: Despite his history with Redux, when Donovan learned about the friendly floaties, he just couldn’t get them out of his mind.
S3: I wanted to know why had the Toya’s fallen overboard? Where had it? Where had they drifted? What do they reveal, if anything, about the ocean currents? I wanted to know where had they been made in China? What are those factories like?
S5: There was something about this incident that was captivating to lots of people. It was a big news story. The children’s book author Eric Carle, who wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar, wrote another children’s book based on it. The whole thing does feel like the setup to a Pixar movie, like a mash up of Toy Story and Finding Nemo with an adorable toy duck and her pals lost at sea. But as Donovan explored, everything about the friendly floaties followed where they drifted to travel to China to see a factory where they were made, wrote a containership, went to the Arctic, learned about ocean currents. He found he had to consider the rubber ducky, not so much as the hero of a Pixar movie, but it’s something less cheerful as a piece of plastic waste challenge with the ocean, as is that it’s so invisible to us.
S4: We can’t really see it. We can’t see the changes that we’re inflicting upon it. And yet you can see plastic.
S5: As part of his research, Donovan went to Alaska to hang out with a group of beachcombers who are trying to clean up a place where especially large amounts of debris wash ashore.
S4: I spent two weeks out there. They removed huge just tons and tons of flotsam that they airlifted onto a barge and then took to a landfill in Homer, Alaska. And yet after they’d done all this at the end last day and I was out there with them more as more plastic was already washing in rubber.
S5: Duckies are cute and fun and comforting to the tune of well over 50 million pieces, probably more than hundreds of millions of pieces of plastic falling apart extremely slowly all over the world and particularly in the oceans. What do you say to that? Do, do, do, do.
S24: I’m not trying to end on a super bleak note, but I do want to think about how it is that we come to imbue something as truly disposable as a rubber ducky. I’ve had to toss four of them. They get so moldy so fast with so much good feeling. And one of the ways that happens is when something ceases to be trendy and becomes timeless, but which I mean that it’s basically always in good taste. The rubber ducky in particular does this by getting to us before we really have taste. If we do have feelings and memories, it’s a thing that’s pre-judgment, pre discernment, all soap and bubbles and it acts like a time machine when things were simpler, not because they were really similar because we were too little to know they were complicated. A rubber ducky maybe once upon a time could have been a frog or a beaver or a turtle, but now it couldn’t, because what it really is is something that we pass on to each other, even as we’re also passing it on to the earth. Even Donovan, who totally demystified the rubber ducky and was well aware of all the ways it isn’t cute or harmless could help keeping an eye out for one. Amidst all the other plastic garbage, I thought, that’s crazy.
S33: I’m never gonna find one of these things because, you know, there aren’t that many left out there to be found and who knows where they are. And lo and behold, eureka. At the base, a spruce tree or one of the beavers faded. It was bleached almost almost a kind of a pale banana yellow.
S24: This is decoder ring. I’m Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin. And you have any cultural mysteries you want to decode? You can e-mail us at Decoder Ring at Slate.com.
S34: You haven’t yet subscribe and rate our Feed and Apple podcast. Or ever. You get your podcasts and even better tell your friends. This podcast was written by Benjamin Fresh, who also does illustrations for every episode and edited by Willa Paskin. Decoder Ring is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Fresh. Cleo Levin is our research assistant.
S24: Thanks to Florentin Hoffman, June Thomas, Suzanne Spallone and thanks especially to Donovan Hone, who has a new book, The Inner Coast Essays out in June 2020, which you should buy. Also, thanks to Lucy soffit, who originally suggested this topic Be well, be safe. See you in a few weeks.