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Sterling woman credited with idea for stronger tape

Published: Saturday, May 3, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
(Illustration by Alex T. Pashcal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Vesta Stoudt

If you go on the Internet, you’ll learn that Vesta Stoudt came up with the idea that resulted in duct tape.

Her son, Harry Stoudt of Sterling, isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know about duct tape having anything to do with her idea, but maybe it did,” the 85-year-old said in a recent interview.

He is the only surviving child of Stoudt, who was born in 1891 in Prophetstown and died at 75 in 1966. She lived in Sterling most of her life.

Recently, Truck Trend magazine detailed the beginnings of duct tape, noting the involvement of Stoudt, who worked at Green River Ordnance Plant between Amboy and Dixon during World War II.

Former Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer noticed the story and mailed a letter to Sauk Valley Media about it.

“Having been born and raised in Amboy, I believe that there would be the possibility of a great follow-up story about the inventor [and] what, if anything, she received for her idea, whether her family even knew of her contribution,” Spencer wrote.

Sauk Valley Media called Pat Gorman, president of the Lee County Historical and Genealogical societies. He found Stoudt’s obituary, which was published in the Rockford Register Star, and called Harry Stoudt.

Her son agrees with most of the story about his mother. At the factory, she was tasked with packing cartridges used to launch rifle grenades, 11 per box, then shutting the boxes with thin paper tape. A tab was left loose to pull for opening. It would often rip off.

That would leave soldiers struggling for any way to open the box, often in the heat of battle, which concerned Stoudt, who had two sons in the Navy – Clarence and Lowell. (Lowell was known in Prophetstown as the owner of a bowling alley and a pool hall.)

Rather than paper tape, Stoudt suggested to her supervisors that the plant use a strong, waterproof, cloth-backed tape.

“They told her to mind her own business. They told her that the government knew what it was doing,” said her son, who began high school in 1943.

She would not relent.

In a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, Stoudt wrote: “I have two sons out there somewhere, one in the Pacific, the other one with the Atlantic fleet. You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open.”

She included a diagram of her idea.

‘Exceptional merit’

On March 26, 1943, Howard Coonley, director of the board’s conservation division, mailed a letter to Stoudt, who lived at 1401 E. Fourth St. in Sterling.

“The Ordnance Department has not only pressed this idea,” Coonley wrote, “but has now informed us that the change you have recommended has been approved with the comment that the idea is of exceptional merit.”

The War Production Board forwarded Stoudt’s letter to Johnson & Johnson, which developed a thin, cotton tape that is believed to have resembled Stoudt’s idea.

Her son, Harry, said he didn’t know about the Johnson & Johnson connection.

Much of the story about Stoudt is at kilmerhouse.com, a blog about Johnson & Johnson written by an employee of the company’s public relations department. It posted a story about duct tape in 2012.

The information for the story was provided by Kari Santo, Stoudt’s great-granddaughter, according to the blog. Sauk Valley Media could not find her.

‘Doesn’t everybody?’

Stoudt’s son, Harry, provided a copy of a story that appeared in the Sterling Daily Gazette during World War II, which reported Stoudt’s idea and the War Production Board’s reaction, the blog said.

There was no mention of duct tape or Johnson & Johnson.

She received a war workers award, which was presented monthly in a Chicago area war plant for “outstanding service to the nation’s war effort,” according to the story.

At the time, she was not working in the plant because her husband, Harry Sr., was away from home for a few months on his job. She was “lost” without her war job, according to the Gazette.

She said her youngest son, Harry Jr., was “eager to join his brothers.” He enlisted in the Navy in 1946, a year after the war ended. But he said he was let go after a few months because the Navy no longer needed so many sailors, Harry said.

His mother apparently never gained financially from her idea, but duct tape has become a common household item.

Asked whether he had duct tape in his house, Harry replied, “Doesn’t everybody?”

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