A group of guys went drinking, one got drunk so severly he passed out, so the rest duct-taped him. A story as old as the world.

Is it, really? According to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duct_tape the history of duct tapes, and adhesive tapes in general, started as late as in the beginning of the XX century.

Did it have to be that way, though? A cloth tape covered in a layer of glue - this seems simple enough that it could be made even with ancient technology, right?

How advanced technologically does a setting have to be if duct tapes are being used?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The prank probably predates duct tape. Before adhesives the drunk friend was just tied up with rope instead. Still an interesting question, though. $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2017 at 0:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Duck tape" or "duct tape"? The former does not belong on ducts, and the latter is quite different from the former... $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Nov 12, 2017 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ the big issue is it would have been time consuming to make thus not worth using on a prank. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 12, 2017 at 3:07
  • $\begingroup$ Long leaves/grasses + beeswax = 100% guaranteed to "duct-tape" ANY drunk!🍺 $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Nov 12, 2017 at 3:19
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    $\begingroup$ Duct Tape...is like the Force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together. $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2017 at 3:40

5 Answers 5


What is your definition? Pressure Sensitive Adhesive? Waterproof?

A humorous fictional account said it was invented in ancient Greese when someone tore a strip off his toga and used it with hot pitch (or asphalt) to make an improvised repair. Seriously, I think this would have been done as long as waterproof sealers have been in use, for roofs and boats.

If you require a roll of ready to use tape the chemistry goes back to 1845.

Now there is nothing special about PSA chemistry, really. Ancient people had shellac, rubber, gelatin, etc. It might have just-so happened that some PSA was discovered in antiquity. Or, something that’s stored dry and easy to activate, say, with water or alcohol.

For your story, just understand those issues and limitations. Cloth permiated that becomes sticky and waterproof when it gets wet would be very useful. I imagine a fanciful recipe that calls for hagfish mucous…


Try looking at history of adhesives. Glues are mostly either heat or solvent based. Solvents can be water, alcohol or chemicals like benzene, toluene. The latter are recent. Alcohol needs to be close to pure to be an effective solvent. (shellac is dissolved in alcohol as are many laquers) Alcohol glues don't do well if they get wet.

Hide based and fish glues tend to be applied hot.

I'm having trouble coming up with an old time adhesive that is sticky enough to get an instant bond, but that don't dry out when the roll is wrapped up.


Theoretically, a duct-tape-like material could have been made a very long time ago. The first recorded use of an adhesive dates to 70,000 BCE when an early human in South Africa used a resin to coat and protect cave paintings. We know that people were also using animal skins at that time, so it is very possibly that a person could have applied resin to a strip of hide and used it as tape.

However, it is worth noting that this "cave-man duct-tape" probably would not have lasted as long as modern duct-tape. After all, the original intent of this particular instance of resin use was to protect a surface, not to make things stick to it, so the stickiness of the resin was probably short-lived. Not to mention that storing this stuff would have been difficult, since you couldn't just roll it up or it would stick to itself.

That said, it is totally reasonable for a very primitive technology system to have a sort of duct-tape equivalent. Depending on the society, it is even very likely. Whether they would have used the stuff on each other... well, I suppose that's up to you.


"A cloth tape covered in a layer of glue - this seems simple enough that it could be made even with ancient technology, right"

Lets look at what exactly duct tape is made out of to find out for sure!

Cloth tape

The original 'duck' tape used cotton duck cloth as its backing. The word 'duck' actually comes from Dutch for linen canvas. Tight woven canvasses of linen became readily used for painting, shields, and sails by the late middle ages in Europe; cotton versions were not as strong but lighter. My research is quasi-inconclusive, but it appears that tight woven canvas was not used by the Greeks and Romans, who used lighter linen sails. The Arabs used lighter woven hemp sails.

In any case, appropriate cloth is available by the Medieval period at the latest, possibly much earlier.


Wikipedia's amazing Chemistry of pressure-sensitive adhesives comes in handy here! Basically, adhesive tape depended on the presence of rubber at first. An example would be a mixture of rosin and rubber. Now both of these are natural ingredients, and both are in fact tree sap. So we can conclude that the ingredients are all present by the middle ages at the latest.

Problems and Solutions

However, there is a problem. The first is that these resources are found in widely different areas. Rosin comes from pine trees and wild rubber from rubber trees; one is at home in temperate and/or mountainous regions, the other in the lowland tropics. This can be overcome by two ways. The first is to make a world where these regions are adjacent to each other. The Mexican highlands are filled with pine, and the nearby Yucutan is a lowland rainforest; make these areas larger and have your civilization develop there. The second is to invent new plants. The Germans tried to extract natural rubber from dandelions, which contain small amounts of latex. They were unsuccessful, but if you invented a much more latex-y dandelion plant that lived in temperate environments with pine trees, then the ingridents would be together.


It's all about cost:

As explained in the other answers, you can make paleo-tape with any kind of adhesive (tar, starch-based, or animal-based glue) and any kind of strip material (fabric, leather, etc).

However, in the old days, fabric and leather would have been quite expensive, and this is not compatible with single-use tape. Today, we can purchase a roll of duct tape for a very low price, so we don't think about that.

Using such an expensive material for a joke would probably seem incongruous to people in these old times.

People would use reusable products like rope or string. Or they would tie the victim's shoelaces. And maybe put a bucket over his head, and wait for him to wake up... Or he would just wake up lying on top of a heap of manure... Think low-budget jokes!


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