In the middle of a raging storm in 1992, a cargo ship carrying a huge assortment of vinyl toys tipped over. Descending into the Pacific were nearly 29,000 tub playthings, including untold thousands of rubber ducks. Bobbing and drifting, the tiny yellow birds took weeks, months, and years to wash ashore in Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and other far-flung locations. Their journeys were able to tell oceanographers crucial information about waves, currents, and seasonal changes—what one journalist dubbed “the conveyor belt” of the sea.

The humble little rubber duck had, once again, exceeded expectations.

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Aside from soap, shampoo, and towels, there may be no more pervasive an item in a kid-occupied bathtub than the rubber duck, a generic aquatic toy that usually squeaks, sometimes spits water, and can be teethed upon without incident.

The ducks had their origins in the mid-1800s, when rubber manufacturing began to gain ground. Out of the many animals crafted, they were the most native to water and broke away from the pack. Families who used to make bathing a weekly event prior to Sunday church sessions would entice children to submerge themselves in the murky tubs with a duck, some of which didn’t float. They were intended as chew toys.

In 1933, a latex supplier licensed a series of Disney characters and made inexpensive bath floaters: The most popular were Donald and Donna Duck. While Disney’s brand recognition helped, companies looking to mass-market cheap ducks didn’t want to depend on a license. Sculptor Peter Ganine is believed to have been the now-familiar generic duck’s primary designer, patenting a toy in 1949 for a period of 14 years. Ganine reportedly sold over 50 million of them.

By the early 1960s, the vinyl ducks were free from patent restriction and became a bathroom fixture. They were cheaply made, cheaply acquired, and a soothing presence for children with apprehensions about being dipped into water. Any hydrophobia was eased by the bright yellow duck, who didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

On February 25, 1970, rubber ducks got their biggest break yet. On the first season of Sesame Street, Ernie splashed in a tub while singing an ode to his maritime companion:

Rubber Duckie, you’re the one

You make bath time lots of fun

Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you

Rubber Duckie, joy of joys

When I squeeze you, you make noise

Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true

The song went on to sell over one million copies as a single and has been included in well over 21 different Sesame Street compilation albums. The image of Ernie playing with the duck was licensed for T-shirts, storybooks, and other merchandise that further endeared the ducks to child-occupied households.

The duck has since undergone some minor advancements. Some, molded to resemble celebrities or athletes, are a popular gift or marketing tool; others are sculpted to giant-sized proportions to bob in lakes during summer festivals. And while the toys now come in $99, Bluetooth-enabled versions, it was the classic yellow duck that made it in 2013 into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Additional Sources:
“Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, Volume 29, Number 1 [PDF].