The home in 50 objects from around the world #31: the rubber duck

It floats in the tub at bath time or — as a monster 600kg artwork by Dutch sculptor Florentijn Hofman — drifts through Sydney Harbour at dawn. Myriad versions line bathroom shelves in family homes or overflow the bath in terrifying replication, as in Charlotte Lee’s Guinness Book of Records-busting collection of 5,631 items.

In 2013, online searches for “big yellow” ones were banned in China after an artist substituted them for tanks in a famous Tiananmen Square photograph; giant inflatables also turned up in pro-democracy protests in Bangkok in 2020.

Studies have shown they carry harmful bacteria and, in 1992, thousands polluted the Pacific when a container ship lost a consignment of 28,800 bath toys, inspiring Donovan Hohn’s 2011 book Moby-Duck.

The rubber duck is ubiquitous, cute beyond cuteness, a banal bath-time buddy. How it became a cheerful appendage to the white-tiled austerity of the average bathroom goes back to the late 1800s, when rubber was the new material on the block.

It may have been inspired by hunting decoys and other bath toys but the duck we know today owes much to the prototype patented in 1949 by the Russian-American sculptor Peter Ganine: a duck that squeaked, held a smile on its beak, stayed upright and floated.

From then on, the duck has travelled across time and culture, featuring in a 1979 Sesame Street rendition of “Rubber Duckie” by Muppet Ernie and popping up in both miniature and gigantic scale in Mary Poppins Returns.

In 2007, Hofman let his sculpture loose in the harbours and waterways of the world’s cities, declaring “We are one family and the global waters are our bathtub.”

Meanwhile, the merch patter talks up the duck’s charms, tempting bath-averse children into the tub for a scrub. Parents approve because it is said to encourage water play, develop muscle strength and co-ordination and sharpen a toddler’s senses through its bright colour, smooth texture and engaging squeak.

The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, has a long-lashed quacker in its displays as well as several hundred types of bath ducks in its online collection. Among them are character ducks that include US presidents, from top-hatted Abraham Lincoln to Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. But the president whose name and colouring most aligns to the yellow rubber duck has — curiously — not yet joined the ranks.

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