Over the course of human history, toys have played an important part in transmission of culture from adults to children. Yet there have been few toys with the ‘staying power’ to achieve popularity with generations of children, and still remain a fond childhood plaything in the memories of generations of parents. Trends come and go, and the “Tickle-me-Elmo” of yesteryear remains hardly a glimmer in the memory of any but the most staunch toy collectors. Yet a handful of novelties do manage to strike a chord which spans the tides and continues to find a place in the hearts of children generation after generation. Of these rare exalted few, including kites, yo-yos, roller skates and a host of games, the rubber duck, whose ancestors are lost to the mists of time, is of particular appeal, steadily gaining in popularity as the years progress. What is it that gives the humble rubber duck its charisma, that holds it in esteem year after year, and keeps it floating along the advancing wave of allure?
Of immediate appeal are the rubber duck’s colors: traditionally a bold yellow body, fiery orange beak and blue or black eyes. The eye-catching coloring of a rubber duck is fundamental and uncomplicated. Yellow and orange are warm, exciting colors that fairly call to our eyes and hands, beckoning us to play. Even variations on this theme maintain that quality of visual interest. Modified versions of the standard rubber duck exist in every color of the rainbow. Some even glow-in-the-dark. Others take the visual aspect to a completely neoteric level with whole lines of themed ducks mimicking celebrities, animals, characters, vocations and the like. Yet even in their departure from tradition, all these varieties hark back, with homage or mockery, to the simple attraction of the original and unaffected colors of a traditional rubber duck.
As a toy, the rubber duck is uncomplicated: it floats, it squeaks, it squirts. It may do some of these things, all of these things, or none of these things. Its definition as ‘toy’ gives it its purpose, but its simple workings give it its charm. Children can spend hours of play on items as open-ended as blocks, sticks or even a cardboard box. Flashy, multifunction gizmos have a flash-in-the-pan flare that grabs children’s interest, but these gadgets don’t usually have in their design any room for children’s imagination to take hold and expand into a rich world of play. The genius of the rubber duck is in its artlessness.
In fact, it is its iconic simplicity which embodies the fresh, clean connotations of childlike innocence. After all, what is cleaner than a rubber duck? (Ok, perhaps soap is, but soap is definitely not as much fun as a rubber duck.) The rubber duck’s child size, simple color scheme, and sweet expression give the overall feeling of youthful freshness and vitality. Likewise, the so-called ‘carrier’ variation of rubber ducks (consisting of a larger ‘carrier’ duck which can hold a few smaller ducks) gives this impression, with its connotations of ‘mother and children.’ Even the tongue-in-cheek parodies, such as the Devil Duckies and other variations, are only a caricature of the rubber duck's trademark innocence turned upside-down. Be they parody or paragon, rubber ducks contain within their essence the qualities of freshness and innocence that so appeal to children of all ages.
So, while some may be traditional and others outlandish yet there is something at the basic nature of a rubber duckie, that goes beyond all these qualities, combines them and then transforms into something greater than all of them. A rubber duck is appealing on so many levels at once that just the idea of a rubber duck is appealing. To speak of a rubber duck conjures images of good clean fun, warmth and play, a harkening back to simple childhood delights, when bathtime was lots of fun and life was a continuous adventure of discovery and delight. The humble rubber duck has become a symbol for the innocence and joy of childhood, the idyllic state of newness, a natural and unaffected view that regrounds us, in one swipe washes clean our perspective and leaves us free of cynicism, resignation and the dirt and dust of weary travels on the harsh road of life. A rubber duckie is an iconic reminder of the flawless, youthful best of life. Rubber duckie, we are awfully fond of you.