Rubber Stamp History
From the book The Rubber Stamp Album by Joni K. Miller & Lowry Thompson
Have you ever wondered about the origin of rubber stamps, or why it's even called rubber? How about where the term vulcanisation came from? Read on and enjoy a stirring historical documentary on the origins of the rubber stamping industry, as it weaves its way from the Amazonian jungles through Charles Goodyear's kitchen to the American Civil War and finally to three men, each who claim to be the (American) inventors of the rubber stamping industry.
Along time ago, in a jungle far far away.....Charles Marie de la Condamine, French scientist and explorer of the scenic Amazon River, had no idea there would ever be such a thing as a rubber stamp when he sent a sample of "India" rubber to the Institute de France in Paris in 1736.
Prior to de la Condamine, Spanish explorers had noted that certain South American Indian tribes had a light-hearted time playing ball with a substance that was sticky and bounced, but it failed to rouse their scientific curiosity. Some tribes had found rubber handy as an adhesive when attaching feathers to their person; and the so-called "head-hunting" Antipas, who were fond of tattooing, used the soot from rubber that had been set on fire. They punctured skin with thorns and rubbed in the soot to achieve the desired cosmetic effect. The June 1918 issue of Stamp Trade News indicates that "rubber stamps were made hundreds of years ago...by South American Indians for printing on the body the patterns which they wished to tattoo," but we have been unable to verify this was actually the case. In New Zealand today, a version of such tattooing is making a hit in the form of rubber stamp "skin markers" which bear intricate figures of birds, snakes, flowers, tribal symbols, etc.
It wasn't until some thirty-four years after de la Condamine sent his rubber care package home that Sir Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, noted: "I have seen a substance excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the mark of black lead pencil." In 1770 (some time before the Cosa Nostra) it was a novel idea to rub out (hence the name rubber) pencil marks with the small cubes of rubber, called "peaux de negres" by the French. Alas, the cubes were both expensive and scarce, so most folks continued to rub out their errors with bread crumbs. Rubber limped along, since attempts to put the substance to practical use were thwarted by its natural tendency to become a rotten, evil-smelling mess the instant the temperature changed. (So nothing new then??)
Enter Charles Goodyear. Upon hearing of the unsolvable rubber dilemma (from the Roxbury Rubber Company), Goodyear became obsessed with solving the whole sticky question once and for all.During his lifetime, Goodyear was judged to be a crackpot of epic proportions. Leaving his hardware business, he began working on the problem in his wife's kitchen, spending hours mixing up bizarre brews of rubber and castor oil, rubber and pepper, rubber and salt, rubber and heaven knows what. Daily life intruded on his experiments in the form of recurring bankruptcy and sporadic imprisonment for failure to pay his debts. At one point, Goodyear actually sold his children's' school books for the cash required to embark on the next experiment. Goodyear's persistence and single-mindedness were legion.
In 1839 while fooling around in a kitchen, Goodyear accidentally dropped some rubber mixed with sulphur on top of a hot stove. Instead of turning into a gooey mess, the rubber "cured". It was still flexible the next day. The process, involving a mixture of gum elastic, sulphur, and heat was dubbed vulcanization, after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Vulcanized, rubber lost its susceptibility to changes in temperature. The discovery paved the way for hundreds of practical applications of rubber. In June 1844, Goodyear patented for his process. Never one to rest on his laurels, Goodyear turned his formidable energies to developing a multiplicity of uses for rubber. These continuing experiments were costly and bless his soul, in 1860 Goodyear died two hundred thousand dollars in debt. His last words reflected the pattern of his life: "I die happy, others can get rich." (Again – nothing new then!!)
Prelude to the Invention of the Rubber Stamping Industry
The word "stamp," as used in historical documents, is not particularly explanatory. Neither is its cousin phrase "hand stamp." Early historical references to either can easily be mistaken for references to rubber stamps and this is not always correct. A basic assumption must be made that if the word "stamp" is used to refer to a marking device prior to 1864, it does not refer to a rubber one.
The early days of rubber stamping and their creation are inextricably entwined with those of early dentistry. Around the same time that Goodyear received his patent on vulcanizing, anaesthesia was patented by a fellow named Wells. Relatively speaking, Wells's discovery made getting your teeth pulled a moderately painless experience, so teeth were being pulled left and right. This meant, of course, that the demand for false teeth was rising proportionately. Before vulcanization, denture bases had been made primarily of gold and were both costly and difficult to make. After vulcanization, denture bases could be made of vulcanized rubber set in plaster moulds. This process did not demand a great deal of skill, and soon scores of dentists had small, round vulcanisers with which to ply their trade. These were called "dental pot" vulcanisers and would be used eventually to manufacture the first rubber stamps.
Multiple Choice for the Inventor of the Rubber Stamp
The actual source of the first rubber stamp is still mired in mystery. It's a game of multiple choice for the inventor.
Candidate number one, L.F. Witherell of Knoxville, Illinois, caused quite a stir in June 1916, at the stamp men's convention in Chicago, by reading a paper entitled "How I Came to Discover the Rubber Stamp."
Witherell, noting that "nearly all great and marvellous inventions or discoveries have sprung into the world as a result of an accident," claimed his accidental discovery of the rubber stamp took place in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1866 while he was foreman for a manufacturer of wooden pumps. At that time virtually all identification marking was made with brass or copper stencils and paint. The pump company was experiencing problems with paint running under stencils and creating blotches on the pumps. Witherell decided to try cutting stencils out of thin sheets of rubber packing. It was while cutting letters out of a sheet of rubber, and watching the letters fall at his feet that his brainstorm hit. He promptly cut more letters out of thicker rubber, glued them to a piece of old bedpost, inked the creation on a leather ink pad, rolled the bedpost over a pump and made a good impression of his own initials.
Unfortunately, Witherell could not whip out his bedpost stamp for an historic show-and-tell. Two years earlier, in 1914, Witherell had claimed to have the bedpost stamp still in his possession as a "potato masher," but at the convention he told the curious audience that the "sacred treasure" had been stolen from him "some years ago."
Continuing with his saga, Witherell said he next came up with the idea of vulcanized-rubber stamps and went to a dental office in Chicago where he claimed to have vulcanized "the first genuine rubber stamp in the world." Witherell's claims also extended to "the creation of the first stamp ever sold for money," which he said was made in Knoxville with the assistance of printer's apprentice O.L. Campbell, who set the type for the stamp. It was used to print on tin ware.
Witherell then began to pursue his stamp career in earnest, having G.D. Colton & Co. make him a vulcaniser. He produced stamps with a series of partners, the first being B.W. Merritt, "a jolly old bachelor Yankee who sold gate latches." Finally he set up his own factory with his brother and a fellow named D.A. Dudley.
Shortly after he established the factory, the Dental Rubber Syndicate demanded that Witherell pay a ten-dollars-per-pound royalty, in addition to the three-dollars-per-pound he was already paying for the flesh-coloured dental rubber. Even at three dollars a pound the rubber was considered an expensive material, and Witherell found the economics of the whole thing too much to cope with. He sold the factory to Austin Wiswall of Princeton, Illinois, "who said he had friends who could make him cheap rubber that would not infringe on the dental patents."
Witherell devoted his later years to a variety of mining enterprises and his "scientific collection of pre-historic mammals." He never relented on his numerous claims and, while in his hearty seventies, continued to remind anyone who would listen that he was still making perfect impressions with stamps he had made almost fifty years earlier... and that he had sold over four-thousand-dollars worth of vulcanized stamps long before anyone else made a single one.
Candidate number two is James Orton Woodruff of Auburn, New York, whose historical honours were zealously and frequently defended in stamp-trade periodicals for years by his cousin Alonzo Woodruff, who was himself to play a pivotal role in rubber stamping history.
Perhaps as early as 1864, and no later than early 1866, James O. Woodruff visited a shop that manufactured patent washtubs where he observed the names and other identifying information being printed on the tubs with a curved wooded block which had rubber letters mounted on it. The letters had been carved from a flat piece of rubber by a man named Palmer. The lettering is said to have covered a surface four by six inches. When used with printer's ink, it left a decent, legible impression on the curved tub surfaces. While watching the tub marking, Woodruff speculated that if impressions of letters where made in vulcaniser moulds, one could produce vulcanized-rubber letters.
Woodruff began playing around unsuccessfully with a vulcaniser, trying to set up a letter mould. Help was just around the corner in the person of his uncle Urial Woodruff. A dentist, Uncle Urial was very familiar with rubber, vulcanisers, and the practicalities of dealing with both. Additional experiments with a regular dental vulcaniser and uncle Urial's advice and cooperation netted some good-quality stamps. James Orton proceeded to outfit a factory with modified versions of the dental vulcanisers, which Alonzo Woodruff described in 1908 as follows: "...made of boiler iron that was about 18 inches in diameter by 24 inches high, which was placed upon a stove. From the ceiling above the vulcaniser was suspended a tackle which was used to place and remove the heavy top and flasks."
With the new equipment set up, James Orton ordered in a supply of fresh, new type and prepared to set his plant in motion. The mounts for his stamps were made of black walnut in nearby Seneca Falls, New York. He personally went to pick up the first batch. Alonzo Woodruff described the outing like this: "With a bag well filled, he started up a steep hill from the shop when he soon overtook an Irish woman pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, who, with an eye to business, asked if he did not want to put his bag in the barrow and wheel it up the hill, which proposition, after some bantering, was accepted to their mutual benefit."
Woodruff, now ready for action, ran a rubber-stamp advertisement in the Northern Christian Advocate, a Methodist weekly published out of Auburn, New York. Orders poured in, and it looked like the first rubber-stamp killing was about to be made when disaster struck. The stamps were ruined by the only available inks. These inks contained oil as a solvent, and the action of the oil on the vulcanized rubber was calamitous. The stamps were useless, and Woodruff faced an endless line of customer complaints. Nonetheless, during this uproar, a local optimist named Rolland Dennis bought a share of the business for fifteen hundred dollars and shortly afterwards replaced Woodruff as sole owner.
Two historical artefacts of James Orton Woodruff's pioneer stamp-making days were reported to be in the care of Alonzo in 1908: one of the original black walnut mounts and "an old stool, upon the bottom of which is a print of one of the first rubber stamps." The impression on the stool was probably that of an American Express Company C.O.D. stamp, which had been made in Uncle Urial's dental office during the early experiments.
The third candidate, and the least likely appears to be Henry C. Leland of Lee, Massachusetts, whose cause was championed in the June 1910 issue of Stamp Trade News by rubber stamp manufacturer George W. Burch of Hartford, Connecticut, in an article entitled "The Invention of the Rubber Stamp." The article was the result of an interview conducted with Leland, who was then eighty-two and living in Hartford with his wife and unmarried son. The claim seems nebulous at best, but Mr. Leland has enjoyed his moment in the sun thanks to Mr. Burch's efforts. The saga:
In 1863, while on the road selling what were probably early metal-dating and cancellation hand stamps, a broom manufacturer suggested that "if he could supply a stamp that could be rolled around a broom handle to print a label, it would be a good thing."
Shortly after the suggestion, Leland moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, took a job in a print shop, and began toying with the idea. In his initial experiments, he set up a type form, made a plaster-of-paris cast of it, put soft rubber bands from an old printing press on the cast, set the cast on a kitchen stove, and made a primitive but successful attempt at vulcanizing with a flatiron. Encouraged, he moved to New York, took another job as a printer, and continued experimenting, this time with a dental vulcaniser. Leland worked in secret on his "invention," struggling to learn the mysteries of mould-making and the correct temperatures for vulcanizing rubber, without benefit of assistance.
Burch relates that "during the year 1864 he had got it into some shape when a near relative who lived with him and was in his confidence, gathered together what information he could...went to some novelty people and for a petty sum gave away all of Leland's secrets so far as he knew them. These people then came to Leland, offered to finance the patent, and induced him to accept a small sum of money for an interest in it." Leland fell for the offer, then presumably realized he'd been gulled and "in disgust threw up his claims for a patent and refused to go on with it." Shortly afterward, Leland left New York on a long trip, supporting himself by making and selling rubber initial stamps.
Who really invented the rubber stamp? As with so many inventions, the possibility exists that a number of men hit on the same idea at essentially the same time. Our vote goes to James Orton Woodruff.
Early Days in the Rubber Stamp Industry
J.F.W. Dorman is said to have been the first to actually commercialize the making of rubber stamps. He started as a sixteen-year-old travelling stencil salesman in St. Louis and opened his first business in Baltimore in 1865. In 1866 Dorman, who had enjoyed a brief career on the stage before the Civil War, learned the technique of manufacturing rubber stamps from an inventor. Dorman made his first stamps under cover of night with his wife's assistance in an effort to keep the process a secret. Dorman was quite an inventor, and his contributions to the industry were numerous. His eventual specialty was the manufacture of the basic tool of the trade -- the vulcaniser. His company continues in business today.
The first stamp-making outfit ever exported from the U.S. to a foreign country was shipped by R.H. Smith Manufacturing Company to Peru in 1873. Back on the home front, companies continued to spring up. In 1880 there were fewer than four hundred stamp men, but by 1892 their ranks had expanded to include at least four thousand dealers and manufacturers. An amazing number of these first companies are still in business today, frequently under their original names or merged with others whose roots lie in the mid- and late 1880s.
It was a small, tight-knit industry, characteristics it retains today. The longevity of the companies is no more astonishing than the attitude of stamp men themselves. Once in the business, people tended to stay loyal to it. During our research, we were amazed at the number of people who had spent forty or fifty or more happy years in the industry.
Early rubber stamping makers tended to be colourful, and many frontier like exploits dot the landscape. Louis K. Scotford and his companion Will Day set off across Indian Territory to the settlements in Texas carrying their stamp-making equipment in an old lumber wagon. The country was wild and rugged in 1876, frequented by bandits and Indians. L.K. and Will solicited orders during the day, made the stamps at night, and delivered the following day in time for the intrepid pair to harness up and head out once again. It was a romantic adventure and not unprofitable. At the end of their three thousand-mile trek, the two returned to St. Louis with two twenty-five-pound shot bags filled with silver dollars.
Charles Klinkner, who established his West Coast stamp house in 1873, would have been the pride of any modern-day publicity agent. Klinkner was prone to calling attention to his wares in startling, unorthodox ways. He rode around San Francisco and Oakland in a little red cart drawn by a donkey rakishly dyed a rainbow of colours. To make his stamps sound like something extra special, he advertised them as "Red Rubber Stamps," and people were convinced it meant something. At the time, almost all stamps were made from red-coloured rubber. Ah, the power of suggestion.
(Of course the rubber stamp was also invented in other parts of the world!!)