The History of Rubber Stamps

A Disputed History

Will the real inventor of the rubber stamp please stand up? If there had been a television show trying to find the real inventor of this useful tool, there may have been a dilemma of sorts. When the call was put forth for the real inventor to stand up, three men may have answered the call.

L.F. Witherell, James O. Woodruff, and Henry C. Leland all claim to have been the first to invent the tool that is still in great demand today. But long before any of them could have invented anything of the sort, there were those who laid the foundation for such an invention to be conceived in the first place. Charles Marie de la Condamine, who was a French scientist exploring the Amazon River, sent a sample of “India” rubber to the Institute de France in or around 1736. In 1770, it was a new idea to use little pieces or cubes of rubber to “rub out” lead pencil marks. (Some say this is where the name “rubber” originated.)

All along the way, there were many who were experimenting with possible uses of this substance. Charles Goodyear made a monumental discovery quite by accident when he spilled a small amount of rubber mixed with sulphur onto a hot stove. Rather than turning into a gooey mess, which is what he expected, it “cured” and was still flexible the next day. This basic process became known as vulcanization. It was named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, and was patented by Goodyear in 1844.

Witherell claimed to have discovered the rubber stamp by accident while making rubber stencils in 1866. Woodruff made the same claim except said his revelation came while visiting a tub manufacturer who used a primitive stamp with wood blocks and rubber letters. This allegedly took place between 1864-1866. Leland said his invention was prompted by a simple comment from a broom manufacturer in 1863.

Whoever came up with the idea probably had a little help from their dentist. As a matter of fact, Woodruff’s uncle was a dentist and was very instrumental in his invention. The reason for this is that original rubber stamps were made using dental vulcanizers, which were used to make denture bases in the 1860’s.

Some experts believe that it is actually possible that all three men “discovered” the rubber stamp around the same time. In other words, just like scientists today are often in a race to be the first to discover different processes, drugs or such that many may have a lead on, the same was true then. There is not so much a disagreement about whether they all finished this race as to who finished first. And unfortunately, although this may have been a photo finish, nobody took pictures to help us determine a winner. One thing is certain: We’ll never know for sure who crossed the finish line first.