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.
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!!)