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Rubber Stamp Facts

Page 5: Multiple Choice for the Inventor of the Rubber Stamp - part 3

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 artifacts 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 watnut 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 least likely candidate 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." Burch had originally met Leland in Hartford in 1883. 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 vulcanizer. Leland worked in secret on his "invention," struggling to learn the mysteries of mold-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.

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