The TAM Rubberstamp Archive: History, Fluxus, Mail-Art and Rubberstamps
By Ruud Janssen
(originally written for the Stendhal Gallery, New York, 2010)
The fascination about rubberstamps is something that many of us have encountered. A simple stamp pad, a mounted piece of rubber on a holder, and the ability to just reproduce that simple sign or text on any paper you choose. The creative users of printing techniques agree. This is a very effective and useful printing technique that is very accessible for everyone. And when older printing techniques become obsolete because of the up rise of the computers, these rubberstamps still survived because of their easy use without the need of special equipment, power supply, special techniques, etc.
Historic details about how rubber was discovered is published in the Rubberstamp Album (see reference list Literature). Since this is a rare booklet for the new generation It is good to know the facts on how it all started:
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 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 paper, 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