Galesburg, Home of the Rubber Stamp?
by Terry Hogan
When you think of Galesburg and rubber, you probably think of the Gates factory east of town. But alas, Galesburg’s claim to fame in the rubber industry may be much older. Who among us has not heard the name of the famous inventor “L. F. Witherell”? Well, me for one. But in the never ending effort to find new and exciting bits of local history for both of my regular readers, I came across Mr. Witherell.
It seems that Mr. Witherell is one of the leading candidates for being the inventor of the Rubber Stamp. Unfortunately, the honor is not automatically a, well you know, a “rubber stamped” proclamation. It seems that several folks, including Mr. Witherell, claimed that honor.
Mr. Witherell was from Knoxville. He stirred the (rubber) pot in 1916 when he presented a paper in Chicago at the stamp men’s convention. The title of the paper was nothing less than “How I Came to Discover the Rubber Stamp”. In this paper, he claimed to have discovered the rubber stamp, by accident, in 1866. Yes, it was discovered in Galesburg. Mr. Witherell, at the time of his discovery, was a foreman for a manufacturer of wooden pumps. Unfortunately, I could not find the name of his employer.
It seems that the pump manufacturer was having a problem of producing blotched printing as the paint ran down the pumps when employees tried to stencil on the name. The stencils were made of brass or copper at the time. Mr. Witherell claims that he intended to find a better stencil so he began to cut stencil letters into flat rubber packing material. As he did so, he looked at the rubber letters dropping at his feet.
He looked at the rubber letters, picked them up and glued them to a piece of old bedpost. He then applied the ink and rolled the bedpost over the surface of the pump and produced a good rendition of his own initials. (No, I am not going to make any jokes about rubber and bedposts).
Mr. Witherell also claimed to have been the inventor of vulcanized-rubber stamps by marrying the vulcanizing process used for false teeth at that time, with the rubber stamp invention. He made the first commercial rubber stamp in Knoxville with the help of a printer’s assistant named O. L. Campbell. The stamp was reported by Witherell to be used to print tin ware.
According to Mr. Witherell, he bought a vulcanizer and went into business with his brother and another man named D. A. Dudley. Subsequently, apparently due to a squabble with the dental rubber folks on claims for royalty payments, he sold the factory to Austin Wiswall of Princeton, Illinois.
Now you might expect Galesburg and Knoxville to have an on-going squabble about who can boast to be the cradle that rocked the inventor of the rubber stamp, but it is not that easy. Others claimed the same invention as their own.
There was also James Orton Woodruff of New York who had his own version of inventing the rubber stamp, sometime between 1864 and 1866. Mr. Woodruff’s inventiveness also involved reliance on dental vulcanization technology. He advertised and began selling his rubber stamps in the “Northern Christian Advocate” but the business was short-lived. It seems his rubber was consumed by the ink that was in use at the time.
However, the story continues. The third would-be inventor of the rubber stamp is Henry C. Leland of Massachusetts. His claim was furthered by an article published in the well-known and widely read “Stamp Trade News” in 1910. The article entitled “The Invention of the Rubber Stamp” was based on an interview with Leland. Leland was 82 years old when the interview took place. His story was that he invented the rubber stamp to fill the needs of a broom manufacturer who wanted to be able to print on the round surface of the broom handle.
Now it is possible that each of the three came up with his version of a rubber stamp, independently. We may never know. And if we decide it was the “local boy”, who can prove us wrong?
Is Galesburg being negligent in not having “Rubber Stamp Days”? There could be a stamp(ing) parade down Main Street. Venders could be selling washable body stamps for those who only want transient tattoos. For those of you who are into Western music and dance, Galesburg could invent the Galesburg Stamp Dance (a line dance of some sort). We could have annual Witherell look-alike contests, which would be hard to judge since we don’t know what he looked like.
Folks, it is time to stamp your feet and demand that your elected officials “rubber stamp” Galesburg’s “Rubber Stamp Day.”
Remember, once again the Zephyr has beat its competitors in keeping you informed about this scandalous oversight on the part of your elected officials. (And don’t tell Knoxville about this or it may try to claim the title. Those folks are still sore about the county seat battle).
The History of Rubber Stamps, by Joni Miller & Lowry Thompson (1978), as presented at http://www.littlebit.com/ideas_rs/history-rs.htm
Answers to Rubber Stamping Trivia http://www.coxes.com/stamping/fun/answers.htm.