Rubber is a hydrocarbon polymer, occurring as a milky emulsion (known as latex) in the sap of a number of plants. The major commercial source of the latex used to create rubber is the para rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis (Euphorbiaceae). This is largely because it responds to wounding by producing more latex. Other plants containing latex include figs, euphorbias and the common dandelion. These have not been a major source of rubber, though when Germany was cut off from supplies of rubber during World War II, attempts were made to use such sources, before being supplanted by the development of synthetic rubber.
In its native Central America and South America, rubber has been collected for a long time. The Mesoamerican civilizations used rubber mostly from Castilla elastica. The Ancient Mesoamericans had a ball game using rubber balls (see: Mesoamerican ballgame), and a few Pre-Columbian rubber balls have been found (always in sites that were flooded under fresh water), the earliest dating to about 1600 BC. According to Bernal Diaz, the Spanish Conquistadores were so astounded by the vigorous bouncing of the rubber balls of the Aztecs that they wondered if the balls were enchanted by evil spirits. The Maya also made a type of temporary rubber shoe by dipping their feet into a latex mixture. Rubber was used in various other contexts, such as strips to hold stone and metal tools to wooden handles, and padding for the tool handles. While the ancient Mesoamericans did not have vulcanization, they developed organic methods of processing the rubber with similar results, mixing the raw latex with various saps and juices of other vines, particularly Ipomoea alba, a species of Morning glory.
In Brazil the natives understood the use of rubber to make water-resistant cloth. A story says that the first European to return to Portugal from Brazil with samples of such water-repellent rubberized cloth so shocked people that he was brought to court on the charge of witchcraft.
When samples of rubber first arrived in England, it was observed that a piece of the material was extremely good for rubbing out pencil marks on paper. This was the origin of the material's English name of 'rubber'. Blocks of the material are still used for this purpose, and known as 'rubbers' in England, causing occasional amusement to Americans, to whom a 'rubber' is a latex condom. (Americans call the rubber block an 'eraser'.)
The para rubber tree initially grew only in South America. There had been an attempt made, in 1873, to grow rubber outside Brazil. After some effort, twelve seedlings were germinated at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. These were sent to India for cultivation, but died. A second attempt was then made, some 70,000 seeds being sent to Kew in 1875. About 4% of these germinated, and in 1876 about 2000 seedlings were sent, in Wardian cases, to Ceylon, and 22 sent to the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Once established outside its native country, rubber was extensively propagated. By 1898, a rubber plantation had been established in Malaya, and rubber is now grown widely in the tropics, especially in Southeast Asia.
Over half of the rubber used today is synthetic, but several million tonnes of natural rubber are still produced annually.
Early experiments in the development of synthetic rubber led to the invention of Silly Putty.
Natural rubber is often vulcanized, a process by which the rubber is heated and sulfur is added to improve resilience and elasticity. The process of vulcanization greatly improved the durability and utility of rubber from the 1830s on.
Rubber as a clothing material is fetishized by some people, perhaps on the basis that the garment forms a "second skin" that acts as a surrogate for the wearer's own skin. This is known as rubber fetishism.