Once in a while when looking through the medicine cabinet for a tube of Neosporin or a Band-Aid, thoughts go back to childhood and some of the strange remedies and ointments our mother liked to keep in the house. Many of them are no longer around and today have an old-timey ring with names like Campho Phenique, Sal Hepatica, BC Powder and Hadacol. Most of them I was never subjected to and to this day don’t know what half of them did in the way of healing. One remedy that was always around and applied with abandon was Vaseline, still around today and still popular.
Robert Chesebrough was a young man with a kerosene business in Brooklyn around the time of an oil boom in Pennsylvania. In the early 1850s kerosene was a major source of power for both home and industry but the business was threatened by cheaper petroleum fuel coming out of the Pennsylvania oil wells. In 1859 Chesebrough traveled to Pennsylvania to have a look at this new fuel. Touring the oil fields, he stood nearby and watched a rigger scraping a thick gooey substance from a drilling rod. A chemist at heart, Chesebrough asked about the nasty-looking goo and was told that it was a bothersome gunk that came up with the crude oil and collected on rods and joints. Left alone it tended to clog up the equipment. No one had any real idea what the stuff was, but many of the workers slathered it on burns and cuts, claiming it accelerated healing. That bit of information brought a light to the young man’s eyes and he returned to Brooklyn with several jars of what the roughnecks called “rod wax.”
Chesebrough spent months experimenting with the mysterious gunk or jelly. His aim was to extract and purify the waste product’s essential ingredient. At the end of it all he came up with a clear, smooth substance he called “petroleum jelly.” Like a character out of Frankenstein movies, he experimented by inflicting on himself cuts minor and major, burns and scratches. As painful and risky as it might have been, Chesebrough discovered that cuts and burns covered with his petroleum jelly healed quickly and without any infection. It took ten years but by 1870 he was manufacturing Vaseline Petroleum Jelly.
There are two sides to where the name “Vaseline” came from. One is that Chesebrough concocted it from the practice of using his wife’s flower vases as laboratory beakers, then appending the popular medical suffix “-line.” Another story claims that the name is more scientific and was derived from the German word wasser for ‘water’ and the Greek elaion for ‘olive oil.’
To promote his product, Chesebrough traveled around New York handing out free jars of the ointment, encouraging people to use it on cuts and burns. Within six months he had twelve horse and buggy salesmen traveling about selling his Vaseline for a penny an ounce. Soon, people were reporting that the jelly removed stains from wood furniture and added life to leather goods. Farmers found that a liberal coating of Vaseline prevented machinery from rusting. By 1900 Vaseline Petroleum Jelly had become a staple in medicine cabinets. By 1912 it was a million-dollar industry for the former kerosene salesman.
Among its non-medical uses, Vaseline is used to coat the feet of vending machines to keep pests out. People also put it on chickens to prevent frostbite, long distance swimmers coat their bodies in Vaseline, skiers coat their faces and baseball players rub it into their gloves. But perhaps strangest of all was the custom followed by its founder. From the earliest days of his experimentation, Robert Chesebrough never missed eating a daily spoonful of Vaseline. He also instructed the nurse during an attack of pleurisy to give him whole-body rubdowns with Vaseline. And he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-six!