In its early days, Vaseline had a wide range of uses and abuses. The translucent jelly was gobbed onto fishermen’s hooks to lure trout. Stage actresses dabbed the glistening ointment down their cheeks to simulate tears. Because Vaseline resists freezing, Arctic explorer Robert Peary took the jelly with him to the North Pole to protect his skin from chapping and his mechanical equipment from rusting. And because the compound does not turn rancid in steamy tropical heat, Amazonian natives cooked with Vaseline, ate it as a spread on bread, and even exchanged jars of the stuff as money.
The reports of myriad uses from all latitudes and longitudes did not surprise Vaseline’s inventor, Robert Augustus Chesebrough, a Brooklyn chemist, who lived to the age of ninety-six and attributed his longevity to Vaseline. He himself ate a spoonful of it every day. In 1859, Robert Chesebrough was searching not for a new pharmaceutical unguent but for a way to stave off bankruptcy. At a time when kerosene was a major source of home and industrial power, his Brooklyn-based kerosene business was threatened by the prospect of cheaper petroleum fuel from an oil boom in Pennsylvania. The young Brooklyn chemist journeyed to Titusville, Pennsylvania, heart of the oil strike, with the intention of entering the petroleum business. His chemist’s curiosity, though, was piqued by a pasty paraffin-like residue that stuck annoyingly to drilling rods, gumming them into inactivity. The field workers Chesebrough questioned had several unprintable names for the stuff that clogged their pumps, but no one had a hint as to its chemical nature. Workers had discovered one practical use for it: rubbed on a wound or burn, the paste accelerated healing.
Chesebrough returned to Brooklyn not with an oil partnership but with jars of the mysterious petroleum waste product. Months of experimentation followed, in which he attempted to extract and purify the paste’s essential ingredient. That compound turned out to be a clear, smooth substance he called “petroleum jelly.” Chesebrough became his own guinea pig. To test the jelly’s healing properties, he inflicted various minor, and some major, cuts, scratches, and bums on his hands and arms. Covered with the paste extract, they seemed to heal quickly and without infection.
By 1870, Chesebrough was manufacturing the world’s first Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. There are two views on the origin of the name Vaseline, and Chesebrough seems to have discouraged neither. In the late 1800s, his friends maintained that he dreamed up the name, during the early days of purifying the substance, from the practice of using his wife’s flower vases as laboratory beakers. To “vase” he tagged on a popular medical suffix of that day, “line.” However, members of the production company he formed claimed that Chesebrough more scientifically compounded the word from the German wasser, “water,” and the Greek elaion, “olive oil.”
As he had been the product’s chief guinea pig, Robert Chesebrough also became its staunchest promoter. In a horse and buggy, he traveled the roads of upper New York State, dispensing free jars of Vaseline to anyone who promised to try it on a cut or burn. The public’s response was so favourable that within a year Chesebrough employed twelve horse-and-buggy salesmen, offering the jelly for a penny an ounce. New Englanders, though, were dabbing Vaseline on more than cuts and burns. Housewives claimed that the jelly removed stains and rings from wood furniture, and that it glisteningly polished and protected wood surfaces. They also reported that it gave a second life to dried leather goods. Farmers discovered that a liberal coating of Vaseline prevented outdoor machinery from rusting. Professional painters found that a thin spread of the jelly prevented paint splatters from sticking to floors. But the product was most popular with druggists, who used the pure, clean ointment as a base for their own brands of salves, creams, and cosmetics.
By the turn of the century, Vaseline was a staple of home medicine chests. Robert Chesebrough had transformed a gummy, irksome waste product into a million-dollar industry. In 1912, when a disastrous fire swept through the headquarters of a large New York insurance company, Chesebrough was proud to learn that the burn victims were treated with Vaseline. It became a hospital standard. And the then-burgeoning automobile industry discovered that a coating of the inert jelly applied to the terminals of a car battery prevented corrosion. It became an industry standard. And a sports standard too. Long-distance swimmers smeared it on their bodies, skiers coated their faces, and baseball players rubbed it into their gloves to soften the leather.
Throughout all these years of diverse application, Vaseline’s inventor never missed his daily spoonful of the jelly. In his late fifties, when stricken with pleurisy, Chesebrough instructed his “private” nurse to give him regular whole-body Vaseline rubdowns. He liked to believe that, as he joked, he “slipped from death’s grip” to live another forty years, dying in 1933.