Robert Peary took it to the North Pole. There’s a song in its honor. It makes smiles sparkle. It’s used to coat the feet of vending machines to keep pests out. It controls unruly hair. People put it on chickens to prevent frostbite. It protects baby’s bottoms, and is invaluable to virgins. A tycoon swore eating a spoonful a day helped him live to see 96 years, and odds are that you have some in your home. It’s Vaseline.

The name Vaseline comes from the German word for water and the Greek word for oil—though I never thought German and Greek mixed. The inventor, Robert Chesebrough, was a purveyor of illumination oil and a chemist in England who saw that there was a greater fortune to be made dealing in petroleum than there was in the oils from whales with which he had been dealing. In 1859, at the age of 22, he spent his life savings on a ticket to Titusville, Pennsylvania to meet with the oil barons there. Upon touring the oil fields he noted a rigger scraping a thick, dark goo from an oil pump’s joint, and he asked about. It was explained that the troublesome wax-like gunk tended to come up with the crude, and collect on the rigging; if it wasn’t cleaned off periodically, it would gum up the works. And some people thought that it helped wounds heal faster—that notion lit dollar signs in his eyes, and he made off with a bucket full of the “rod wax”.

Seeing how the rod wax was worthless, he knew that he could make a large margin on it, and as a chemist, he quickly set to work purifying and clarifying the substance. It took him 10 years to make the colorless, odorless gel we’re accustomed to today. Bear in mind, however, that in the late 19th century, the only such oils available were lard, goose grease, olive oil, garlic oil, and some mustard plasters—if they didn’t start out as rank, a little time was prone to spoil them and make them that way.

He used himself as a guinea pig by cutting, stabbing, burning, and applying acids to himself and then treating the wounds with his wonder-salve. The first Vaseline factory opened in 1870, and the patent was granted in 1872. But he couldn’t sell the stuff. Pharmacists were uninterested, even when he showed them his self-inflicted wounds in various stages of mending.

So he took it on the road and gave Vaseline away. He gave roadside demonstrations of his masochistic experiments, and people took it, then went to their pharmacists to get more. Of course, the pharmacists had none, having spurned it before, ordered it in droves. Vaseline’s first major success came as medicine, which is ironic because later it was proved to have no curative power whatsoever—the only advantage to its use was the fact it kept grime and bacteria out of the injuries.

But no one could tell Chesebrough that it wasn’t a miracle. When down with a bout of pleurisy he ordered himself drenched top to toe with Vaseline, and he soon recovered. Shortly before his death he revealed that he’d been eating a spoonful a day for several years.

Is there anything it can’t do?

Written by Jason Bellows, posted on 20 February 2006. Jason is a contributing editor for
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