Feb 11, 2011


Chemist Robert Chesebrough at the 22, in 1859, left his father’s dry goods business to try the oil industry. He found men working on oil rigs were plagued by what they called “rod wax,” a kind of gooey jelly that would get into machinery and cause it to seize up. Chesebrough noticed that the workers often smeared the substance on burns and rough skin and that it appeared to help in the healing process, so he brought some of the stuff home.

He spent the next 10 years experimenting on it and refined the rod wax down to the clear, smeary petroleum jelly we now know today. He applied the goo to self-inflicted wounds to track their healing process.

He began marketing Vaseline (supposedly a mash-up of the German word for water, vasser, and the Greek word for olive oil, ‘e’laion) in 1870. He patented the product in the US in 1872 and formed the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, based out of Brooklyn, in 1875. According to stories, he was at first unable to find any pharmacists willing to take a chance on the weird, greasy stuff, so he traveled the countryside, snake oil salesman style, preaching the magic of Vaseline.

It worked, probably because Vaseline was kind of magic: People used it for everything from rescuing chapped skin and protecting baby bottoms from diaper rash to preserving eggs. Long-distance swimmers rubbed it on themselves to save body heat; American Commander Robert Peary brought Vaseline with him on his arctic adventures because it was one of the few things that wouldn’t freeze.

By the late 1880s, Vaseline was selling nationwide at a rate of a jar a minute.

According to posthumous reports, he swallowed three spoonfuls of it every day. Once, when he contracted pleurisy in his 50s, he had his nurse rub him down with Vaseline every day. He, obviously recovered and died at the age of 96.

The Chesebrough Manufacturing Company merged in 1955 with Pond’s, the makers of popular cold creams, to become Chesebrough-Pond’s; 32 years later, in 1987, the company sold out to massive personal care company Unilever.