Vaseline: The Miracle Jelly Turns 140

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It's difficult to find anything, especially a commercial product, that hasn't really changed in 140 years. But Vaseline, that miracle product that is used for everything from softening tough skin to keeping beauty queens smiling, may just fit the bill. Vaseline turned up on the market in 1870—and the world has been just a bit softer, maybe a bit greasier since.

From Rod Wax to Vaseline

Vaseline was the brainchild of England-born, Brooklyn-raised chemist Robert Chesebrough. In 1859, at the tender age of 22, Chesebrough decided to turn his back on his father's dry goods business and seek his fortune in the nascent oil industry. Young Chesebrough made his way down to Titusville, Pennsylvania, to check out a working oil well. While there, however, Chesebrough made a rather different discovery: At the time, 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. But rod wax wasn't all bad: Chesebrough, clearly a very observant guy, noticed that the workers often smeared the substance on burns and rough skin and that it appeared to help in the healing process. Intrigued, he brought a bit of the stuff home.

Chesebrough spent the next 10 years experimenting on it—and himself.

With his background as a chemist, Chesebrough ultimately refined the rod wax down to the clear, smeary petroleum jelly we now know today. All the while, he was supposedly using himself as a guinea pig and applying the goo to self-inflicted wounds to track their healing process.

Both Chesebrough and the miracle product survived, and in 1870, he began marketing his Vaseline (supposedly a mash-up of the German word for water, vasser, and the Greek word for olive oil, "˜e'laion or πετρέλαιο). He patented the product in the US in 1872 and formed the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, based out of Brooklyn, in 1875. According to lore, however, Chesebrough 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. Chesebrough expanded the business first to Canada, then to Britain and its colonies; by 1911, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company had factories churning out jars of Vaseline in Europe and Africa.

Meanwhile, Chesebrough's faith in his own product never, ever flagged: According to posthumous reports, he swallowed three spoonfuls of it every day, though for what particular ailment remains a mystery. Once, when he contracted pleurisy in his 50s, he had his nurse rub him down with Vaseline every day—he, of course, recovered. He died at the age of 96.

Vaseline lived on: In 1955, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company merged 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.

The Incredible, Sometimes Edible Vaseline

Part of Vaseline's magic is its many, many uses. But that Vaseline is virtually unrivaled in the sphere of skin-softening is already well-known—here are a few of Vaseline's other, probably less well-known uses:

Some say that using a coating of Vaseline can make eyelashes grow longer and thicker; speaking of eyelashes, the first modern mascara was a mixture of coal dust and Vaseline, whipped up in 1913 by a chemist named Thomas Williams, for his sister Mabel—leading to the foundation of cosmetics firm Maybelline.
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A liberal coating of Vaseline can help prevent frostbite in chickens' combs.
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One can use Vaseline to grease up before a fight—making one's face too slippery to land a punch. (Pictured: Vitali Klitschko.) In 2009, the Ultimate Fighting Championship world was rocked by allegations that one fighter won victory after illegally greasing up between rounds.
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Rubbing Vaseline on the edges of your Halloween pumpkin can keep it from rotting, at least for a little while.
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Smearing it on a camera lens achieves a cool, soft-focus effect, somewhat reminiscent of 1970s soft-core porn.
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Now illegal, Vaseline used to be one of the things that a pitcher could use to give a spitball its spit.
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Stephon Marbury, former New York Knick who may or may not have lost his mind, used YouTube to tout the benefits of Vaseline on a sore throat. He ate it.

Vaseline as Art

Perhaps the earliest known mention of "Vaseline" in art was in an 1880 poem by Cornelia Seabring Parker, who used the word to rhyme with "gasoline" and "bombazine" in a work titled "A Balladine" (try as we might, we couldn't find a copy of that poem any where, but it sounds amazing).

Musicians seem to have been particularly drawn to Vaseline and, it seems, particularly in the 1990s: In 1993, The Flaming Lips found fame with their ode to the gooey stuff with "She Don't Use Jelly": The titular "she" would make you breakfast, she'd make you toast, but not with butter, or cheese, or jelly "“ no, she'd use Vaseline. In 1994, Vaseline was again in the charts with Stone Temple Pilots' "Vasoline", off their second album, Purple: "Flies in the vasoline we are/ Sometimes it blows my mind." And, in 1995, short-lived Brit Pop band Elastica sang "Vaseline" on their debut album: "When you're stuck like glue/ If you'd like to woo/ Vaseline."

In recent years, Matthew Barney, heralded by The New York Times as one of the most important American artists of his generation, brought Vaseline to a higher plane. Barney, the man behind the Cremaster video art series and Bjork, frequently uses the stuff as a medium—a disconcerting and often mutable medium. [Image Credit: Musings from the God of Cities. For more images of Barney's work, click here.]

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August 23, 2010 - 11:22am
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