A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline

More than just a man, Sir Robert Chesebrough was the inventor of Vaseline. And most slippery he certainly was. 

Though not in the negative sense of the word. On the contrary, much can be said of Chesebrough’s ingenuity, as well as his faith. Indeed, such was his faith in petroleum jelly, he used to eat a spoonful of it every day. Chesebrough lived to be 96 years old and credited his longevity to the simple wizardry of Vaseline.

The beginning of the Vaseline story: Meet Robert Cheseborough

Starting out as a cherubic young chemist in the 1850s, Chesebrough showed promise. Born and raised on opposite sides of the Atlantic, his work involved producing kerosene from sperm whale oil. Icky stuff for many reading in 2020, this was surely interesting work. 

When Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, few had the faintest notion of the change it would effect. Least among the, Chesebrough. However, not to be disheartened, he put his mind to work.

Sperm out, oil in

While America’s oil boom (not boom as in BOOM, but as in period of great prosperity or rapid economic growth, though there were doubtless a few of the other, along the way) just about choked the sperm whale oil business, Chesebrough saw a silver lining. Why kill whales when you can extract kerosene from petroleum oil? So he started to experiment. 

Visiting a drill site in Pennsylvania, he witnessed something most unusual. Oil wells were producing a black, paraffin-like gel the workers called “rod wax”. Rod wax made the rigs malfunction, and was generally a pisser. However, those working the rigs noticed that rubbing it into their cuts and wounds made them heal faster. Chesebrough, in turn, noticed the same.

What is this ‘rod wax’?

Most intrigued, he took barrels of rod wax back to his lab for testing. Once his research was complete, he refined the thick black wax into a thinner, lighter-coloured gel. Impressed by its evident medicinal benefits, and feeling its refinements made it significantly less gross, Chesebrough introduced his ‘Wonder Jelly’ to the public.

Commercial production began in a Brooklyn factory in 1870. By 1872, Chesebrough had patented the process of making petroleum jelly. Fast forward another two years, and 1400 jars of Vaseline were flying off the shelves every day

As J. Mark Powell writes so eruditely on the subject, Chesebrough ‘peddled his product with the zeal of an evangelist’. He used to demonstrate the effectiveness of Vaseline as epidermic cure-all by holding his hand over an open flame. Then, extolling its virtues and trying not to faint, he would apply Vaseline. Presumably, the wounds would heal by the next roadshow. 

When Vaseline evangelism pays off

But Chesebrough was more than a shrewd salesperson. His belief ran strong. During a bout of pleurisy (a condition often caused by the flu virus, in which the tissue ‘twixt lung and chest wall becomes inflamed, causing difficulty breathing), Chesebrough had his nurse cover and rub him, head to foot, in Vaseline. He soon recovered. Obviously, any number of factors could be responsible for his healing. Most people just take pain killers and wait for it to go away. But it’s a nice story, given the context. 

Perhaps his most startling claim was that he would consume a spoonful of Vaseline daily, in order to prevent the onset of ailments. Is there anything he wouldn’t do, for Vaseline? Forget the sugar, Poppins, it’s time to try the kids on petroleum jelly.

Guten Appetit / καλή όρεξη


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