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

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

An Alternative Tour of India: The truth about Indian culture

There are some things tourist information companies don’t want you to know.

The Indian subcontinent is brimming with a smorgasbord of cultural nooks and delicious crannies. And Indian culture cannot be summed up in a single sentence, or even a book. But there are certain things that you might not read about in Lonely Planet, when visiting the southern states, such as Kerala, Goa or Karnataka. Here are some of them.

Kerala, and the states it borders, are known for many things: expansive beaches, breathy hill stations and plump fruits, to name a few. But there is more—much more. During our romps around the area, it was a mild shock to us to find certain things cropping up again, and again, and again. A cultural smorgasbord awaits, albeit a repetitious one. It is accessible to all. We explored the lesser-known nooks and crannies of southern India’s cultural mosaic. Here, I present some of the highlights.

Coconut Museum, Kochi—3/5

Calicut, Kerela

To be clear, this museum does not showcase items of historical significance. These are not artifacts from bygone times. Rather, they are artisanal artworks, constructed entirely, and exclusively, from materials extracted from the coconut tree. Idols of Ganesha, Shiva and Buddha, each carved from a single log; two elaborate models of the Taj Mahal (strikingly accurate), one of wood, one woven from coconut fibres; Patachitra paintings on plucked coconut husks, a vivid portrait of lions and tigers made of bits of coconuts; and a large, majestic chessboard with hand-carved pieces. Unfortunately, the latter was in a state of ruin—heads balanced on shoulders, gammy legs, club foots and so on. Nevertheless, we played.

“There are artisans who specialize and use only a particular part of the coconut for their work, like its husk or sticks or shells alone,” says the sub-editor of the Coconut Board.

It is a true ode to the myriad powers of the coconut, a vital ingredient in the cultural cocktail India mixes. Without the humble coconut, Indian culture would be unrecognisable to what it is today. Read more about it here, and view its TripAdvisor reviews here.

Kerala Science and Technology Museum—4/5 (and the same from TA)

[Activity Room & Planetarium & 7D Thrillarium]

Located deep within the bowels of Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum), this centre for science is a multifaceted monolith, with activities on all sides. It has great potential. However, what it has in ideas, it lacks finesse–and execution–and, I suppose, funding.

The Activity Room contains all manner of activities, perfect for people of all ages. These are science experiments, science facts, demonstrated before your very eyes. There is much to learn! Sadly though, due presumably to a funding deficit, many of the exhibits are falling apart, tearing at the seams, or simply missing parts, and therefore malfunctioning.

The Thrillarium does not quite live up to its name, though does offer a few luke-warm minutes of being fanned, heated or sprayed in the face while being taken, arse first, on a rollicking, Triassic adventure. Good for kids.

Last but not least, the Planetarium. This is where it really comes together. Despite being in the local language, the show here was enjoyable for all four of us. Not a dry eye in the house, I’m sure.

Chapora Fort, Bardez, Goa—2/5

Welcome to the Best Fort in Goa.

A stark wind blows from the coast. We are high up, blistering against the rain. Drum, drum, drum, the rain thrums at our ears, pockmarks the ancient walls, beats at the stones of the earth. We are up here, and why? To feel the weather upon us, around us, surrounding us. Belittled by the sky, we almost begin to tremble, but then we remember. We are here for a reason. We have been brought together, to this place, in order to celebrate. It is Goa. There is wine. We have love. We have Indian culture, imbibed.

Wax World Museum (and Walkthrough Horror Experience), Old Goa, Velha—1/5

This was something else entirely, and generally not very good. But these things depend in large part on company and attitude, and we were fortunate in both. It was raining outside, and I had told our diminutive, teenage driver to hold his horses. We had not yet learned quite how many wax museums there are in this part of India. They seem to be following us around.

In order to fully experience this wax museum, we were given the tour. To wit: a fierce Indian woman barked us from one statue to another, allowing very little time for reflection. She told us that the Obama statue was of an Indian actor. None of us had the heart to tell her she was wrong.

The horror experience mainly deployed cheap gimmicks; it could have been designed by a 7 year old. There was nothing unexpected—as one Trip Advisor reviewer puts it: ‘There is nothing like horror in this’. Yet, somehow, it shocked two of our party. We came out feeling refreshed, closer than before, interknit, and with a pissy aroma about our persons. We retrieved our shoes and walked to the main road. There was our driver, red cap gleaming, top-heavy, waiting to whisk us away to a drier place.

One TA user says DON’T VISIT. I’m inclined to agree. Does this qualify as Indian culture? Who knows.

Ooty Wax Museum—2/5

I agree that, in a sense, it is a ‘great alternative to sightseeing’, as advertised on the Travel 2 Ooty website. However, I prefer to see sights. This wax museum is owned by the man who makes the wax statues. He also owns and fills a similar museum in Kodaikanal.

Credit where it’s due: this man has made an obscene number of wax sculptures, and invested a great deal of money into the enterprise. Discredit where it’s due: often, without textual aids, it is impossible to tell your Einsteins from your Mother Theresas. And, the only black character is a cartoonish imagining of what African musicians actually look like.

Ooty Boat House Triple Whammy—Horror Experience, Mirror World and Jurassic Jungle—4/5 

Yes, we got sucked in once again, to the standard south Indian plethora of fun & games.

First up, the Mirror World. (There are 17 mirrors in the Mirror World)

While the mirrors were just a tad grimy, it was almost immersive in there, and we definitely had a few minutes of what amounted to “fun & games”. Positive vibrations coming through the walls. For a second or two, I actually managed to suspend my disbelief to the extent that I could convincingly regard myself as ‘lost in the Mirror World’. Well done there.

Horror Experience and Jurassic Jungle. Hmm. Impossible to ignore the overwhelming aroma of urine, throughout these walkthroughs. Now, this is a pity, because this is quite a distracting and, dare I say, disconcerting smell, especially when its potency reaches Richter one gazillion. This was a downer, because these two were otherwise pretty spectacular. The crocodile made Laura jump out of her skin, and there was something uncannily freaky about the gorilla. Dinosaurs were all good too. 

Not a bad score.

Blossom Bookhouse, Bangalore—5/5; a bastion of Indian culture

Had everything a bookie can dream of, except Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Can’t argue. It is a resounding success, chock full of delights: absorb Indian culture through the words it prints.