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

Diarrhoea in India: A Series Of Flatulent Events; or, one account of what it’s like to have diarrhoea in India

The author recounts tales of woe, sufferance and tribulation, nursing a wobbly bowel.

Bangalore City Panorama

Episode 1: Diarrhoea in India, specifically, Bangalore

It is a fate that many suffer, under the brown awning. To have diarrhoea in India is to live life well, it is often said. Well, let them say it.

Shit is the tofu of cursing and can be molded to whichever condition the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit…

― David Sedaris

Most of what I do when I rush to the toilet is spill gas into the bowl. I have diarrhoea, in India. India, they say, is the place for this. Plups of steam-brown turd cloud the toilet water, clinging to the surface tension, swimming around like schools of muddy fish. What goes beneath is lost to the eye, wisping into nonexistence.

It has been 7 weeks and it will not abate. We are still in Bangalore. The hotel manager, kind Ramesh, lets us stay in the double deluxe room on the second floor for off-book prices. Tax free. Airbnb won’t take any of my pounds, nor his rupees. I transfer GBP direct into his account. Exchange rates come and go, like water in an estuary. I guess everybody wins. We are external to the system—awol, MIA, offline renegades living irl.

With 1GB of data each per day, we can watch precisely 6 hours and 37 minutes of Netflix, in colour, provided we sacrifice premium resolution. But on a 12 inch screen, 100 fewer lines of pixels makes little difference. We have only actually maxed out twice. We also read. Anything as long as it is in the vicinity of the bog. Anything which distracts us from the matter at hand, or, rather, at arse. Diarrhoea in India.

It is a strange thing, almost meditative, to surrender completely to the bowel. Autonomy and liberty go hand in hand, as blessings, but it is well known how the human mind responds to authority. We crave it. We could not have had tyrants without this oxymoronic muscle. We are slaves to hormones and genetics—and the bowel knows how to exploit these weaknesses, with finesse. In Trainspotting, Renton finds pleasure and solace in the simple, choice-free life heroin allows him to lead. Replace ‘hit’ with ‘shit’, and the analogy is complete.

One small fortune is the lack of direct clashes, as yet, in our schedules. I have heard tales of double-teaming, an arse directed between the legs, the hopeful projectile sliding along a thigh, browning it, muddying the waters between friend and enemy. We are still friendly. The closest we have come is a nervous shout, outside the door, followed by a slick wrap-up operation. “Any chance you’ll be out soon?”

And then the swift return. Stay tuned for more episodes in this Series, A Series of Flatulent Events, all of which deal with diarrhoea, in India.


This article also exists on Medium. Check out my other stories there.

Want to know more about India? I have articles on Kerala, Indian heritage sites, and more. Follow these links!
An Alternative Heritage Tour of Southern India
Tourist Places in Kerala: Human by Nature