Yesterday, while checking the condition of the engine and accessories under the hood of the ol’ Camry, I noticed a little bit of white powder on the positive terminal of the battery. So, I cleaned off the corrosion with a toothbrush and a thick solution of baking soda. After it dried, I smeared on small blobs of Vaseline petroleum jelly to both battery terminals.
Afterwards, I pondered the nearly empty jar of the goo and wondered how long I’ve owned it. It’s an old glass jar that I probably bought in the late 1970s. I don’t use it very often. It’s just stored in the medicine cabinet for “just in case”. The stuff doesn’t spoil, so why get a fresh jar?
Petroleum jelly was the brainchild of the naturalized American citizen, Robert Chesebrough. The young man was still a resident of London and had been working as a chemist whose job was to clarify kerosene from whale oil for lamps. The discovery of petroleum and its development in the United States made the use of whale oil products obsolete as well as Chesebrough’s job.
In 1859, the 22-year-old Chesebrough spent his savings on a journey to Titusville, Pennsylvania where the first oil drilling operation was happening. As he was touring the oil field, Chesebrough noticed one of the riggers scraping thick dark glop from a pump mechanism.
The rigger explained that the substance collected on the pumps and had to be periodically cleaned off so it wouldn’t gum up the machinery. The worker also mentioned that some of his fellow riggers believed the waxy goop helped protect their minor injuries. This revelation led to Chesebrough’s epiphany that he could make a handsome profit from the waste byproduct.
We might wonder if Chesebrough was slightly masochistic, because he burned, cut, prodded, and applied acid to his skin, then treated the injuries with his clarified petroleum goop. In 1870, Chesebrough opened his first small factory and two years later was granted a patent for his product.
He coined the trademark name “Vaseline” by combining the German word for water “Wasser” and the Greek word for oil “λάδι” then tacked on the scientific sounding suffix “ine”.
Unfortunately, Chesebrough discovered that nobody wanted to buy his product. Even after he showed pharmacists how to use it on injuries, the storekeepers remained uninterested.
Finally, he decided to travel directly to prospective consumers in New York state. Chesebrough gave roadside presentations of his self-harming experiments. He gave away small samples of Vaseline to those who watched.
Because of the samples, people asked their druggists for more Vaseline. The pharmacists then had to place orders for cartons full of the stuff to satisfy customer demand. It didn’t take much longer until Vaseline became a household name.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this quip from Ellen Degeneres: “Have you ever heard somebody sing some lyrics that you’ve never sung before, and you realize you’ve never sung the right words in that song? You hear them and all of a sudden you say to yourself, ‘Life in the Fast Lane?’ That’s what they’re saying right there? You think, ‘Why have I been singing ‘wipe in the Vaseline?’ how many people have heard me sing ‘wipe in the Vaseline?’ I am an idiot.”