It was the summer of 1859 and Robert Chesebrough was 22 years old and as they might have said at the time- "seeking his fortune". Chesebrough was born in England to American parents and worked as a chemist in Brooklyn, New York.
He had started an illuminating oil business. Illuminating oil was refined from crude oil, so he decided it was time to make a pilgrimage to the Pennsylvania oil fields to make deals with oil barons. Chesebrough withdrew his life savings and bought a ticket to Titusville where Drake had drilled the first oil well.
Walking through the oil field, he stopped to watch an operating oil pump. He saw a worker on the rig scraping a waxy goo from the pump rod.
Chesebrough asked the man what it was and the man told him it was "rod wax". It came up with the oil and then would cake up on the pump rods. The "rod wax" wasn't worth anything and would foul up the works if it wasn't scraped off periodically. But the man added that when someone would burn or cut themselves, if they rubbed a little bit of the Rod Wax on the wound it would "fix it right up".
A light went on in Robert Chesebrough's brain. Dollar signs flashed before his eyes. "What magical healing ingredients could be in that oil" he thought.
He decided that if he could find a way to refine and market the magic grease he would make a killing off the "worthless" rod wax.
Chesebrough borrowed a bucket and filled it with the black wax and hurried back to his laboratory in Brooklyn.
For the next ten years, Robert Chesebrough experimented day and night. At the end of a decade of work, he had discovered something even better than the rod wax. By distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the crude, he could create a light-colored gel.
The gel did not turn rancid and spoil like vegetable and animal oil and was odorless. It beat the goose grease, olive oil and mustard plasters that people had been rubbing on themselves.
Before Chesebrough could try to sell it, he had to test it to see if it really worked on cuts and burns. He used himself as the guinea pig. He cut himself with blades of all kinds and burned himself with flames and acids. He abused his body for weeks and applied his "magic" gel to the injuries.
Next, he started hanging around construction sites. Whenever a worker suffered an on-the-job injury, he would rush to their rescue to apply his still nameless goo.
It worked. The injuries seemed to heal better and hurt less.
Robert Chesebrough opened a factory in Brooklyn in 1870. He needed a catchy name so he combined the German word for water- wasser with the Greek word for oil- elain. Wasserelain became VASELINE.
He gave out free samples to doctors and druggist but not a single order came in.
Chesebrough decided to take his product direct to the public. He loaded up a horse drawn wagon and traveled all over New York state handing out free samples to anyone he would take one.
When the people ran out of the sample, they headed to their local druggist in search of more. Of course, they had none. Soon, orders started pouring in from around the state. He expanded to other states and had a dozen wagons passing out free salve.
By 1874- Vaseline was being sold nationwide at the rate of a jar a minute. In 1876- Vaseline received a favorable review in the prestigious British medical journal- Lancet. In 1878 it was a smash hit at the Paris Exposition.
By the 1880s Vaseline had become a medicine cabinet staple in American homes. New mothers used it as an absorbent shield for diaper rash.
Chesebrough had a song written about his product titled "Ballad of the Vaseline Brigade."
Commander Robert Peary took Vaseline with him when he became the first man to reach the North Pole, because it wouldn't freeze even at the lowest temperatures.
Eventually, physicians learned Vaseline did not really have any medicinal effect or any effect on the blistering process.
Vaseline's effectiveness is due to the coating of cuts and burns which prevents germs from getting into the wound and because it keeps the burned skin moisturized.
But, don't try to convince Robert Chesebrough. He lived to the age of 96 and attributed his long life to Vaseline. He claimed that he had eaten one spoonful everyday for years.
When he was in his 50s, he suffered a near-fatal bout of pleurisy. Robert Chesebrough insisted on being covered from head to toe with Vaseline. He soon recovered.