Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Robert Chesebrough
Sometimes the loss of one career avenue leads to a new venture. This was the case with young chemist Robert Chesebrough. His work distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales had been rendered obsolete by petroleum.  In 1859, at age 22, Robert decided to take a trip to oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania, to see what kind of future Petroleum might have for him.  

As an aside, maybe some of you, like me, will be surprised to know that Titusville, Pennsylvania was the site of the first oil boom in what would become the United States. (And here I thought Texas was the granddaddy of oil.) Anyway, the rush began in 1859, peaked in 1891, and was later surpassed by western states such as Texas and California. Some oil industry still remains in Pennsylvania.

Anyway, Robert Chesebrough went to Titusville, and while he toured the fields, he noticed a paraffin-like material that formed on the oil pump joints. Workers explained that the gunk came up with the crude and collected on the rigging. If it wasn’t cleaned off periodically, it gummed up the joints and caused them to malfunction. Though I can’t verify this fact, it’s said that workers used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing.

Robert saw potential in the black gooey gunk, and took some home to explore possible uses.  He developed a process to clarify and purify the goop. The first Vaseline factory opened in 1870, and in 1872 Robert patented the process of making petroleum jelly (U.S. Patent 127,568), the clear ointment we’re used to today. His process involved vacuum distillation followed by filtration of the residue through bone char.

In the 1800s, people used oils like lard and goose grease for healing. Robert was convinced his product was better than these and set out to prove it by using himself as a guinea pig. He cut, stabbed, and burned himself, then treated his wounds with his wonder-salve, but pharmacists were not interested despite his self-inflicted wounds.

So, in a step of marketing genius, he took his Vaseline on the road, giving roadside demonstrations and giving away free samples. People took his product home, liked it, and when they wanted more, the pharmacists had to order it.

Though Vaseline’s success was originally medicinal, later it was proved to have no power to cure at all. Its real advantage was the fact that it kept grime and bacteria out of injuries. However, Robert Chesebrough never stopped believing his product was a miracle (and I’m sure it was a financial miracle for him, as well). During a bout of pleurisy, he covered himself from head to toe with Vaseline, and he recovered. Shortly before his death his confessed he’d been eating a spoonful a day for several years. (Yuck.)


  1. Love these snippets of history, Candace! So interesting!

  2. Huh! I always wondered why it was called "petroleum jelly". Interesting. Thank you, Candice!


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