By Ted Braun
Is your medicine chest filled with over the counter medicines? Probably a jar of Vaseline is there and another small dark blue jar labeled Vicks VapoRub waiting its time to come to the aid of anyone with the sniffles. For over a hundred years this smelly ointment has worked wonders. Most interesting is that the medications these two small jars hold share a history.
My grandfather was a great believer in the wonders of Vicks. As a youngster I watched him self-medicate. He would sit over a hot air register and rub the salve on his chest. Other times he would put some in his mouth and swallow it.
Vicks’ history began in 1890 from an ad in a catalogue. In Rochester, NY, James Vick was a journalist and then a horticulturist. He had a successful seed store and produced the catalogue Vick’s Seeds.
A family-owned pharmacy in Greensboro, NC, received that catalogue. The business was run by pharmacist Lunsford Richardson and his brother-in-law Dr. Vick. In those days pharmacists combined art and science in their practice of making medications for patients. Richardson had produced 21 home remedies and he was influenced by the Vicks name to establish the Vicks Family Remedies Co. to manufacture and sell them to the public.
Richardson said he developed one of these medicines for his son’s “croupy cough.” It was an ointment using a new drug from Japan called menthol with camphor and eucalyptus oil combined in a pure petroleum base. The result was a salve to be rubbed on the chest.
Over the years other uses were found for Vicks which carried a distinctive odor. It was rubbed on the soles of the feet for coughs and on achy muscles to relieve pain. For headaches it was rubbed on the temples and some used it for nail fungus. Animals hated the smell so it was used on tick bites, and on clothes to discourage mosquitoes.
The pure petroleum base Richardson used appeared on the market in 1872 and was patented as Vaseline. That name was a combination of German for water and Greek for oil. Chemist Robert Chesebrough had discovered this new medicine.
Chesebrough was in the oil business and when he visited oil fields in Pennsylvania he noticed a worker scraping a waxy goo off the pump rods as they brought up the oil. The worker told him the stuff built up and was just thrown away. He added that if one of the workers had a small wound they covered it with this goo and it healed fast.
That remark aroused his curiosity and he left the field with a big bucket of this black goo. After ten years of experimenting he had changed the stuff into a light, thin oil and used it to make a light colored gel called Vaseline.
Chesebrough had trouble convincing the public that Vaseline did heal wounds. Finally he traveled around his part of New York giving away free samples of the gel after the recipient promised to use it on any cuts or burns they had. He was rewarded when these people went to stores to buy more but found none on the shelf. The demand was so great Chesebrough started selling Vaseline for a penny an ounce.
Both Vaseline and Vicks have remained popular for well over a hundred years. Chesebrough lived for 96 years and he boasted it was because he ate a spoonful of petroleum jelly every day. I wonder if my grandfather confused Vicks and Vaseline when he ate Vicks.