The Amazing History of Vaseline (aka Petroleum Jelly)

December 29, 2014

VaselineWagonChapped lips are uncomfortable and painful, heck, anything that is chapped is never pleasant.  During a recent cold, dry night, I reached for my product of choice to take care of the nuisance.  As I slathered the the Vaseline on, I wondered what was this stuff, exactly.  I peeled off the label and read the ingredients.  There was only one under the drug facts-100% White PetrolatumUSP.  “Okay,” I said to myself, “but what in the world is that?”  I decided to find out where it came from and the why this particular thing worked so well.  What I found was rather interesting.

Vaseline, or petroleum jelly, is used for just about everything.  Chances are you have a jar of the stuff sitting in your medicine cabinet or drawer somewhere in your home.  A plucky inventor saw the potential of the substance back when it was being discarded as a byproduct of oil production.  So before you rub some on your lips, here is the fascinating history of how Vaseline, or petroleum jelly, came to be.

Robert Chesebrough had something happen that none of us would wish for–his job became obsolete.  Chesebrough was a chemist and his job consisted of clarifying kerosene from the oil of sperm whales.  Sounds like fun, but the fun finally ended when oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania.  He didn’t let his new found unemployment get him down and decided to travel to Titusville to figure out what new products could be made from the black stuff coming from the ground.

Drake Well
Drake Oil Well near Titusville, PA          Niagara/Wikimedia

In 1859, while in the oil fields of Titusville, Chesebrough discovered something interesting.  The oil workers there were using a substance to heal their cuts and burns.  It was a residue that was removed from oil rig pumps called “rod wax”.  The rod wax was a nuisance to workers because it caused their equipment to malfunction.  Chesebrough saw an opportunity and began to collect the black, waxy substance.  He returned to Brooklyn and began the tedious process of refining the substance.  He discovered that by distilling the thinner, lighter oils from the rod wax he could produce a light-colored gel, and he patented the process in 1872.

Chesebrough began to demonstrate the process around New York by burning his skin with acid or on an open flame.  He would then then use his invention to show how the injuries would heal.  I’m not sure if he was available for kid’s parties.  He opened his first factory in 1870, and called it Vaseline.  It was a mix of the German word for water and the Greek word for oil with the scientific sounding ending of -ine.  In 1987, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company was purchased by Unilever.

Petroleum jelly is a mix of hydrocarbons and is flammable only when it’s heated to a liquid.  The USP after the White Petrolatum indicates the grade of the substance.  Its water-propelling properties make it very effective in sealing what it is put over (such as chapped lips, cuts, or burns) as well as keeping moisture in.  The whiter the jelly, the more it has been refined.

Vaseline
Med Chaos/Wikimedia

Now that you know what it is, what else can it be used for?  Chesebrough was such a firm believer in the stuff that he claimed to eat a spoonful every day.  Maybe we won’t go that far, but it does have an endless reported supply of uses.  Here are just a few.

1. Shine patent-leather shoes
2. Take out lipstick stains – put a little on the stain and wash whatever it was on.
3. Get chewing gum off of wood or any other surface – dab a little until the gum disintegrates.
4. Restore old leather
5. Lubricate rusty hinges or machinery, zippers, etc
6. Rub on chicken combs to prevent frostbite
7. Stop fungal growth on turtle shells – we all have that problem
8. Use it on car battery terminals to prevent corrosion
9. Moisturize the paws of dogs
10. Use it to control split ends

Those are just a few of the uses.  Do you have any others? You may not have a turtle or a chicken to try it on, but I’m sure you could find something.

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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  • I use vaseline on my face when I’ve had a little too much sun. I keep small jars everywhere, at work, in my vehicle in my purse and of course my bathroom. I only buy vaseline brand moisturizer. Did you know Jamie Lee Curtis uses it also. Was introduced to her in her hotel room 30 years ago and saw a large jar of it on the dresser. She is the reason I use it today

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