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Vaseline: from trade mark to noun

The Little Oxford Dictionary defines Vaseline as: Vaseline /væsil:in/ noun. Proprietary term. Type of petroleum jelly used as ointment. Peter G. Homan, honorary secretary of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy, tells the story of its success

by Peter Homan

The Little Oxford Dictionary defines Vaseline as: Vaseline /væsil:in/ noun. Proprietary term. Type of petroleum jelly used as ointment. Peter G. Homan, honorary secretary of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy, tells the story of its success

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Petroleum products have been used medicinally for centuries — Marco Polo travelling through Baku, Azerbaijan, found that petroleum oil was used there to treat diseased camels.

‘James’ dispensatory’ (1747) describes petroleum (Oleum de Saxo, Naphtha, Oleum Petrae, Oil of Peter, or Rock Oil) as “… a fat liquid Substance, of a Black Colour, and a strong Smell”. However, it varied greatly according to the place and country in which it was found.

‘James’ dispensatory’ also describe a black, foul-smelling bitumen from Galbia in the Languedoc region of France as “an antihysteric; and also good for the Tooth-ach [sic]”, Oil of Babylon (Naphtha of Diascorides) as an inflammable petroleum and of Petroleum of Brittany, it states “ … given a few drops at a time, with great success in what is called a suffocation of the uterus, and to kill worms in children”.

The story of Vaseline starts in 1859. In Pennsylvania, US, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company was a pioneer in the manufacture of oil products, selling them under the trade mark of Luxor. Robert Augustus Chesebrough was a chemist with the company and was interested in the possibilities of using oil products medicinally.

In the oil field he noticed that workers were applying a sticky substance that had adhered to their drills, to cuts and burns in order to heal them. This substance was known as “rod wax”.

Chesebrough set about refining rod wax using heat and filtration until he produced the first petroleum jelly. He named the substance Vaseline, from the German word wasser (water) and the Greek word olion (oil) in the belief that the substance was formed by the decomposition of water in the earth.

He patented the refining process in 1868. Refining is achieved by passing the heated raw material through filters of animal charcoal, white Vaseline having been filtered more times than the yellow. The white version has a stiffer composition.

The next venture was to introduce Vaseline to the general public and extol its virtues, which included the treatment of burns, abrasions and chapping, plus its many household uses. At first, the advertising and the distribution of the product was by dispatching salesmen with horses and carts all over America.

Vaseline itself was patented in America in 1872 and in Britain in 1877. By the late 1880s it was said that, in America, Chesebrough was selling a jar a minute.

At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, Vaseline was awarded the Grand Medal for “Novelty, great value in pharmacy, unequalled purity and superiority of manufacture”. The Paris Exposition of 1878 gave it a silver medal.

Official product

Chesebrough first introduced the product to scientific and medical institutes as a curative and soothing agent and as a base for many products, such as ointments and cosmetics. Until this time ointment bases had been derived from animal and vegetable fats which would go rancid and decompose.

Vaseline was totally stable, an ideal base to incorporate medicaments and easily applied. In 1876, The Lancet published a comment on Vaseline which it also called Gelatum Petroleum (petroleum jelly):

“This new remedial product is offered as a basis for ointments. … It is very soft, and altogether seems admirably adapted to the purposes for which it is intended. We think it will be very valuable for medicinal practice and advise its careful trial.”

The first edition of ‘The Extra Pharmacopoeia’ (1883), has a monograph headed Gelatum Petroleum and gives one of its synonyms as Vaseline. It states:

“Since first imported, about 10 years ago, there have been several imitations of Vaseline produced; but it is still purer, freer from odour, is less crystalline and granular, and has less tendency to separate than any of its competitors.”

(Comp-etitors included Adepsine, Chrisma, Cosmoline, Fosiline and Ozokerine.)

In 1885, the British Pharmacopoeia introduced a new monograph: Para-ffinum Molle, which it described as “a semi-solid mixture containing some of the softer or more fluid members of the paraffin series of hydrocarbons; usually obtained by purifying the less volatile portions of petroleum. It is known in commerce by various fanciful names.”

This product could not be called Vaseline unless Chesebrough gave up his trade mark rights to the name, which he refused to do. The name Paraffinum Molle (Soft Paraffin) was adopted much to his displeasure.

Chesebrough maintained that the word “paraffin” should only be applied to distillates from coal or petroleum and that Vaseline was a gelatinous residual substance.

The British Pharmacopoeia 2008 lists White and Yellow Soft Paraffin.

Commercial product

The original Vaseline manufacturing plant was in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. A second plant was opened in Pittsburgh and, later, plants were opened in Montreal and Moscow. A London plant was opened in 1924. A London office had been opened in the City at 7 Snow Hill. In 1879 an advertisement appeared in Chemist & Druggist Diary:

VASELINE is not Wax mixed with Oil, neither is it an admixture of Parafines, but it is A PURE, highly concentrated JELLY OF PETROLEUM, possessing properties peculiar to itself, and adaptable to purposes for which no other known substance can be so advantageously be used.

By 1882, the London office had been moved to 41 Holborn Viaduct, London and, in 1899, to number 42. It was run by Colonel William H. Chesebrough, Robert’s brother. The colonel had served in the American War of Independence and afterwards had been appointed as secretary to the American legation.

He was so convinced of the success of Vaseline that he resigned from the legation to work in the London office. It was said that, when questioned about leaving the diplomatic world his wife answered “Yes, we have gone into the service of Greece”.

The number of products produced by Chesebrough Manufacturing Company using Vaseline increased steadily. Advertisements in Chemist & Druggist Diaries show that, in 1880, products for sale were Vaseline for Medicinal Use (three sizes), Pomade Vaseline for the Hair, Vaseline Cold Cream (two sizes), Vaseline Camphor Ice, Vaseline Toilet Soap and Veterinary Vaseline.

By 1882, 17 products, including Carbolated Vaseline, Vaseline Anti-Corrosive Paste, Vaseline Boot Paste and Vaseline Axle Paste, could be bought. In 1886, the company advertised 26 products available in many different sizes. Some possible uses for Vaseline that were explored included embalming corpses and preserving eggs.

Production was not always adequate. Shortages occurred in 1885 and again in 1891. On both occasions there was a shortage of 5lb (2.2kg) tins of Vaseline. Many pharmacists were packing Vaseline in their own tins and jars from bulk and accused Chesebrough of holding back on supplies to promote his own branded jars which were freely available.

On the first occasion the shortage was blamed on an increase in demand by the public, loss of a large shipment at sea, a fire at the factory and the inclusion of soft paraffin in the 1985 edition of the British Pharmacopoeia.

In 1891, Chemist & Druggist investigated the shortage and spoke to Robert Chesebrough, who was visiting his London office. He denied the accusation of holding back supplies and this time blamed the shortage on an increasing demand by the German market and customer demand outstripping production.

Despite the shortages demand increased. In 1894, Chemist & Druggist ran a campaign asking pharmacists to list on a postcard the six most frequently asked-for items in their shops.Vaseline and Epsom salts drew for first place with 286 votes out of 574 postcard entries.

In 1955 the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company merged with Pond’s Extract Company to form Chesebrough-Ponds Inc. Various new toiletries were introduced including hair, skin and nail products. Unilever purchased Chesebrough-Ponds Inc in 1987.

Today, it is still possible to purchase Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, one of many products marketed under the Vaseline brand.

The following were the last words from an article printed in The Journal of 1924. entitled “The romance of the trademark Vaseline”: “The thing that makes the story of ‘Vaseline’ jelly advertising so unique is what that advertising has really accomplished. It has put a new word in the language.

The trade mark word ‘Vaseline’ is not a noun and should appear in the dictionary only as a private trade-marked word — with the permission of its owners. Really, it is a brand in the legal sense of the word.”

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043789

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