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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Almanac/Cool Lube

Air Date: Week of May 30, 2003

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This week, facts about Vaseline. Petroleum jelly was first patented this week back in 1872 by a New York chemist named Robert Chesebrough.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Frankie Valli “Grease” Grease Polygram (1978)]

CURWOOD: One hundred and thirty-one years ago this week, Brooklyn-based chemist Robert Chesebrough wrote the U.S. Patent Office about his new invention.

He called it “a thick, oily, pasty substance, semi-solid in appearance, and unobjectionable in odor.” He suggested uses for his versatile goo, praising it as “a pomade for hair, a moisturizer for chapped hands, a lubricator for machinery, and a treatment for leather.” And so the world was introduced to Vasoline.

Mr. Chesebrough slipped into his greasy venture after a visit to a petroleum refinery in Pennsylvania. He was a kerosene salesman and this newfangled replacement for whale oils caught his eye, especially the residual sludge that gathered on the drilling machines. The so-called “rod wax” clogged the rigs, but workers found that it came in handy when they got burned. They used it to treat injuries.

Robert Chesebrough knew a good thing when he saw it. He filtered the tarry gunk to make it cleaner, and hit the road. He put on live shows in which he would cut or burn himself and slather Vasoline on his wounds. Then he would wow the audience by showing off scars from earlier injuries, healed by his product. The jelly formed a barrier that blocked germs. By 1874, he was selling a jar a minute.

Mr. Chesebrough lived well into his 90s. Perhaps he owed his longevity to the spoonful of Vasoline he swallowed every day of his adult life.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

 

 

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