Cosmetics Company History: Vaseline and the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company

At risk of sounding like a corporate shill (or perhaps to counter my numerous negative or neutral reviews), I have decided to describe the history of those companies that have a relatively non-boring story. Unfortunately, I am starting off on a really bad note, since Vaseline is definitely a product, not a company, but I suspect that you’ll get over it.

The story of Vaseline starts in the 1800s, when Robert Chesebrough, a British industrial chemist, was laboriously working to clarify kerosene from sperm whales.

Sperm whales have an organ on their heads that is used for highly effective echolocation (way fucking better than dolphins). It is filled with a waxy substance known as spermaceti, which is made up of wax esters, such as cetyl palmitate, and triglycerides. (This is actually totally not relevant, but I like marine biology.) Whalers would kill and decapitate the sperm whale, drill a hole in the head, and drain up to 500 gallons of the gunk. Afterwards, it was processed by chemists such as Chesebrough.

Yes, “junk” and “melon” are the technical terms.

Whaling in the 18th-20th centuries resulted in the near extinction of sperm whales. Whale oil was not commercially banned internationally until 1972, and, even then, some countries (cough cough Japan) did not adhere to this legislation. In the mid-1800s, when Chesebrough was active, sperm whale populations were around 29% of their pre-whaling numbers. Iron-rich sperm whale feces facilitates the growth of phytoplankton, who sink to the depths of the ocean in death, bringing atmospheric carbon with them. The historical legacy of sperm whale hunting has caused an additional 2 million tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere every year, contributing to global warming. Whaling has taken a huge ecological toll; some ecologists view sperm whales as a keystone species for the deep-sea, meaning their numbers dramatically affect the environment and populations within the environment.

Luckily, petroleum rendered sperm whale oil obsolete in the 1840s, when James Young discovered a process to distill kerosene from the substance. Not only was this cheaper and less ethically distasteful than whale oil, petroleum rarely fights back when approached by humans attempting to collect it. Thus, Chesebrough needed a new job.

In 1859, the precursors to petroleum jelly were observed by oil rig workers, who found that the substance built up on the machinery, resulting in frequent mechanical malfunctions. Chesebrough traveled to the United States to visit this Pennsylvanian rig, hoping to find a commercial application for this nuisance. He found that the black “rod wax” could be distilled to form a light-colored gel.

When the workers told him that thought the rod wax helped to heal their cuts, Chesebrough knew that he had a spin. He began to injure himself, and found, to his delight, that it did help soothe his self-inflicted wounds.

Chesebrough opened a factory producing the product under the name Vaseline in 1870. The name is rumored to have come from a combination of the German word for water (wasser) and the Greek word for oil (έλαιον). Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly in 1872. His patent describes vacuum distillation and a bone char filtration process.

Disappointingly, Chesebrough couldn’t find a buyer for his miracle product. Drugstore owners seemed unimpressed. Undeterred, Chesebrough took to the streets of New York, burning his skin using acid or open flames, spreading Vaseline on his unpleasant wounds, and demonstrating his past burns that were supposedly healed by the power of Vaseline. He then offered free samples of his product to onlookers.

Unfortunately, we now know that Vaseline has no effect on cuts or burns, so Chesebrough spent his time injuring himself for no real reason. However, the man was clearly a weirdo about Vaseline in other ways as well. He claimed to eat a spoonful of the stuff every day, and insisted on being coated in Vaseline from head to toe when suffering from a viral infection.

She loved Vaseline.

In 1883, Chesebrough was knighted by Queen Victoria, who gleefully told the inventor that she used the product every single day. (What for? We can only speculate.)
Chesebrough died a wealthy man in his New Jersey home in 1933 at the age of 96.
The Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, the company used to distribute Vaseline, remained highly profitable. They were listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and continued to be profitable even during the Great Depression.

In 1955, it merged with Pond’s (the cold cream people), becoming Chesebrough-Ponds. In 1987, they were purchased by Unilever, the dickwads who make Axe Body Spray (as well as, to be fair, lots of brands I like. Hard to hate Ben & Jerry’s.)

1. Interesting — I didn’t know any of this stuff! Looking forward to more histories.

Hey, have you tried these L’Oreal Wet Shine Stains that are apparently dupes for YSL Glossy Stains? I’d like to know what you think of L’Oreal’s baffling claim that they’re “packed with 30% water.”

2. Hahahahahaha that’s hilarious. I am quite certain that they are 30% water, although I am not certain why they are bragging about that.

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