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The Jelly Cure

Heading back to New York in 1859, Robert Augustus Chesebrough had reason to despair. At 22, he had already failed at one moneymaking idea, selling kerosene, because it had become too expensive. Then he’d gone to Pennsylvania, hoping to get in on the market for black gold, but prices were already soaring–$20 a barrel, or $400 in today’s equivalent.

Effectively unemployed, he’d taken to hanging out with the rig operators, who told him about a sticky oil by-product called rod wax that jammed their drills but seemed to have magical healing powers. Chesebrough carried a bucket of the sludge home on the train, but compared with the money he’d hoped to make, it must have seemed a sorry prize.

In the 1860s, as John D. Rockefeller was amassing his fortune in the oil business, Chesebrough was holed up in his basement laboratory cutting and burning his arms and hands. He had extracted the wax’s essential ingredient, a colourless, odourless jelly, and was now serving as his own guinea pig, slathering it on his wounds. When they healed without infection (the jelly coating sealed off germs), he began making the ointment in larger quantities. He called it Vaseline, a combination of the German world for water and a Greek word for olive oil, and  packaged it in one-ounce (28-gram) tins priced at a penny each.

Chesebrough’s balm might have been “effective for man or beast,” as its label claimed, but there were few takers. This time, though, Chesebrough was undaunted by the spectre of failure. First he distributed samples at construction sites in the city; then he crisscrossed New York State in his horse-drawn wagon, gashing or scorching himself before rapt crowds, showing his scars and giving out freebies.

The tactic worked, and by 1874 Chesebrough was selling a jar a minute, with people rubbing the salve not only on scrapes and cuts but on wooden furniture, cracked leather, rusted farm equipment, chapped lips and fishhooks. A worthless petroleum by-product had spawned a booming business–one that would form the basis, many decades later, of the Chesebrough-Ponds empire. Though Chesebrough went on to invest in real estate and run for public office (he lost), the inventor remained uncommonly attached to his first discovery: he ate a spoonful of the stuff every morning, claiming it enabled him to slip from death’s grip for 96 years.

Rockefeller, who didn’t engage in the practice, lived to 98. 

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