Lately, Boyfriend has become enamored with the versatility of gelatin, and turns any produce he can get his hands on into jelly or jello. The results are mostly of the orgasmic-explosion-of-flavors-in-mouth type, but every now and then, they are also just plain weird. Last week, he attempted to make a clear jello glaze/cake/brick/thingie. The end product looked like a blob of Vaseline, an observation with which Boyfriend concurred. I took a spoonful and tasted it, realizing soon enough that it didn’t really have a taste as much as a vague, papery-but-buttery texture. So I declared with finality that it tasted like Vaseline too.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Boyfriend said as he started to clean up.
Really? It’s interesting that I think it tastes like a non-edible, greasy, skin care product I’ve never tasted?
Here’s why it was interesting:
“Did you know that the guy who invented Vaseline ate three spoons of it everyday, because he believed it contained a magic ingredient that could cure every disease?”
Robert Chesebrough, an English-born New Yorker, discovered Vaseline in 1869. Well, there’s actually some confusion over whether he discovered or invented it. Here’s why:
In 1859, at the green age of twenty two, Robert Chesebrough found himself dreaming the greatest cliche of all American dreams: he wanted to be a millionaire. So one night, after the farm animals had been penned in, supper had been eaten, and the gentle snores of his businessman father wafted through the family home, young Bobby jumped out the window and took off for the oil rigs of Pennsylvania. Ok, I don’t actually know if they had farm animals, or if Mr. Chesebrough senior snored. Or, for that matter, if young Bobby really ran away in the middle of the night. But he did abandon his father’s business because he thought he could make a fortune with oil.
It was only once he got to the oil rigs that he realized he actually had the curious and observant sensibility of a scientist, not the brute power and drive of an oil worker. Instead of getting his hands dirty, Bobby parked himself in the sidelines, and observed the workers. (I really want to say it was because he was taken with their glistening, muscular bodies, but I have no proof of that either.)
He noticed that a black, gooey substance the workers called rod wax, accumulated on the metal rods periodically, and prevented the machinery from functioning smoothly. And while this rod wax was the cause for much anxiety among the oil barons, the miners used it as a salve to heal their injuries. At the time, Bobby didn’t know what the chemical properties of this black goo were. But in it, he saw the opportunity to get rich without getting dirty.
Bobby pinched some rod wax, stored it away carefully, and rode right back home. Over the next ten years, as his father grew old and bent of back trying to keep a business he had built for his son running, just so he could continue to feed his family (Again, don’t take my word for this. For all I know Mr. Chesebrough Sr. was having pool parties in a retirement community in Jacksonville.), Bobby Chesebrough built himself a lab, and experimented with rod wax until he finally hit upon a formula that produced a compound with similar chemical properties, but was odorless and colorless.
He named this product Vaseline, from the German wasser (water) and Greek elaion (oil). A greasy substance derived from the waste of oil rigs and distilled by a young, mostly self-taught chemist who believed it had magical properties. Unsurprisingly, no one bought it.
Until Bobby Chesebrough got his marketing chops on.
When pharmacists and chemists in the city rejected his product, he loaded tubs of Vaseline onto a wagon and carted them off to the countryside. Once there, he inflicted burn wounds on his own skin (seriously, what is with this trend?!), and demonstrated how quickly they healed upon the application of Vaseline.
That, and he ate three spoonfuls of Vaseline everyday. Because his decade-long intimacy with the product notwithstanding, he believed it contained a secret, magical element that had the ability to cure every illness and disease man has ever known. (Oh, the innocence of a world without Hepatitis and HIV, a world with rarely occurring cancers.) The one time Bobby fell seriously ill from pleurisy, he insisted the hospital staff cover him in Vaseline from head to toe.
Almost certainly incidentally, he recovered. Almost certainly not incidentally, this recovery turned him into an even greater Vaseline fanatic. Robert Chesebrough ate Vaseline three times a day until he died.
As for the product, well, I’m sure almost every one of us has had a tub of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly in our homes at some point. That tells us all we need to know. Of course, we also know that Vaseline doesn’t contain a mysterious, magic ingredient, and it doesn’t have secret healing powers. As Professor John Hawk of the St. Thomas Hospital in London explains, “Vaseline is an occlusive moisturizer, which means that it creates a barrier on the surface of the skin. This is beneficial because it helps the skin to retain moisture, which is crucial to the healing process, and also because it keeps wounds sterile by preventing harmful bacteria from getting in.” Thus its efficacy in mending cold sores, chapped skin, minor burns, and nappy rashes.
In case you were still wondering, there is no scientifically verifiable benefit to eating Vaseline. In fact, there’s reason to believe it is a patently bad idea to eat it. Almost certainly incidentally, though, after Robert Chesebrough recovered from the Vaseline-slathered bout of pleurisy, and vowed to give himself a daily dose of the ‘tonic’, he went on to live a very healthy life till the age of 96.