Robert Augustus Chesebrough was a chemist and the inventor of petroleum jelly, which he trade-named as Vaseline. In 1875 he founded the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company that in 1955 became Chesebrough-Ponds, a leading manufacturer of personal care products. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly (U.S. Patent 127,568) in 1872. Born in London to American parents, he was raised in New York City. Chesebrough began his career as a chemist clarifying kerosene from the oil of sperm whales. The discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, rendered his job obsolete, so he traveled to Titusville to research what new materials might be created from the new fuel.
While Chesebrough was there, he discovered a gooey substance known as ‘Rod Wax’ that was causing problems to the oil rig workers, as it stuck to the drilling rigs, causing them to seize up.
Chesebrough noticed that oil workers would smear their skin with the residue from their drills, as it had the property to heal their cuts and burns. He got curious and took some Rod Wax home where he started experimenting with it. After months of testing, he managed to successfully extract usable petroleum jelly out of it.
By 1870, Chesebrough was marketing his petroleum jelly product by the name of Vaseline®, and within ten years, the product’s increased exposure and popularity meant that almost every household in America had a jar of Vaseline®. Chesebrough expanded his business to Canada, the United Kingdom and various British colonies all over the world.
By the late 1880s, Chesebrough was selling Vaseline® Petroleum Jelly nationwide at the rate of one jar per minute and most medical professionals recognized Vaseline® Petroleum Jelly as the standard remedy for skin complaints.
By 1911, the company began opening operation plants and factories in Europe, Canada and Africa for manufacturing and distributing the product.
Chesebrough’s invention was from the outset a medicinal product, intended to aid the healing process of cuts and burns. During the First World War, Vaseline® had been used by the U.S. soldiers for cuts and bruises and to prevent sunburn. And many medical officers kept tubes of Vaseline® with them to treat minor cuts or burns.
During the Second World War, Vaseline® was commissioned to produce a sterile antiseptic wound dressing containing petroleum jelly. As a result the brand Vaseline®, became a patriotic symbol in the United States.