American inventor and chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough (1837–1933) refined and perfected petrolatum, a colorless, odorless unguent commonly known as petroleum jelly. A by-product of the petroleum-drilling process, Chesebrough's concoction had remarkable properties as a skin salve, and under the trade name Vaseline, it became one of the core brands of personal-care products giant Chesebrough-Ponds.
The inventor who patented Vaseline in 1872, Robert Augustus Chesebrough was born on January 9, 1837, in London, England, to American parents who had decamped there following their marriage. His mother, born Marion Margaret Woodhull, was descended from the prominent Van Zandts, among the earliest Dutch settlers in the New York City area, and had married into a family of Scottish financiers, the Maxwells. His father, Henry Augustus Chesebrough, was a Yale University graduate whose prominent New England family had roots in Connecticut that extended back to 1630. Chesebrough's grandfather was a founding partner of a dry-goods merchant enterprise, Chesebrough & Van Alen, with a listed address in New York City directories of the 1820s on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. Long into his life, Chesebrough and his descendants would retain strong ties to valuable real-estate parcels near Wall Street and the shipping piers.
Chesebrough based his enterprise in Brooklyn, manufacturing products made from spermaceti, the waxy substance extracted from the head cavity of sperm whales. Spermaceti had various uses, chief among them as lamp oil, but its price was subject to the uneven success of the whaling industry. A newer product, more easily manufactured from readily available resources, was kerosene, made from coal tar, and Chesebrough's small refinery business shifted to this oil. Thus he arrived in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the northwestern corner of the state, where an unexpected oil boom took place during the mid-1860s. The site of the first successful crude-oil drilling operation on North American soil, Titusville attracted investors and entrepreneurs alike. It was here that Chesebrough first recognized the potential in a by-product that oilfield workers called rod wax.
Rod wax was a residue that clogged the new industrial oildrilling equipment. Engineers and drill operators hated it because it slowed down the extraction process, gumming up blades and gears. It also hardened like paraffin and oilfield workers admitted to Chesebrough that it worked well as a skin salve on the burns and cuts they suffered on the job. Taking a batch of rod wax back to Brooklyn, Chesebrough refined the process whereby the wax was generated and developed a colorless, deodorized form of petroleum jelly. He received patent U.S. 127568 A, dated June 4, 1872, for “a new and useful product from petroleum, which I have named Vaseline.” His patent documentation described the distillation process using the active charcoal in charred animal bones, which he called bone-black. “Vaseline is especially useful in [curing] and oiling all kinds of leather,” he continued in his application letter. “The finest grade of Vaseline is also adapted to use as a pomade for the hair, and will be found excellent for that purpose; one of its chief recommendations being that it does not oxidize.”
Chesebrough reportedly named his product Vaseline because he ran out of available glass beakers in the early stage of development and had been forced to use his wife's flower vases. For the first few years, he sold it in New York City by handing out free samples and giving product demonstrations in which he burned his hand and showed Vaseline's terrific skin-salve properties. In 1873 he entered into a business arrangement with New York City soap manufacturer Samuel Colgate. Two years later he founded the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, which was acquired by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company in 1881. Standard Oil was his main supplier of rod wax, and Chesebrough's company became part of the Standard Oil Trust.
Chesebrough stayed on as president until 1909, when he reached Standard Oil's mandatory retirement age of 72. His wife Maggie had died in 1887, and although their son Robert Jr. succeeded him in the job, his tenure in that office was short and he later died in London, in June of 1910, at age 45. Chesebrough's nephew Oswald Camman, the son of his sister Kate and her husband Henry Camman, replaced him as president of the company. Only a few years later, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company was spun off as an independent corporation after a 1911 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust a monopoly. It merged with another personal-care brand, Ponds, in 1955 to become Chesebrough-Ponds, and 30 years later that company was acquired by Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever, which still sells Chesebrough's multipurpose Vaseline.
Entering politics, Chesebrough made a bid for his home district's Congressional seat in 1894 on the Republican ticket but was trounced by George B. McClellan Jr., a Democrat and son of the famous U.S. Civil War general. The battle to win New York City's 12th District in the U.S. House of Representatives was close, and Chesebrough lost by 1,541 votes in a hotly contested race. McClellan had the backing of the powerful Tammany Hall political party machine that dominated New York politics for decades, and he characterized Chesebrough as an enemy of the bicycle for having signed a petition years earlier to keep cyclists out of Central Park.
A 1904 report of the New York Zoological Society lists Chesebrough as a benefactor with a residence at 51 East 49th Street in Manhattan. A few years later, he was among the highprofile purchasers of lots from a parcel of land sold by the trustees of the Lenox Library of New York. Among these purchasers was tycoon Henry Clay Frick, who built a mansion at East 70th Street and 5th Avenue that became the landmark Frick Museum. Chesebrough constructed an equally lavish Italian Renaissance villa at the corner of Madison Avenue and 71st Street that was completed in 1911. A year later, the New York Times reported that he was the victim of a home invasion by two men who posed as elevator inspectors and were let in by a housekeeper. “A few hours later, when the real inspector came and was told that two of the company's workmen were in the house, he said he knew nothing about them,” Chesebrough told a reporter for the newspaper. “My theory is that one of them secreted himself in the cellar, intending to let his confederate into the house at night, when everybody was asleep. I am the only one who sleeps on the third floor, and [no] one sleeps on any of the lower floors, so they could have had the run of the place to themselves.”
Chesebrough eventually rented out his Madison Avenue home to mining and newspaper magnate Harry F. Guggenheim. In the early 1920s woolens manufacturer Julius Forstmann bought the property; the ground floor frontage was eventually converted to retail space and went on to house a succession of high-end designer stores, including French women's label Céline.
Apart from his Manhattan real estate, Chesebrough owned properties in Millbrook, New York, and Spring Lake, New Jersey, which with its ocean view, is one the area's most exclusive summer-season resorts. Outliving his second son, William H., who died in 1917, Chesebrough died at his palatial Spring Lake home on September 8, 1933, at age 96. Nearly all accounts of his legacy as the inventor of Vaseline mention his claim that he ate a spoonful of it every day for digestive health.
New York Times, December 18, 1912; September 9, 1933, p. 13; July 27, 2008.❑