The Crude Oil History of Maybelline
Few associate 1860s oil wells with women’s smiling faces, but they are fashionably related.
This is the story of how the goop that accumulates around an oil well’s sucker-rod first made its way to the eyelashes of American women.
In 1865, a 22-year-old chemist left the prolific oil fields of Titusville, Pennsylvania, to return to his Brooklyn laboratory and experiment with a waxy substance that clogged well-heads.
Within a few years Robert Augustus Chesebrough would patent a method that turned the paraffin-like goop into a balm he called “petroleum jelly.”
In 1872, he patented his new product as “Vaseline.”
Even before America’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, Chesebrough was in the “coal oil” business in Brooklyn, New York. His expertise was in the reduction of cannel coal into kerosene – a much in demand illuminant.
Chesebrough knew of the process for refining oil into kerosene, so when Edwin L. Drake’s August 27, 1859, discovery launched the American petroleum industry, he was one of many who rushed to the Titusville oil fields to make his fortune.
Scientific American reported, “Now commenced a scene of excitement beyond description. The Drake Well was immediately thronged with visitors arriving from the surrounding country, and within two or three weeks thousands began to pour in from the neighboring States.”
Robert Chesebrough’s fortune was out there somewhere; he just had to find it.
Purifying Petroleum Paraffin
In the midst of the Venango County oilfield chaos, Chesebrough noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead and drew the curses of riggers who had to stop drilling to scrape away the stuff.
The only virtue of this goopy “rod wax” was as an immediately available “first aid” for the abrasions, burns, and other wounds routinely afflicting the crews.
Chesebrough eventually abandoned his notion of drilling a gusher and returned to New York, where he began working in his laboratory to purify the troublesome sucker-rod wax, which he dubbed “petroleum jelly.”
By August of 1865, he had filed the first of several patents “for purifying petroleum or coal oils by filtration.”
Chesebrough experimented with the purported analgesic effect of his extract by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his purified petroleum jelly.
He gave it to Brooklyn construction workers to treat their minor scratches and abrasions.
On June 4, 1872, Chesebrough patented a new product that would endure to this day– “Vaseline.” His patent extolled Vaseline’s virtues as a leather treatment, lubricator, pomade, and balm for chapped hands. He soon had a dozen wagons distributing the product around New York.Customers used the “wonder jelly” creatively: treating cuts and bruises, removing stains from furniture, polishing wood surfaces, restoring leather, and preventing rust. Within 10 years, Americans were buying it at the rate of a jar a minute.
An 1886 issue of Manufacture and Buildereven reported, “French bakers are making large use of vaseline in cake and other pastry.
Its advantage over lard or butter lies in the fact that, however stale the pastry may be, it will not become rancid.”
Flavor notwithstanding, Chesebrough himself consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96 years old.
“Wonder Jelly” to “Lash-Brow-Ine”
It wasn’t long before thrifty young ladies found another use for Vaseline. As early as 1834, the popular book Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion had suggested alternatives to the practice of darkening eyelashes with elderberry juice or a mixture of frankincense, resin, and mastic.
“By holding a saucer over the flame of a lamp or candle, enough ‘lamp black’ can be collected for applying to the lashes with a camel-hair brush,” the book advised.
Chesebrough’s female customers found that mixing lamp black with Vaseline made impromptu mascara.
The story goes that in 1913, Miss Mabel Williams, in pursuit of her boyfriend “Chet,” employed just such a concoction.
Perhaps she used coal dust or some other readily available darkening agent, but in any case, her brother, Thomas L. Williams, was intrigued.
Inspired by his sister’s example, Williams began selling the mixture by mail-order catalog, calling it “Lash-Brow-Ine” (an apparent concession to the mascara’s Vaseline content). Women loved it.
By 1915, it was clear that his “Lash-Brow-Ine” had potential, despite the product’s less than memorable name. In honor of his newly married sister Mabel (she had married Chet in 1914), Chesebrough renamed the mascara “Maybelline” and launched a cosmetics empire. Hollywood helped.
The 1920s silent screen brought new definitions to glamour. Theda Bara – an anagram for “Arab Death” – and Pola Negri, each with daring eye makeup, smoldered in packed theaters across the country.
Maybelline trumpeted its mail-order mascara in movie and confession magazines as well as Sunday newspaper supplements. Sales continued to climb. By the 1930s, Maybelline mascara was available at the local five-and-dime store for 10 cents a cake.
Today, both Vaseline, now part of Unilever, and Maybelline, a subsidiary of L’Oréal, continue with highly successful products, distantly removed from northwestern Pennsylvania’s antique derricks and oil wells. Unilever’s Park Avenue public relations agency, M Booth & Associates of New York, proclaims:
“From Vaseline Petroleum Jelly – the ‘Wonder Jelly’ introduced in 1870, to Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion…Vaseline products have helped deliver healthy, moisturized skin for 135 years.”
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