When a young New York chemist distills paraffin from booming Pennsylvania oilfields into petroleum jelly – Vaseline – his invention will lead to a popular mascara and Maybelline cosmetics.

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Robert Chesebrough will find a way to purify the waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged oil wells in early Pennsylvania petroleum fields. Photo courtesy Unilever.

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Robert Chesebrough consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96. Photo courtesy the Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Few associate 1860s oil wells with women’s smiling faces, but they are fashionably related.

This is the story of how goop that accumulated around the sucker rods of America’s earliest  oil wells 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, New York, laboratory and experiment with a waxy substance that clogged well heads.

Even before America’s first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, young Chesebrough had dabbled in the “coal oil” business. His expertise was distilling cannel coal into kerosene – an illuminant in high demand among consumers.

Chesebrough knew of the process for refining oil into kerosene, so when Edwin L. Drake’s historic oil discovery launched the U.S. petroleum industry, he was one of many who rushed to the Titusville oilfields 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.

Purified Sucker Rod Wax

In the midst of the Venango County oilfield chaos, the young chemist 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 oil field “sucker 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 worked 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.

Chesebrough 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.

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Chesebrough experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his purified petroleum jelly.

Within 10 years, Americans were buying it at the rate of a jar a minute.

An 1886 issue of Manufacture and Builder even 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. He lived to be 96 years old.

Mabel’s Eyelashes

It was not long before thrifty young ladies found another use for Vaseline.

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Chesebrough’s female customers used toothpicks to mix Vaseline with lamp black and make mascara. By 1917, Tom Williams was selling premixed “Lash-Brow-Ine” by mail-order. Photo courtesy Sharrie Williams.

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Women were using Vaseline to make mascara by 1915. Cosmetic industry giant Maybelline traces its roots to the petroleum product. “What a Difference Maybelline Does Make” magazine ad from 1937.

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 using a toothpick made an impromptu mascara.

The story goes that in 1913, Miss Mabel Williams employed just such a concoction preparing for a date. Williams was dating Chet Hewes.

Perhaps using coal dust or some other readily available darkening agent, she applied the mixture to her eyelashes for a date.  Her brother, Thomas Lyle Williams, was intrigued by her method and decided to add Vaseline in the mixture, notes a Maybelline company history.

Another version of the story, written by his grandniece Sharrie Williams, has Mabel demonstrating  “a secret of the harem” for her brother.

“In 1915, when a kitchen stove fire singed his sister Mabel’s lashes and brows, Tom Lyle Williams watched in fascination as she performed what she called ‘a secret of the harem’ – mixing petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and applying it to her lashes and brows,” Sharrie Williams writes in her 2007 book, The Maybelline Story.

“Mabel’s simple beauty trick ignited Tom’s imagination and he started what would become a billion-dollar business,” concludes Williams. Inspired by his sister’s example, he 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.

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Silent screen stars like Theda Bara, right, helped glamorize Maybelline mascara, which by the 1930s was available at five-and-dime store for 10 cents a cake.

It soon became clear that his “Lash-Brow-Ine” had potential, despite the product’s less than memorable name. In honor of his sister Mabel (she married Chet Hewes in 1926), Chesebrough renamed the mascara “Maybelline.”

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An unlikely petroleum product.

Whatever its petroleum product beginnings, Hollywood helped expand the Williams family cosmetics empire. The 1920s silent screen had 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.”

Editors Note – Special thanks to Linda Hughes, granddaughter of Mabel and Chet Hewes, who notes that Mabel was dedicated to her brothers – and helped run the Maybelline company in Chicago.

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