In 1894, the Greensboro pharmacist Lunsford Richardson II developed a mentholated topical ointment, Vicks Magic Croup Salve, to cure a common infant affliction: congestion and a barking cough. Named for Richardson’s brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick, according to some, and for the Vick seed catalog according to others, it was later rebranded as Vicks VapoRub. Hardly a one-off effort, VapoRub was only one among Richardson’s 21 patented remedies, including Vick’s Chill Tonic, Vick’s Turtle Oil Liniment, Vick’s Little Liver Pills and Little Laxative Pills, Vick’s Tar Heel Sarsaparilla, Vick’s Yellow Pine Tar Cough Syrup, and Vick’s Grippe Knockers.
Today, people use Richardson’s salve for many purposes: to deter toenail fungus, headaches, ticks, mosquitoes, the scratching of cats, the marking of dogs, the consumption of hostas by deer, and the creaking of doors. Those of us who show palomino horses rub it in stallions’ nostrils to prevent them from scenting mares in heat. Glenn Beck uses it to weep on command. When anecdotal teenagers are not using it to enhance Ecstasy, they wonder on teen advice sites if rubbing it on their testicles will help them stay awake.
VapoRub is a compound of petrolatum, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, thymol, and turpentine oil; the active components are camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil. (One can also buy the lemon-scented variety, which is contrary to all right-headed practice.) People around the world have found camphor handy for embalming, manufacturing furniture finishes, killing moths, and, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, fetishizing their adopted daughter’s stockings. Because camphor is highly toxic when ingested, in 1983 the FDA mandated that over-the-counter products may contain no more than 11% of the substance. As for menthol, it can make just about any part of your body feel cooler, kill tracheal mites in honeybees, and make floral perfumes smell more flowery. Eucalyptus oil has many boring medicinal uses. And petroleum jelly, a byproduct of crude oil refining which we have no qualms about smearing on babies, makes things besides babies pleasantly slippery, like hairballs in cats, or terrarium walls for the thwarting of gecko escape. With all these properties and potential uses, the only surprising thing about the pervasively reposted “12 Surprising Uses for Vicks VapoRub” is that human ingenuity has not yet exhausted all its possibilities.