Vaseline is one of the most recognized ointments in the world. This popular brand of petroleum jelly has an instantly recognizable jar and label. From the original product, the brand has expanded into a full line of moisturizers and lotions. Invented by an unemployed chemist, it is now a global brand.
How Vaseline Started
In 1859, Robert Chesebrough was a 22-year-old British chemist who was living in New York. He specialized in distilling kerosene from the oil of sperm whales. Whales were an important source of oil until the discovery of oil reserves. Those discoveries put an end to the need for whale oil.
When Chesebrough lost his job, he visited an oilfield in Pennsylvania. His goal was to discover a new byproduct or a new application for petroleum. While there, he noticed the workers were using a substance called “rod wax” to heal their cuts.
Rod wax was the unwanted residue from the oil drill pumps. Chesebrough collected some samples of the thick, black wax and took them back to New York. For the next five years, he worked on developing a version that could be sold to consumers. After distilling and purifying the wax several times, he created a smooth, clear gel.
In 1865, Chesebrough patented his process for creating the gel. This is known as the “triple purification” process that Vaseline still uses. In 1870, he opened his first factory.
Chesebrough began marketing his “wonder jelly” by traveling around New York in a horse-drawn cart. He held demonstrations showing how well it soothed dry, cracked skin. Chesebrough even claimed he ate a tablespoon of petroleum jelly daily.
Chesebrough moved his operations to New Jersey, where it would be easy to export his product. Within a few years, he had factories all over the world.
He named the gel Vaseline. The name combined wasser, the German word for water (pronounced “vasser”) and oleon, the Greek word for oil. Chesebrough trademarked the name in 1870.
Vaseline became an enormously popular way to heal dry skin, chapped lips and burn wounds. Before long, it was in every first aid kit and medication cabinet in the country.
That popularity soon spread. In 1883, Queen Victoria knighted Chesebrough for creating her favorite treatment for dry skin. In 1909, explorer Robert Peary brought Vaseline with him on his North Pole expedition. It was a good choice because Vaseline doesn’t freeze.
World War I medics carried Vaseline in their bags and considered it an essential way to treat minor burns and cuts. When World War II broke out, the U.S. Surgeon General ordered the military to include Vaseline as part of its provisions.
Chesebrough invented Vaseline after he lost his job, and he watched as his simple, pure jelly became one of the most famous products in the world. He remained president of the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company until 1908.
Chesebrough died at 96 in 1933. In 1955, the company joined another manufacturer, Pond’s Extract Company, to become Chesebrough-Ponds. In 1987, Unilever bought Chesebrough-Ponds.
Over the years, some people have questioned the benefits of using petroleum jelly. Scientists have pointed out that almost all petroleum-based products contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to cancer. Beauty experts note that natural oils like coconut and jojoba are safer and more beneficial than petroleum jelly.
In 2018, British researchers published a study which found that Vaseline didn’t help wounds or burns heal and might even impede their healing. In response to the study, Unilever issued a statement pointing out that Vaseline was primarily used as a treatment for dry skin.
Despite these criticisms, Vaseline continues to be one of the bestselling brands of petroleum jelly in the world. Its immense popularity, however, means it must be constantly on guard against trademark dilution. That has led to legal action on several fronts.
In 2021, Australian business owner Louise Arin developed a product she named Vegaline. Arin owns a home-based business, Soul Star Skin and Body, where she sells homemade, natural beauty products.
Arin wanted an alternative to petroleum jelly, which some people dislike because it’s a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry. Vegaline is a vegan, 100% natural ointment. Arin sells it in a metal tin with a label that looks nothing like the Vaseline label.
Unilever sent Arin a cease-and-desist letter, stating the name was too similar to Vaseline. The company said the two names were “visually and aurally substantially identical or deceptively similar when considered as wholes.”
Arin said she was “gob smacked” by the letter and refused to sign it. Unilever then notified her it was filing a formal notice of intention to oppose registration of her Vegaline trademark. There has been no update on the case.
Is Vaseline a Generic Name?
Vaseline is so well-known that its name risks becoming genericized. That’s what happens to brand names that replace the generic terms for products.
Some brand names lose their trademark status because the owners don’t carefully monitor every use of their name. Others lose their trademark status because a court has ruled that the buying public uses the brand name instead of a generic.
Read more on trademarks for common words or phrases.
It’s happened to several famous brands, including aspirin, heroin, escalator, zipper and cellophane. Genericide is a real threat for brands that become closely associated with a single product.
Trademark holders have responded by closely monitoring the use of their brand names and taking legal action when necessary. The Velcro company even produced a 2017 video that featured Velcro lawyers begging consumers to stop using “Velcro” as a generic term for a hook and loop closure.
Will It Work?
The humorous video went viral on social media, but it’s not clear how much impact these efforts have. In other blog posts, we’ve looked at the trademark troubles faced by Jet Ski, ChapStick and Popsicle. Vaseline is another brand whose popularity may have a downside. When your trademark becomes a commonly used word, legal action is the only way to stop trademark loss.