By Stephen Mihm

IF TikTok videos are any indicator of what’s trending, the unusual beauty trend known as “slugging” has gone mainstream. Over 100 million viewers have watched clips describing the practice, which involves going to bed at night with your face slathered in Vaseline. When you wake up and remove the ointment, your skin supposedly looks shiny.

Somewhere in the great beyond, the chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough is nodding in approval, pleased to see that yet another generation has rediscovered the wonder-working powers of Vaseline, his beloved invention. For upward of a century and a half, this gelatinous substance has been a staple in a range of beauty treatments.

Vaseline’s story begins with the discovery of crude oil deposits in Pennsylvania in 1859. Among those drawn to the fields was Mr. Chesebrough, a chemist from Brooklyn who worked in kerosene refining. He found that many of the wells had to halt operations to clean off a black, gooey substance that accumulated on the sucker rods used to draw oil to the surface.

The chemist was intrigued to find that the oilfield hands used the stuff as an emollient, claiming it helped heal scrapes, burns, and other skin injuries. He took samples back to Brooklyn and studied it. Eventually he found that distillation of crude oil left behind a substance that was effectively identical to the gunk he found clinging to the drill rods.

Mr. Chesebrough developed sophisticated methods for purifying the goo, screening it through bone black, a kind of charcoal made from the skeletal remains of animals. In 1872, the young entrepreneur patented his creation, dubbing it Vaseline.

Curiously, when Mr. Chesebrough listed the potential uses in his patent application, he focused on the claim that it was “especially useful in currying, stuffing, and oiling all kinds of leather.” He also cited its potential as a lubricant for machinery, a hair pomade and, finally, as a potential treatment for “chapped hands.” But he had nothing to say about its use as a cosmetic.

Over the course of the 1870s, Mr. Chesebrough began manufacturing Vaseline in large quantities, handing out free samples. He did not shy from encouraging its use as a panacea. As early as 1874, one physician reported to a journalist that he used it “both internally and externally for a vast variety of disorders, especially rheumatism, diseases of the mucous membranes.”

Internally? Yes. Parents of babies with croup were counseled to warm a half-teaspoonful and “let them swallow it.” Not to be outdone, French bakers eager to find a shelf-stable fat that wouldn’t spoil began using it in pastries. Mercifully, this particular culinary experiment was short-lived. But parents kept feeding children Vaseline well into the 20th century.

But it was women who made Robert Chesebrough a millionaire. Beginning in the 1880s, the company increasingly pitched its products as a beauty aid. A typical advertisement from 1881 declared that Vaseline would “keep the skin clearer, softer, and smoother than any cosmetic ever invented, and will preserve the youthful beauty and freshness of the healthy complexion.”

Soon women began publishing cosmetic recipes that featured Vaseline as the chief ingredient, along with more modest amounts of lavender, castor oil, cocoa butter, spermaceti, and other ingredients. In 1897, the San Francisco Chronicle featured an article that purported to share the secrets of how “famous women gain and retain good looks.”

Their lead case study featured the American socialite Jennie Jerome, better known by this point as Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill. “She is one of those women who are always exquisitely groomed,” the paper noted. “She keeps her youth by means of daily lotions used in the right way.”

And what was the right way? “Every night when she goes to bed she rubs a bit of grease into her face, using sometimes a preparation of tallow and sometimes plain Vaseline. She rubs it into her forehead, for this is where the wrinkles begin to show.” The next morning, the paper reported, she washes her face clean. “By this means she keeps her natural beauty always perfect.”

Lady Churchill wasn’t alone. Other women began using Vaseline at bedtime as well. But it also became the basis of very different kinds of cosmetics. Some women, for example, began mixing it with coal dust to create a form of proto-mascara, one that caught the attention of a Chicago entrepreneur named Thomas Lyle Williams. Inspired by watching his sister mix up a Vaseline-based mascara, he eventually launched a line of products named after her: Maybelline.

The use of Vaseline to enhance eyelashes and eyebrows may have encouraged some beauty experts to conclude that it promoted hair growth. One beauty manual from 1901 warned that while Vaseline had many positive qualities, it helped hasten “the growth of little hairs on the cheeks and chin.” For most women, this was definitely not the look they had in mind.

While Vaseline remained popular among women, fewer used it as liberally on their faces. One profile of an unnamed “well-known Hollywood star” that appeared in 1933 described how the actress scoffed at what was, by that time, an apparently widespread conviction that Vaseline encouraged hair growth. “Not on my face,” the actress retorted.

But the belief persisted. It may not have helped that the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company had taken to selling “Vaseline Hair Tonic,” which vaguely promised men confronted by the specter of baldness to “take care, brother, while there is still time,” and begin applying Vaseline in order to keep “hair vigorous, and abundant.”

Though few people believed such claims by the 1970s, Vaseline had lost its luster by then. Dermatologists dutifully recommended it, including the famed Dr. Jonathan Zizmor of New York City subway advertising fame, who touted its virtues in a guide to beauty aids published in 1978. But as one review of the book noted, “the Vaseline jar was not designed for Princess Grace’s dressing table.”

Everything comes back into style eventually. Vaseline is no different. If TikTok is any guide, the beauty regimen of Lady Randolph Churchill has returned, leaving millions of faces with that otherworldly glow that only crude oil sludge can provide. — Bloomberg