The Story Behind Vicks Vaporub (and Its Remarkable Scent)
Its scent is recognizable from a distance; it is never missing in a Latino house and has even saved us from the pain of a broken heart. Vicks Vaporub is undoubtedly one of the most unparalleled products of the last 129 years.
Just as you read it. That ointment that Abuelita uses for almost everything has more than a century of history.
But what is the origin of our favorite ointment?
A product that changed a century
Vicks Vaporub, as we know it today, was first marketed in 1905. The family-owned Richardson-Vicks, Inc. in Greensboro, North Carolina, created the original ointment.
According to the product’s website, the story began in 1894, when a young pharmacist, Lunsford Richardson, opened a store in Greensboro, North Carolina, to serve his community. Lunsford created remedies to help with common ailments such as colds and body aches.
The most popular of these was Croup & Pneumonia Salve, which Lunsford created to relieve his son’s cough. That was the product that gave rise to what we know today as VapoRub.
Little Smith Richardson recognized that his father’s Croup & Pneumonia Salve contained unique vapors and recommended changing the jar to the familiar blue color.
At the turn of the century, in his brother-in-law’s laboratory experiments, Richardson mixed menthol with petroleum jelly and called it “Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia Curse Salve.” The salve’s ingredients included menthol and a little-known Japanese component.
The salve was rubbed on the person’s chest, and the body heat vaporized the menthol, releasing comforting medicinal vapors for hours. Richardson then realized that the product relieved his customers’ sinusitis.
Thanks to his brother-in-law, Joshua Vick, Richardson gained access to a laboratory to create the product. In gratitude, he added his name to the final ointment.
Vicks Vaporub is born
In this way, Richardson began selling it in 1905 under the name Vaporub.
Once the Spanish flu broke out in the United States between 1918 and 1919, sales of Vicks VapoRub skyrocketed from $900,000 to $2.9 million in just one year. Such was the product’s success that the Vicks plant had to operate around the clock to meet demand.
In 10 years, the pharmacist created more than 20 drugs sold under the brand name Vick Family Remedies.
Unfortunately, Lundsford Richardson did not enjoy his creation’s benefits. Paradoxically, the pharmacist died of pneumonia in 1919.
Latino devotion to the ‘Vivaporu’
If anyone has immortalized Richardson’s work, it has been the Latino community. Although we call it by a thousand names — Bibaporru, El Bic, Vicksito, or “la pomada de menthol” — in our homes, Vicks Vaporub is santo remedio.
We use it to cure the flu, joint pain, and even the blues. Some soap opera actors rub it in their eyes to bring tears to their eyes, and some bolder ones dare to pour it into their coffee.
In fact, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton,” shared a photo on networks during production from Puerto Rico with a bottle of Vicks in his hand, assuring that “I knew I wouldn’t get through the nine show week without peak remedies.”