At the beginning of the 1900s, popular treatments for colds were poultices and messy plasters. These were typically the same forms of mustard and mint products that had been used for over 5000 years.
These products were applied on the chest and forehead, but due to the abrasiveness of the compounds, they often caused rashes and/or blisters. This was due is a large part because their main ingredients were skin irritants. The other prescribed method to cure a cold was to inhale hot herbal vapors. While this method was very successful in curing colds, it could also cause severe burns if children or patients placed their faces too close to the steam.
Who is Lunsford Richardson?Lunsford Richardson, a druggist from Selma, North Carolina, was one of several druggists who sought a product that would provide relief without the drawbacks of the plasters and poultices. Two events occurred that led him to the perfect product. The first was the use of petroleum jelly as a safe base for salves and cosmetics. The second was the discovery of menthol, a crystalline alcohol extract from peppermint which released a vapor capable of giving sinus relief.
Ben-Gay and the Connection to Vick'sMenthol had been used by consumers as far back as 1898 when it was introduced in a product called Ben-Gay. This product, which was invented by Jules Bengue, combined menthol with an analgesic pain reliever in a base of lanolin. The innovative product was promoted as a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, gout and even help with a head cold.
Richardson studied the testimonials on Ben-Gay and started mixing different ingredients together in his drugstore. He finally stumbled upon using menthol with other ingredients in a base of petroleum jelly. He named his new product, Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve. When rubbed onto the chest, the chemicals opened up sinus passages while they increase blood circulation. After its introduction, jars of the product flew off the shelves. Richardson could barely keep up with orders for customers and other druggists.
His only problem was the long, involved name of the product. He felt he needed a catchier moniker and turned to his brother-in-law, a doctor named Joshua Vick. Because it had been in Vick’s laboratory that Richardson had experimented to create a new product he changed the popular products name in honor of his mentor. Vick’s VapoRub was born, the year was 1905.
The Way Vick's Changed the U.S. Post OfficeAlthough the product was selling and Richardson was having difficulty keeping up with orders, he still went on a huge advertising campaign to promote his product. He advertised in newspapers and supplied coupons for a free trial size jar of the product. He also had the ingenious idea to persuade the U.S. Post Office to allow him to provide samples to “Boxholders,” a precursor of today’s “occupant.” Before this time, all mail had to have a name listed on the package and/or letter.
All of this provided great sales for VapoRub, but it was the flu epidemic of 1918 that sent sales soaring through the roof. In the spring, U.S. troops carried the virus to France and then Spain. The flu took so many lives in Spain that it soon became known as the “Spanish Flu.”
The Flu Kills MillionsThe flu soon traveled to China and on to Russia where it became even more virulent. During that year the flu killed one half of one percent of the entire population of the United States. To put it in even easier terms to visualize, World War I had taken four years to claim the lives of nine million soldiers. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic killed 25 million people, making it the worst plague in history.
It goes without saying that the flu that year drove the need for any type of cold medicine up. Cough syrups, cough drops, decongestants and even ASPIRIN® were bought for every household. These drug sales, especially Vick’s VapoRub, set new industry records. In 1918, Vick’s sold over a million dollars' worth of product. That is 1918 dollars, which was unprecedented until that time. While Vick’s is still very popular today and widely touted as the best cure for sinus and chest colds, it was the flu epidemic of 1918 that put a jar in every home. Mysteriously the flu that claimed so many lives vanished in 1919.