For many of us in America, the word “mentholatum” brings backs memories of being ill and having a certain gloppy, sticky medicine called Vick’s VapoRub rubbed on our chest that through some unknown magic that rid us of our coughs and helped us get to sleep. The name Mentholatum is a portmanteau of the words menthol and petrolatum, petroleum jelly.
Originally founded in 1889 by one Alexander Hyde in Witchita, Kansas, Mentholatum Company hit its stride with Mentholatum Ointment, allowing for rapid expansion and eventually relocation to Buffalo, New York in 1903. Mentholatum Ointment was a precursor to that Vick’s VapoRub we all know and love. Let’s talk about that big hit for the company, Mentholatum Ointment and the little white jar that it was originally distributed in. The ointment itself works through a cooling chemical reaction caused by the inclusion of menthol in a petroleum jelly base.
Unfortunately, I did not take a picture of the jar in our collection, however this specimen is rather similar to what ours would have looked like if it were whole. It is a cylindrical, milk glass container approximately 2 inch tall and about an inch and a quarter in diameter. Just like our specimen, this one has a ground, threaded finish to take a cap of kind or another that seems to have changed over time: metal for earlier specimens and plastic for later. Given that our site was covered over in 1929, it’s likely that our little jar had a metal lid, just like this one.
One of the more interesting tidbits about this jar is the glass that it’s made from, known now as milk glass. The history of this type of glass has its roots in Venice sometime in the 1500’s, and originally could be of an assortment of colors. Usually just called opaque glass contemporarily, this type of glass began to be representative of American wealth and success, even being displayed in homes alongside fine porcelain. While a small jar of a smelly ointment isn’t the highpoint of class and refinery, this little piece of history is none the less rather striking and has an interesting history.
Image taken from etsy