He slathered a big chunk of goo on his son’s head and told him, “Hey, you’ll be fine.”
For three days, Diaz went to school smeared with menthol and eucalyptus.
“I had this cold, waxy Vivaporu sandwich on top of my little fro,” he said.
Julia Longoria started pondering the Vicks phenomenon only after she grew up and began thinking back on her childhood.
In 2017, the WNYC radio reporter and producer decided to dig into the topic a little.
She interviewed dozens of people, but in the end found the best tale right at home: with her Cuban grandmother.
Malvina Camejo, 82, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., loves Vicks VapoRub so much she affectionately calls it her Vickisito.
She’s used it for toenail fungus, to strengthen her nails, condition her hair and moisturize her skin. Sometimes she has five or six of the jars on her vanity. Active ingredients: Camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol
Inactive ingredients: Cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, petrolatum, thymol and turpentine oil.
Source: Procter & Gamble
“Anytime any of the cousins got sick, they were like, ‘Don’t tell grandma!’ She’s going to put that all over you.”
Longoria always thought her abuela’s use of VapoRub was an American thing.
But in interviews she learned that her grandma loved the ointment because it took her back to Cuba, to the happy days before the revolution when her own mother used to rub the salve on her.
After the embargo cut off the conduit for American products, Longoria’s grandma couldn’t get her Vickisito for years.
In Greensboro, N.C., there are several homages to Lunsford Richardson, the pharmacist whose salve caught on and spread.
In 1918, the Spanish flu sent sales soaring, from $900,000 to $2.9 million in a single year.
Richardson was one of the thousands who died in the epidemic.
His company went on to market the ointment in England, Mexico and Central and South America, and then dozens of other countries.
Procter & Gamble, now its parent company, did not respond to requests for comment, but the company website and Vicks hotline emphasize that users should stick to the recommended uses listed on the label.
That means don’t heat it, don’t eat it, don’t stick it up your nose, in your eyes, in your hair, in your ears.
For coughs, simply rub it on your chest and throat. For muscle and joint pain, rub it in wherever it hurts three to four times daily.
Maybe it was all the advertising. Maybe it was product loyalty. Maybe it was simply a tradition passed from one generation to the next.
When Longoria asked scholars about the fascination with VapoRub, one suggested the subject might make a good doctoral dissertation.
Rachel Herz, a cognitive neuroscientist at Brown University, thinks its strong scent might play a role. She’s included the product in several studies about the powerful memories that smells evoke.
She said VapoRub often brought up flashbacks that were positive, “not of feeling sick, but of being cared for and being soothed.”
Daniel Olivas made sure that when he left for college back in the 1970s, he took his VapoRub with him.
But when he rubbed the cream on his chest just as his mother always had done, it didn’t feel the same.
With her, he said, it had been “almost a religious ritual.”
Without her, that magic was gone.