Vicks VapoRub

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD -

Vi­va­poru.

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.

ALEX GARCIA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE 2011

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