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Vicks VapoRub: The Little Blue Bottle That Saved America From The 1918 Flu Pandemic

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The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more people world-wide than WWI. But what may have helped lesson America's blow was a little blue bottle and it's contents - Vicks VapoRub.

Whereas the term, “a taste of home” means good home cooking to many people, in the home where I grew up, it could be said to be “the smell of home”. That was many years ago, yet the three menthol smelling over the counter (OTC) medications which precipitated this term, have remained icons of sorts for more than the last 100 years, collectively. The three products are: Vicks VapoRub, Bengay, and Tiger Balm, original formulas. Multiple generations in this nation and in other countries as well, have grown up with them. However, it is with the Vicks little blue bottle decongestant and how it helped save America during the 1918 Flu pandemic with which this article will concern itself.

A Little Background and History:

  A gentleman by the name of Lundsford Richardson having control over a family pharmacy business, in 1890 started experimenting with medical remedies. Out of these experiments grew the Vick brand of products which was named after his brother-in-law. Upon seeing the success of the product line in particular, he re-named the company the Vick Family Remedies Company.

By 1905, Richardson began marketing their one best selling product as “Magic Croup Salve” but in 1912 re-named it Vick'sVapoRub. As the principal product, it was branched out to wholesale dealers in Greensboro, North Carolina and with twenty additional products, the Vick Family Remedies Company became the best-selling medicinal OTC product in the entire state.

The Turning Point:

However, it was not until the infamous Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, that the product became world famous as it was the most effective OTC remedy which could be applied at that time to bring some relief to sufferers. In the previous year in1917, Lundsford's son, Smith, during a promotional campaign, had mailed out over 5 million samples of the product. It was well received as it seemed to open up the bronchial tubes to facilitate breathing for those having pneumonia and the gripe (as the flu is also known). By the time the deadly pandemic hit in 1918 and resurfaced in 1919, a lot of people in the United States already had on hand a small sample of Vicks and they knew what to reach for.

With millions of persons affected by the flu, (most of them being young adults and not the elderly or children), an estimated 50 million people, about 3% of the world's population (1.6 billion at the time), died of the disease, while another 500 million, or 1/3 became infected. The smell produced by most everyone either applying Vicks to the infected or others applying the product as a precautionary measure along with their face masks, was a common occurrence. The headlines printed by many newspapers across America ran: “call physician, apply Vicks VapoRub, go to bed, stay quiet and don’t worry.”

Unfortunately, for millions throughout Europe including the king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, they had no little sample of Vicks VaporRub. It can be said that they suffered much more and in the aftermath, Vicks came to be known internationally as “the little blue bottle that saved America”.

The supplies of Vicks VapoRub ran out. In North Carolina alone there were more than 13,000 persons dead as a result of that plague. In one day over 900,000 orders were placed, packaged and all filled by hand. As more orders came in, the company had to add night shifts thus inadvertently aiding in providing employment for displaced persons. Teachers found jobs at the factory after their schools had to be closed. Soldiers returning from World War I also found employment. To many persons at that time remembering the horrors of the pandemic, “Vicks VapoRub saved America.” The product shot to the tops of popularity.

With sales rising from $900,000. to $2.9 million in a single year, it quickly became an icon of sorts. “It saved the nation from the flu epidemic,” Greensboro resident Fred Preyer once said of the product invented by his grandfather, Lunsford Richardson. Eventually bought by Procter & Gamble, this product remains today found in just about every medicine cabinet in the United States and much of the rest of the world.

Ingredients and Use:

Vick's VapoRub,  manufactured by Proctor and Gamble, with major factories in India, is one of the best and most enduring of OTC medications ever produced. With it’s active ingredients being camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol, it’s fragrance or odor (depending on a person's likes or dislikes), is inescapable. Like Ben Gay and Tiger Balm, it lingers but it effectually brings long lasting relief.

Ease of Use: it is topical all the way. The indicated method of use being simply rub the gel on a congested chest with the hand. However, there are a lot more ways which this user has tried using this product for over some near fifty years.

As a child sufferer of bronchitis, many a night and several times during the day, my mother would dip her fingers in the little blue jar and scoop up one messy glob of the gel. Then holding her fingers over a lit candle, she would heat the gel and rub it all over my chest. The last step was then put a small cloth over my chest to keep the gel nice and warmly applied.

Another memory that this little jar conjures up is of me sitting down and leaning over a large pot of boiling hot water. With a towel or bed sheet over the head and covering the pot as well, a couple of tablespoons of the magic blue stuff would be dropped into the water. After a few stirs, she would begin her promptings - “Breath in deeply, deeply!” And viola! Effortless breathing would again be restored! At least for another 3-4 hours that night. The best part of all was that there always followed a hot lemonade with honey. There never was a sounder sleep wrought anywhere.

Effectiveness: After having been rubbed on a congested chest or around the nose when stuffed up, relief generally arrives within moments and lasts for several hours, approximately 3-4 hours. Long lasting? The jar now in front of me says that it’s expiration date is February 1999. No one told Vicks though. There are even older jars around the house and they all work as if new. Actually, once applied, depending on the individual, the remedy can last up to 4 hours before another application maybe needed. It is quick acting and one begins to feel relief almost as soon as it is applied.

Side Effects: None, except caution should be taken in not touching the eyes after the use of Vicks. They can sting quite a bit but no known lasting harm or damage. It is not recommended for infants or very small children as perhaps the vapor smell could be overpowering and they could get some of the gel into the eyes.

Comparison: There is a similar product at Walgreen drugstores, a store brand, which is almost identical in every respect and sells for about a dollar less amount than Vicks. Works just as effectively apparently.

Price: Not bad at all for all of the years that this gel remains active and effective. Around $4.98 a 1.76 oz. jar.

This little blue jar which "saved America" in the eyes of many persons, may not have had a crippling effect on the disease, but it certainly helped give relief and comfort to it's sufferers.  It is highly recommended and indeed, should be in everyone's medicine cabinet for treatment of a cold, flu or bronchitis.



Donald W. Patterson, 2009:


Authored by Beverly Anne Sanchez, Factoidz.Com, 2010


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Beverly Anne Sanchez

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