One hundred years after a pharmacist mixed the first batch of Magic Croup Salve, later renamed Vicks VapoRub, mothers are still tucking sick children into bed with a smear of the gooey, aromatic concoction. One of America’s most enduring cold remedies, Vicks VapoRub still comes in the same distinctive blue jar and still unclogs millions of stuffed noses with its unmistakable vapors.
It is little changed from the mix of menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oil in a petrolatum base that Lunsford Richardson created at his Greensboro, N.C., pharmacy in 1890.
People under the weather with colds or the flu smear the vaporizing salve on their chests or throats or dab it under their noses for congestion relief. Generations of children recall it as their mothers’ favorite cure-all.
In the early days, the Richardson family used coffee pots to pour warm salve from large kettles into small jars. Vap-O-Rub salesmen in a fleet of Ford Model T’s traveled the countryside searching for customers, tacking advertisements high up on barns and trees with ladders provided for the job.
Today, Vicks VapoRub is sold in more than 100 countries and is made at more than a dozen plants around the world, from its birthplace in North Carolina to factories in Mexico, India and Australia.
More than 1 million gallons of VapoRub are sold worldwide each year, according to its maker, Richardson-Vicks Inc. Nearly four out of five Americans have used the product at one time.
But as VapoRub enters its 100th year of fighting colds, Richardson-Vicks is trying to stem a long sales decline by touting it as something more than an old-fashioned remedy.
U.S. sales of VapoRub began falling off in the late 1960s as consumers began turning to new over-the-counter cold remedies once available only by prescription, said Debra Bennetts, spokeswoman for Richardson-Vicks at its Connecticut headquarters.
In 1967, Richardson-Vicks introduced NyQuil, a nighttime cold medicine that is now the company’s top seller.
VapoRub sales kept falling in the 1980s, dropping by nearly 10% in 1987-88 to a level maintained for the next two years, Bennetts said.
The company, acquired by Proctor & Gamble Co. in 1985, would not provide actual sales figures. But sales appear to be better this year thanks to an ad campaign aimed at older people unable to take oral decongestants and cough remedies because they take medication for heart disease or high blood pressure.
“Who cares if you’ve got high blood pressure and catch a cold?” the ad reads. “We care.”