The Truth About Calvin Coolidge's Strange Obsession With Vaseline

Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, from 1923-1929. The Roaring Twenties' freewheeling, high-spirited vibe apparently didn't reach the Oval Office; Coolidge was noted for his somber, taciturn personality, which earned him the nickname "Silent Cal, for his quiet, steadfast and frugal nature," according to History. During this time of massive change and societal transformation, "Coolidge served as a sort of father figure," says History, "a comforting symbol of old-fashioned responsibility and virtue." There was one luxury in which Coolidge was known to indulge, however. According to the 1998 book White House Confidential: The Little Book of Weird Presidential History, the clean-shaven Silent Cal liked "having his head rubbed with petroleum jelly while he ate his breakfast in bed," for health reasons.

Coolidge had some interesting ideas about health in general. The website Medicare Supplement ranks him as the 22nd healthiest president in history, earning a grade of C and receiving the dubious distinction of "pickiest eater of all presidents" with a diet that consisted mainly of "roast beef, Vermont pickles, and corn muffins." His exercise routine was equally odd; an enthusiastic horseback rider, he despaired when the Secret Service made him stop riding and, per the Washington Post, obtained an electric-powered mechanical horse that "looked like a barrel with a neck, and it was made of wood, metal and leather." Coolidge reportedly rode three times a day and "took his riding very seriously."

Vaseline: The Wonder Jelly

Calvin Coolidge had some unusual health habits, but he wasn't alone in using petroleum jelly on his head. According to Vaseline Arabia, in 1859, a British chemist named Robert Augustus Chesebrough traveled to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where petroleum had just been discovered. Chesebrough "became intrigued by a naturally-occurring byproduct of the oil drilling process that seemed to have remarkable skin-restoring properties." By 1872 he'd trademarked the name "Vaseline," thought to be "a combination of the German word for water, wasser, and the Greek word for oil, oleon," and referred to his invention as "the wonder jelly."

Vaseline became extremely popular almost immediately, and within two years one jar per minute was sold across the United States. Robert Peary reportedly brought Vaseline with him on his historical North Pole expedition "to keep his skin safe and restored" because Vaseline doesn't freeze. World War I soldiers brought it with them into the trenches to treat cuts and burns. Vaseline's status as a pomade or hair tonic had been around since its beginnings, but by the 1950s, Vaseline's use in scalp massage and hair grooming was entirely mainstream.

Quiet, respectable Silent Cal may well have been a trendsetter after all — at least, when it came to his love of rubbing Vaseline all over his head.