Julia Longoria: This is The Experiment, I’m Julia Longoria. Last week, we brought you the final installment of our series about food, work and family, told through the history of spam. You know, the mystery meat that comes in the blue and yellow can. If you haven’t listened, go back three episodes and take an epic journey into the heart of spam. The iconic American food that’s eaten by people around the world. We learned it conjures strong emotions for people.
Speaker 1: All the Filipinos love Spam.
Julia Longoria: From Filipinos-
American G.I: It was used heavily by the troops.
Julia Longoria: -to American G.I.s.
Speaker 3: I think that’s where my dad got his taste for it.
Julia Longoria: It doesn’t do that for everyone we talked to. Did you ever eat spam?
Speaker 4: No. I can honestly tell you I’ve eaten spam once in my life. Only once, and that was it.
Julia Longoria: We spent time with the workers who help make spam today. Did you know that the company that you would be working for made Spam?
Speaker 6: Never.
Julia Longoria: Many of them are Latino
Speaker 7: [Spanish language]
Speaker 8: No.
Julia Longoria: For them, spam never really seemed to take off. Instead, it was another American product that captured their hearts. In our last episode, we told the story of how a mysterious illness plagued people who worked at the plant where spam was made.
Speaker 5: We’ve tried any remedy you could think of. Every type of ointment.
Julia Longoria: There seemed to be no relief for them except, oh my gosh, did he put Vicks VapoRub?
Speaker 5: Oh, of course, yes. That’s the staple [unintelligible 00:02:05] in the culture. You put VapoRub on everything.
Julia Longoria: Vicks VapoRub. That minty eucalyptus elixir you rub on your chest to make everything feel a little bit better. I actually reported on a story a while back, about how VapoRub, like spam, captivated an accidental market, including my own Cuban family. This week, we bring you a bonus episode. How Vicks VapoRub, born in the 1890s in the middle of North Carolina, also traveled around the world. I worked on this story with a reporter named Kenny Malone for a WNYC show called Only Human. Here’s Kenny.
Kenny Malone: This is the place where normally, we would have a warning about adult content or language. I think in this case, what we should say is we reached out to Vicks VapoRub for this story. It’s owned by Procter & Gamble now. The big message from them is only use Vicks VapoRub as directed. In other words, you should probably not do most of what we are about to talk about today. That said, I want to start by just playing you the moment that set this story into motion. I want you to open this, smell it and tell me the first thing that comes in your mind?
Julia Longoria: Okay.
Kenny Malone: This is our reporter, Julia Longoria, opening a jar of VapoRub
Julia Longoria: [sniffs] I really– it’s her house. In the spare room, in my grandma’s house.
Kenny Malone: Are you crying?
Julia Longoria: No.
Kenny Malone: It’s the Vicks?
Julia Longoria: Yes. One of my earliest memories was being dropped off at my grandma’s house for two weeks while my parents were away. I remember I got a pretty nasty flu, and it was the first time being sick away from my parents.
Kenny Malone: Julia remembered sleeping in the guest room. In walks grandma with a jar of Vicks VapoRub, and she just starts slathering it on, like she’s frosting a cake.
Julia Longoria: On my chest, right below my nose and inside of my nostrils. I remember I was like, “Get that away from me. This is terrible. It burns. This is not making things better.” She’d be like, “No. It’s okay.”
Kenny Malone: At the first sign of illness for Julia or for her sister Paula, grandma would grab the Vicks.
Julia Longoria: It was an ongoing thing where anytime any of the cousins got sick, they were like, “Don’t tell grandma, because she’s going to put that all over you.” When my sister would get sick, grandma would come at her with the Vicks. I remember being like, “You don’t need to do that.”
Kenny Malone: Jumping in front of her.
Julia Longoria: Get that away from her.
Kenny Malone: I’ll take the Vicks for you, Paula.
Julia Longoria: My grandma just turned 80, but I’d be willing to bet, my grandma’s 80 is not the 80 you’re thinking. This is a woman who in one year, underwent knee replacement surgery and took trips to China, New York City, and Paris. The woman defies expectation. One minute, she is designing high fashion dresses, the next, she’s starting spitball fights at dinner. Irreverent, intelligent. It’s like every week she’s telling us about a different novel she’s reading in English, her non-native tongue. All of this is to say my grandmother is no fool.
That’s why I can’t wrap my head around how or why the woman I’ve just described, worships a little blue jar of eucalyptus jelly. Of course, as a little kid, there was no reason to think grandma’s love affair with Vicks was unusual, but in hindsight, there were some pretty obvious clues. There was a time I remember walking into her bedroom and seeing four, five, maybe even six jars, strewn on her vanity. There’s the fact that grandma doesn’t actually call Vicks, Vicks. She only talks about her beloved ‘Vickicito’. She adds -ito as a mini love letter to the stuff.
Then maybe strangest of all, was that when she would stay at our house and take a shower, the bathroom would always reek of Vicks VapoRub afterwards. Whether or not she was sick. Now that I’m older, it occurs to me that actually, I have a lot of questions about grandma and her ‘Vickicito’. So I sent an audio recorder to my sister, Paula, who was with our grandma, and I called.
Paula: Nobody pick up the phone.
Julia Longoria: Just a few things to know before you hear this. Number one, my grandma is from Cuba, so I’m going to translate for her as she speaks in Spanglish. Number two, she’s got a little bit of a low voice, and number three, before I could even ask her why she loves Vicks so much, she said something that sent the conversation totally off the rails. Hello, grandma?
Grandma: Yes, this is grandma. Julia?
Julia Longoria: Hi, [Spanish language] Vickicito.
Grandma: Oh, Vickicito. Oh yes. Every time that you have a sore throat or feel like you are coughing, you say [Spanish language]
Julia Longoria: Right there. Vickicito is [Spanish language] Vicks is good for everything. I’m like, “Wait, what do you mean everything?” First, she’s like, you could put it on your chest because it’ll help with your cough. That makes sense. That’s on the label. Then she’s like, you can use it on your knee if you have a sore knee. That one’s also on the label, but then things start getting weird.
Grandma: [Spanish language]
Julia Longoria: For fungus. She says Vicks on your toenails will cure your toenail fungus. She says she puts it on her fingernails to stop them from breaking. You think it makes your nails stronger?
Julia Longoria: Then this is just insane to me.
Grandma: [Spanish language]
Julia Longoria: Wait, wait, wait. Grandma, you used to put it in your hair?
Grandma: Yes. Before you shampoo your hair,
Julia Longoria: Vicks VapoRub as hair conditioner. So I asked her, “Is this why the shower smelled like Vicks?” she said, “Oh no, I’m sure I’d stopped using Vicks as hair conditioner by then. It was probably because I was using it as hand and foot cream. The story of how my grandma ended up using Vicks literally from head to toe turns out to be a story about Cuba, or at least that’s what she hinted at in our conversation. What’s your earliest memory of Vicks?
Grandma: Oh my gosh. I think I grew up with that when was I very little.
Julia Longoria: She said she grew up with it when she was very little. Which was surprising to me because grandma doesn’t talk much about her past. About her childhood, or life in Cuba. She was 30 when she and her family left, in 1967. I feel like Cuba for her, it’s like when we’re watching TV together, she’ll always pick Everybody Loves Raymond, over any HBO drama I want to watch. She goes, “Why are we going to choose to watch ugly things? Life has enough ugly things already. I’m pretty sure for her, Cuba is one of those ugly things. I wonder when the embargo started, did you still get Vicks?
Grandma: [Spanish language]
Julia Longoria: She’s like, “Sometimes, it was there, and sometimes it wasn’t. If it was there, I used it.”
Grandma: [Spanish language]
Julia Longoria: I ask her if there was a time when there wasn’t Vicks, and she says, “That’s right, but then it came back. I don’t remember very well, after the Bay of Pigs.”
Grandma: [Spanish language]
Julia Longoria: I know that may not sound like much, but I’m almost positive that, that was the first time my grandma ever said the words Bay of Pigs out loud to me. That’s when the US tried to invade Cuba in 1961. She was still living there at that point. We’ve never talked about that, or the revolution or her childhood. Nothing. In college, I became obsessed with Cuba. I did my thesis on Cuban bloggers, and last year, I went to Cuba for the first time. I haven’t really talked to grandma about any of this. It’s weird because I think of us as close, but I guess I don’t know much about her as the person, pre-grandmama.
The whole thing is making me nervous. All four of my grandparents fled Cuba and grandma is the last one still living. I’ve never known how to start the Cuba conversation. If Vicks VaporRub is a foot in the door, it’s better than nothing. So I asked her if she’d be willing to sit down in person, and talk more about this Vicks stuff and maybe Vicks in Cuba. “I don’t know, we should do that when we’re together again.”
Grandma: “Okay. Maybe another day.”
Julia Longoria: Okay. Grandma was scheduled to come visit me in New York in a few months, and she promised she’d sit down with me, and tell me the rest of the story.
Kenny Malone: Up next, it turns out lots of people are using Vicks in creative ways. We go across the country and through time searching for answers and may have actually found some. This is Kenny again.
Julia Longoria: And Julia, and since my grandma and I spoke, we’ve learned that grandma is, by no means the only one using Vicks in unusual ways.
Kenny Malone: For example, one of the first things that comes up when you google Vicks VaporRub is this. I printed it out. 12 surprising uses for Vicks VaporRub. To keep mosquitoes away, to speed up healing and disinfect paper cuts, to make a tick release its jaws from your flesh, and as Julia’s grandmother suggested, to help heal toenail fungus.
Vicks Customer Care Representative: Thank you for calling Vicks.
Kenny Malone: Apparently, this is so widespread, the Vicks customer service line has an option just to tell you not to do this.
Vicks: Wondering if VapoRub can be used on toenail fungus? Press four. We do not recommend using VapoRub for the treatment–
Kenny Malone: We know the reason that Julia grandma uses Vicks for all kinds of things has something to do with Cuba. That’s the story that Julia was still waiting to sit down and talk to her about. In the meantime, we thought maybe we could try and figure out why other people seem to think Vicks can cure everything.
Julia Longoria: We made a bunch of phone calls, emailed a bunch of scholars, and came up mostly empty-handed. One expert suggested that this might even make a great PhD thesis someday. We decided to head to the source. The birthplace of Vicks, Greensboro, North Carolina. I learned there are some old archives there. I think we got about as close to an answer as we could have hoped for.
Elise: This is our manuscript collection relating to the company.
Julia Longoria: Thank you. To set the scene for you, I’m in an appointment-only room in the back of the Greensboro History Museum. It’s got white walls, fluorescent lights, it’s freezing. An archivist named Elise has dropped two giant boxes on a long wooden conference table.
Speaker 10: What all is that?
Elise: This collection is a mix of family and company materials.
Julia Longoria: Sitting across from me are two members of the Vicks family. Britt Preyer is the great-grandson of the inventor.
Britt Preyer: That’s pretty funny. I have never seen that.
Julia Longoria: Alice is his wife.
Alice: Yes, it seems like I have seen that.
Kenny Malone: So it’s a collection of company graphs and pie charts and stuff?
Julia Longoria: No. It’s coupons and advertising pamphlets. They’re even family photos and family letters.
Britt: “My dear mama, today, a very bad thing happened in school. A boy got his leg broke.” Man, that is old.
Julia Longoria: What else was in that box?
Britt: Oh, a lot of things there.
Kenny Malone: Here’s just a quick history of Vicks. VaporRub was invented in the 1890s by a pharmacist named Lunsford Richardson. The story goes that he made it to treat his son, a baby who had croup cough. It worked well enough that he started selling the stuff. Lore has it that Lunsford Richardson didn’t think his name would fit on the side of the jar, and so he put his brother-in-law’s name, Dr. Vick. Now, the product really took off in 1918 when the Spanish flu broke out. Ironically, the Vicks inventor died during that same outbreak.
Julia Longoria: Now, as far as we can tell, the original purpose of Vicks was to treat cold and cough. However, in those boxes of stuff, I found a couple of documents from about a decade after the Spanish flu epidemic. They seemed to show a pretty surprising change in the company. What is this?
Speaker 11: Summer schedule, it’s for their summer advertising.
Julia Longoria: We found what looked like a series of advertisements that the company wanted to run in the summer. They told people to use Vicks for some unusual things. Bee stings, bug bites.
Elise: Burns, sore throats, hay fever.
Julia Longoria: Then there was a letter attached. Oh my God. Wait. It says, “Since our product is generally known and used for cold troubles, our sales rapidly decline during the warm summer season.” Did you read that? The implication was that sales were dropping, and the solution was to say, “You can use Vicks on a whole lot more than just your coughing baby.” During that decade, the on-label uses for Vicks VaporRub exploded.
Speaker 12: Poison ivy [inaudible 00:15:52] stains with it. For animals, pleurisy in horses, colds [unintelligible 00:15:56] distemper in dogs, snuffles in rabbits.
Julia Longoria: That big list of uses Vicks was pushing back then included using Vicks VaporRub for scratches, mosquitoes, poison ivy. It reads almost exactly like a modern list of 12 surprising uses for Vicks VaporRub. Now, we can’t draw a direct connection between today and that moment, but at the same time, if the question is, why are people using Vicks for all kinds of crazy things, it may well be because decades ago, Vicks was telling people to use Vicks for all kinds of crazy things.
Kenny Malone: This would’ve been the late 1920s, 1930s, Vicks wouldn’t have been the only over-the-counter medicine making these kinds of claims. Over time, the company grew up, maybe because the FDA also grew up, and by the 1960s, it was back to basics.
Speaker 13: Poor baby, all stuffed up with a miserable cold.
Kenny Malone: Basics, and some pretty amazing advertisements.
Speaker 13: What should you do?
Speaker 14: Put her to bed. Put her to bed.
Speaker 13: Stop, never go to bed with a cold without Vicks VaporRub.
Kenny Malone: In 1985, just about 90 years after Lunsford Richardson whipped up his first batch of VaporRub, the company was purchased by Proctor and Gamble, for a reported $1.2 billion. We asked P&G how many jars of VaporRub they’re selling these days, they didn’t give us a specific answer, but according to a trade publication called the Drug Store News, P&G sold more than 9 million units of Vicks VaporRub in 2015. That’s just in the United States, 1 of more than 60 countries where you can now buy Vicks VaporRub.
Julia Longoria: Before sitting down with grandma, there was something she’d mentioned in our first conversation that I needed to understand. She seemed to imply that there was some connection between Vicks VaporRub and the Bay of Pigs invasion?
Reporter: The assault has begun on the dictatorship of Fidel Castro.
Julia Longoria: Just a little refresher. In 1961, the United States tried to overthrow Fidel Castro. This was about two years after he’d taken power. The US trained a small militia of Cuban exiles to invade their former country and oust Castro.
Reporter: The rebellion against the red team’s dictator was on.
Julia Longoria: The invasion failed spectacularly, and Castro captured around 1100 people.
Reporter: Have you heard much from your husband since he’s been in prison?
Speaker 15: I too much nervous.
Julia Longoria: They stayed in Cuba’s prisons for almost two years. Just before Christmas in 1962, the US and Cuba finalized a deal to free the majority of the prisoners.
Reporter: What do you think about the release of all your companions?
Speaker 16: I think this is a wonderful thing.
Julia Longoria: The reason this is important to our story is that the US paid an unusual ransom for the hostages. It wasn’t cash. The prisoners were exchanged for about $50 million in food and medical supplies. Everything from Listerine to aspirin, to surgical equipment. As best we can tell, in that ransom was a whole lot of Vicks VaporRub. You could sit there.
Grandma: Are we talking about Vicks? Vickicito?
Julia Longoria: Yes, we’re talking about Vickicito. It’s two months later, grandma’s in New York and we’re sitting down in a studio at WNYC.
Grandma: I think I got nervous.
Julia Longoria: You shouldn’t be nervous. I know it’s weird, but it’s like we’re sitting at home, whatever. We just never do this. I’ve always thought of grandma as this fearless matriarch who started a new life in a new country as a young woman. It’s so strange to see her nervous like this. Do you remember– what’s your first memory of Vicks?
Grandma: Oh, when I was very young and then I got a cold, my mother, she used to put Vicks, and then you have to be in your room.
Julia Longoria: Do you remember what your room looked like?
Grandma: My bedroom side was pink with flowers painted, and I have my pink cover for my bed. I have a good life when I was young.
Julia Longoria: Grandma grew up near one of the most beautiful beach towns in Cuba called Varadero. She and my grandpa met on the beach. He was a friend of her big brothers. I have this black and white picture hanging in my room of the two of them sitting on the sand. Grandma’s got one of those ’50s Halter bathing suits with little buttons down the middle, [unintelligible 00:20:31] got his hair slicked back. They’re both smiling this stylish, effortless smile. She was 21 years old when the revolution came.
Grandma: Oh, that was unbelievable. What happened there, let me tell you. Unbelievable. That is another point.
Julia Longoria: What do you mean?
Grandma: It’s another point because with the revolutions and all that, that makes you– and that was really hard, was a very hard time.
Julia Longoria: What do you mean? What do you remember when you say it was a hard time?
Grandma: It’s really scary. Right away, everything disappears. You go to the grocery, there was nothing. It was a very, very hard time.
Julia Longoria: Then when all those medical supplies came in–
Grandma: Oh my God, people get crazy. You have to see the lines, all the farmers to people get–
Julia Longoria: Was that when you started using Vicks in different ways like for conditioner and stuff like that or?
Grandma: Yes, because I remember when Castro took power in Cuba, that you can’t find any hands cream or anything. Then I find out that when I use it for my kids, and I put it in my hands, oh, my hands look softer. I said, “Oh, this’s good for the skin too.”
Julia Longoria: Then what else? After that, how did you get to put it on–?
Grandma: Then I remember when I was in Cuba, the soap there was very hard and then the water wasn’t good. Then my nails start to break a lot and I said, “Oh, gosh my hands are big and not pretty,” but I like to have my nails to look nice. Then I start to use that to my nails and I said, “Oh my God, my nails look much better.”
Julia Longoria: Grandma, I don’t think your hands are ugly. I actually think about your hands as like, “I want to have beautiful hands like grandma.” I always think that, for real.
Grandma: No, I compare my hands with my friends I said, “Oh my God, my hands are so big.”
Julia Longoria: I do have the same thing actually. Then you said– did you use it for fungus? When was the first time?
Grandma: Yes, I had fungus then I noticed that they start to get better.
Julia Longoria: But it was on your toes, right? How did you get from the point of like–
Grandma: Well, if it is good for your hands, it has to be good for your feet too, so I start to use it.
Julia Longoria: It was the worst period of your life when you were using Vicks in all these crazy ways. If that were me, it would bring back horrible memories and I might never want to see it again, right?
Grandma: Yes, right.
Julia Longoria: But you embrace it now?
Grandma: Oh, yes, because that always made me feel good. When I was sick, like I said, it was working for me, so even in my hard times. Well, I love that.
Julia Longoria: Hold on, I can’t be crying in this part.
Grandma: Try Vicks. Smell Vicks.
Julia Longoria: When I get one whiff of Vicks, I am transported back to my room at grandma’s house. I see my pink and teal bedspread, I hear grandma opening the door to say good morning and sing me Las Mañanitas loudly and off tune. I laugh and throw pillows at her, she throws them right back at me. Vicks takes me to my origins, a place of comfort, and silliness, and joy.
I never thought about where Vickicito must transport grandma. I always figured her obsession with an American product must be another way she’d assimilated and left her past behind. All this time, this stuff has been bringing her back to her own beginnings, to her own pink room. The place where she learned what comfort is. When I was going back and listening to the tape, I found this one wonderful moment. It happened when I had to step out of the studio for a second and I left grandma by herself.
Julia Longoria: Hold on one second. Let me just– I’ll be right back.
Julia Longoria: While I stepped out, grandma picked up a little container of Vicks I had in the studio. She unscrewed the lid and just enjoyed the smell for a while.
Grandma: Oh, I love this.
Julia Longoria: It’s hard to hear but grandma just said, “I love this.”
Grandma: Oh, I love this.
Kenny Malone: Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was edited by Ben Adair. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, Mary Harris, Elaine Chen, Julia Longoria, Jillian Weinberger, and Christopher Johnson. Our technical director is Cayce Means. Tony Phillips is WNYC’s Vice President of On-Demand Content. Special thanks this week to Jim Ratzenberger, Ashley Kaufman, and the Greensboro History Museum. Some of the archival audio you heard in this episode comes from the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives.
A very, very special thanks this week to Julia grandmother, who brought us some of the most delicious [Spanish language] you could ever imagine. I’m Kenny Malone, and we’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks.
Speaker 17: Support for WNYC’s health coverage and Only Human is provided by the Charina Endowment Fund, Jane and Gerald Katcher, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Winston Foundation.
Julia Longoria: Two little elves named Blix and Blee lived in the shade of the jub-jub tree. In a little glasshouse as round as pie, as clean as a whistle, and blue as the sky. For they made their home by the old jub-jub in an empty jar of Vicks VapoRub. [laughs]
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