Wednesday 22 September 2021

Time warping by menthol

On the left, this post gestating

Vicks VapoRub, well over a hundred years old, now has a new label. As with many modernised product names the marketeers have over-elaborated: two type faces plus an impressionistic cloud over the lower-case a. Floating above in a white cloud is the company logo.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not nostalgic for the past. The new jar, still blue but plastic instead of glass, is probably easier to spot on the pharmacy shelves. And that matters to the customer as well as to the manufacturer. I didn't buy our present jar. I was coughing my head off with a chronic lung irritation and daughter PB, acting as my nurse, gathered a whole range of specifics in the hope that one would reduce my explosions.

I didn't read the instructions (yes, I know you should) I did what I've always done: smeared the unguent on my chest and then inhaled. Well aware that this would not cure anything but that the powerful smell of menthol would provide the sensation of healing. A kind of searing yet helpful rush up the nostrils, taking me back to the days of my extreme youth when everyone said I was suffering from one of my regular attacks of bronchitis, except, retrospectively, VR, who says more likely it was asthma.

I was most ill when I was young – ie, during WW2. These occasions had a ritualistic quality. I was moved from my bed into my mother’s, and a fire was lit in the bedroom grate. I lay there weak, weedy and inert; wanting nothing, not even a book to read. On one occasion I was attacked by a normally fatal malady which could easily have killed me off.

Suppose that had happened. Would this post have been written, or even imagined? I’ll ponder that.


  1. One of my sisters grew up with asthma, and was hospitalized more than once. I often wondered how it shaped her young mind. What insights or character traits did you develop from growing up with a chronic illness that left you "weak, weedy and inert" repeatedly?

    I'm sad that Vicks now has a plastic bottle instead of glass.

    1. Colette: To this day I can't be sure whether I was subject to bronchitis or asthma. Whatever, I had a minimum of two attacks a year, the attacks lasted exactly five days, the first two nights I was subject to delirious nightmares - screeching music and flashing primary colours. Terrifying.

      In those days doctors used to visit the school a couple of times a year. Told about my problem after several years of attacks the doctor said: "Take cod liver oil." Although I find - even to this day - the taste of CLO the worst in the world, I took it and the attacks stopped, never to return.

      Youth is resilient and although the memories are still vivid I'm fairly sure I shrugged off the after-effects. As to what shapes us in life the underlying theme of my first "real" novel, Gorgon Times, is that the work we do is the strongest influence on what we become. I became a journalist at age 16 and I still have all the traits and unpleasant tendencies of that profession even now, twenty-six years into retirement.

  2. Ah, Vapour Rub. I remember it well from my own youth. My rural mother would rub it over my chest and throat then seal it in with brown paper sprinkled with vinegar. Looking back, I guess that the "sealing in" would have been counter productive. leading to less menthol fumes getting to my nose. But farming rural communities back then thought the benefits were absorbed through the skin into the chest.

    1. Avus: Gotta spell it correctly - VapoRub. I was slightly surprised to discover it's made by the pharmaceuticals giant, Proctor and Gamble. And that P&G - such an English combination of surnames - is in fact American.

      I think you're right about sealing in the odour nullifying the effect. I see the instruction label on the back of the jar has been brought up to date. The unguent should not be stuffed up the nostrils (I can remember that being recommended). More alarming, patients should not heat up VapoRub in a microwave - who on earth would be tempted to do that?

      As well as menthol the constituents include camphor, eucalyptus oil and turpentine - a real witch's brew

    2. I think VapoRub is a more modern version of the original spelling of the name. Perhaps when an American company bought the old English firm.

  3. I remember also having my head over a steaming bowl of Friars Balsam dissolved in hot water and with a towel over my head to concentrate the fumes. I'm tempted to have a go at cod liver oil - at any one time I am convinced that I have contracted some dreadful malady and am on constant alert for symptoms = perhaps COL may mollify that tendency?