Smith's Rosebud Salve Is Everywhere — But Where The Hell Did It Come From?

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images.
Even in the absence of exact numbers, one can safely assume that there are very few lip balms housed in the archives at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, much less lip balms that are both housed in the archives at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and also available internationally at a wide range of mass retailers for under $10.
But while the formula has changed slightly over the past 126 years (and the price has since multiplied by about 24), the ubiquity of Smith's Rosebud Salve endures: in makeup artists' kits, in the faux vintage clutch of anyone who's ever been inside an Anthropologie store... and yes, in the case of one tin sold for 25 cents sometime between 1908 and 1962, deep in the annals of the Smithsonian.
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The apothecary-style salve-turned-beauty "must-have" has enjoyed a loyal following for well over a century. It's all the product of Dr. George F. Smith, a Maryland druggist who, according to a 1991 article written by his grandson, Allen R. Smith, Jr., accepted a "challenge" from friends to create an all-purpose skin salve. Dr. Smith's concoction was called Smith's Balsam of Rose Buds, which was later swapped out for the more succinct name of Rosebud Salve, and in 1895 he founded the Rosebud Perfume Company out of a small drugstore in Woodsboro, MD.
After gaining a local fan base with its salves and fragrances, the Rosebud Perfume Company began to operate not unlike the multi-level marketing companies of today. The ever-growing mail-order business saw over 70,000 agents going from door to door to sell the wares — including the Rosebud Salve — out of catalogs, with their efforts going toward rewards such as curtains, BB guns, silverware, phonographs, and old cylinder records, all thrilling and covetable "prizes" that seem not at all out of date or, in retrospect, kind of a weird list of things to choose from.
Those bygone premiums do help to emphasize just how long Rosebud Salve has been around — since when people wanted phonographs and BB guns so badly they'd go door to door selling salves. How, then, has Rosebud Salve stood the test of time? It is a simple preparation, cotton seed oil in a base of petrolatum with the signature soft, sweet rose aroma from which it gets its name. It is hydrating. It is smoothing. It smells nice, of course. It is good for all sorts of things: protecting chapped lips, soothing minor skin irritations, moisturizing dry cuticles, taking some of the sting out of an agonizingly itchy bug bite when you don't have anything to actually treat it because who are you, your dad?
But is the phenomenon of Rosebud Salve really so much about what's inside the tin as what the tin symbolizes? It is reminiscent of a simpler, folksier time, when you'd head on down to the soda fountain for a Coca-Cola and the druggist was also the mayor (true story!) and you'd get your all-purpose family salve for a quarter and maybe a cocaine prescription for your sore throat. Like frequenting brand-new bars with dark wood paneling and twee banjo performances on Thursday nights or collecting tin signs with the names of long-shuttered corner stores, it plays into a fantasy — a piece of 19th-century history that you can buy in the Urban Outfitters checkout line.
Dr. Smith's grandson described visiting the Rosebud Building, the imposing old hotel Dr. Smith repurposed just across the street from his original drugstore, as taking a "step back in time when living was at a more enjoyable pace." To this day, the Rosebud Company — still owned by the Smith family — bottles up that much-needed feeling, and sells it for $6.
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