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Bag Balm® is a salve or ointment currently used for a variety of purposes. It was invented in 1899 to apply topically to cow udders when the skin had been damaged or abraded by the process of milking. Since then, its use has grown and it is now commonly used by people.
The formula used for original Bag Balm® was purchased by John L. Norris of Lyndonville, Vermont from its originator who lived in Wells River, Vermont. It was Mr. Norris who designed the packaging still used today: a small green cubic can with red lettering, red clover, and a cow’s head on the lid. Upon the death of John L. Norris in 1934, his son, also named John, took over the business. John Jr.’s daughter Barbara is currently in charge of the organization, whose name is Dairy Association Co., Inc. and which is still located in Lyndonville.
The use of Bag Balm® for animals apparently led people to wonder if it would work for them, too. People experimented with Bag Balm® when they had skin that was dry, chapped, irritated, or chaffed. And the good results led to the spread of the ointment as a topical application for humans.
According to Fisher’s Contact Dermatitis by Robert L. Rietschel, Bag Balm® once contained mercury compounds. Today, however, the active ingredient is 8-Hydroxyquinoline Sulphate 0.3% which is delivered in a petrolatum lanolin base. It is not exactly when the formulation changed.
Famous proponents of Bag Balm® use include Admiral Byrd, who took it to the North Pole in 1937 for use on the animals that made the journey. The product was famously used on the paws of search dogs who worked in the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11. Bag Balm® is also included in care packages sent to U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq—at their particular request.
Bag Balm® is recommended by professionals for the saddle sores of bicyclers, the pricked fingers of quilters, and the chapped hands of gardeners. It is also used to soothe the skin of chemotherapy patients. Shania Twain is one of the best-known users. She says that she uses it both on her face and in her hair. Charles Kuralt features Bag Balm® on his series On the Road in 1983 and included it in his 1985 book.
When I was a kid in the 1940s-50s, with a genealogy of small dairy farmers on both sides of the family, bag balm was readily available in all the local stores and in our home medicine cabinet. It contained [gasp] a tiny amount of mercury! And it was effective for healing minor scrapes. Yes, mercury is toxic. That's why it worked!
When the formula was changed, and hydroquinoline sulfate was substituted for the mercuric compound, bag balm became almost useless. Safe, sure, but useless.
The lanolin-petrolatum combination still helps a little on chapped skin, but it's very messy, and it rubs off on everything you touch. As a soothing ointment for chapped hands, rub the balm onto your hands just before bed time and pull on disposable surgical gloves to keep from smearing the bed clothes with the sticky balm.