I’ll start this piece with an h/t to Wikipedia which helped with many of the details here on bag balm.

My first thought with the prompt “Balm” was bag balm. Bag balm refers to a salve consisting primarily of Vaseline and lanolin and often an antibiotic. Mercury at one point was used as the antibacterial agent but something called 8-hydroxyquinoline is currently in the formula. I know this name has a disturbingly familiar ring to it these days, but it is definitely not related to the antimalarial drug that was touted by an ex-president as a cure for COVID-19. 

Bag balm was developed in 1899 and was used to treat irritation on cow’s udders. Prior to milking machines teats repeatedly pulled on twice a day could result in the need for a soothing balm. Annoying a cow by pulling on her raw teats could easily result in a swift kick which sometimes resulted in the milk pail getting dumped over. And sometimes the resulting bovine assault meant that a manure-coated hoof might wind up in the milk pail. There is something to ponder with your next milk and cookies though in this day and age of course milking machines are used exclusively making the whole milking process much more sanitary along of course with pasteurization.

My personnel connection with bag balm dates back to my childhood. I grew up on a farm, but my family did not milk cows that I remember but one of my uncles about a mile down the road from us did and we got milk (yes, raw milk) and freshly churned butter from him. I would on rare occasions help with the milking done by hand since the expense of a milking machine was not worth it for one or two cows. There was always a tin of bag balm in the barn and was used primarily for irritated teats. The lanolin smell that wafted from the colorful tin of balm is firmly etched in my memory. The lanolin component is a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals, sheep in particular. For sheep, often out in open rainy pastures it acts as a great waterproofing agent.

We did though have sheep on my farm and sheep shearing in the spring was an activity I watched with interest from a bit of a distance but never participated in. A couple of guys were hired as sheep shearers and I did recall it was a greasy affair. I do remember that these guys were shirtless but wearing nothing much but bib overalls since they would get quite coated with lanolin as the process proceeded. My interest was most certainly not in the sheep shearing itself but rather the partially clothed men engaging in the activity.

Bag balm of course has many uses and can be easily purchased today still in the distinctive green tin with a cow’s head and red clovers on the lid. Some of its many uses include addressing squeaky bed springs, treating psoriasis, dry facial skin, chapped hands, burns, zits, diaper rash, saddle sores, sunburns, etc. Most recently it has been used by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and was used on the paws of cadaver sniffing dogs post 9/11. I expect the military uses today in the middle east are similar to its use in WWII when it was used to keep mechanical weapon parts lubed and functional.

One final use I’ll relate for bag balm is as a lubricant for use by the male gender when self-pleasuring oneself. An activity for which a soothing balm is often desirable. One should though be cognizant of the distinct and persistent odor of lanolin which for those in the know could prompt embarrassing questions as to why you smell like wet wool.