When you hear the words “snake oil”, you probably immediately think of a huckster trying to peddle phony medicine; sometimes politicians use the term to slander their opponents as “snake oil salesman”. But where did this term come from? We looked into its history and found some very interesting stuff – check it out, won’t you?
The Original Snake Oil Was Chinese Medicine
Snakes and snake oil actually have a long history in Western medicine. Snake was an ingredient in medicinal solutions used by the ancient Greeks, and a staff of one or two snakes is used by medical organizations around the world.
But actual snake oil is thought to have come to the West as its own special elixir with the arrival of Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush and building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid-1800s. The popular theory is that Chinese laborers brought with them oil from the Enhydris chinensis (aka Chinese water snake) that they would rub on their skin to treat joint pain. They then gave it to their American co-workers, who marveled at its alleged effectiveness.
In the 1980s, a psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology named Richard Kunin was interested in snake oil and put it under the microscope. He found that Chinese water snakes contained a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, more than 3 times than American snakes. Modern medicine concludes that these omega-3s are indeed good for joint pain, reducing blood pressure, and can even help with depression.
This has lead to many articles suggesting that this Chinese snake oil did indeed work and it was the American bastardization (using rattlesnake oil, which has less omega-3s) that made it ineffective. However, what these journalists forget is that omega-3s must be ingested, not rubbed on the body for any of these benefits to take effect. Therefore, both the Chinese and Americans that rubbed it on their body were likely experiencing the placebo effect, which has been shown to help people perceive less pain.
The Medicine Show
Helping spread the popularity of snake oil was what were called medicine shows, which were a group of traveling performers who would go from town to town selling a variety of potions an elixirs with great fanfare. First, advance men were sent in to generate hype and then as the crowds gathered they were treated to circus-like acts, and finally a Lecture by the “medicine man”.
Often, there would be assistants dressed as Quakers to make it seem more honest as well as Native Americans to tout the cure’s natural benefits. Also in the crowds would be shills who would pretend to have various ailments, only to be “cured” by taking the medicine. By the time it was discovered that these potions didn’t work, the medicine show was on to the next town.
A man named Clark Stanley, who called himself the Rattle Snake King travelled through the West claiming to sell a snake oil treatment derived from the Moki Pueblo Indians. In 1893, he showed up at the World’s Exposition in Chicago and slit a rattler open, plunging it into boiling water. He then skimmed the fat off the top and sold bottles of Stanley’s Snake Oil to the enthralled crowd.
Patent Medicine and Advertising
The rise of these medicine shows and snake oil coincided with exploding popularity of what was called patent medicine in the late 1800s. These weren’t really patented because that would require releasing their ingredients, but because newspapers became more available and advertising space relatively cheap, many manufacturers would sell mixtures that contained some benign ingredients (but also alcohol and opiates). The ads would contain fake testimonials and make unsubstantiated claims they could cure a variety of diseases, including cancer.
Typical ad for patent medicine. (Image credit: Wikipedia)
Due to the increasing number of patent medicines that were at least ineffective, often addictive, and some downright deadly, a reform movement called the “Progressives” sought federal regulation. A series of articles written by Samuel Hopkins Adams in 1905-1906 in Collier’s Magazines called them the “Great American Fraud” and its publication is credited for helping pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
The End of Snake Oil?
Although the Pure Food and Drug Act succeeded in requiring the ingredients being listed on the label and prevented hucksters from making false claims about their products. The Act was vigorously opposed by companies selling these products, and it took several amendments (the Shireley Amendment and the Harrison Narcotic Act) to get them to truly limit their ingredients and fraudulent claims.
In 1917, the US Government seized and tested Stanley’s Snake Oil and found it contained no actual snake oil at all. Instead it contained mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper, turpentine, and camphor.
Interestingly, red pepper contains capsaicin, which is now prescribed by doctors and used topically as a painkiller and to treat arthritis. So maybe Stanley’s Snake Oil really did work after all…?
The history of snake oil has interesting twists through ancient remedies, placebos, patent medicine, and the passing of the Food and Drug Act, leading to the creation of the FDA (which we talk more about here).
Although there were many powders, pills, drinks, potions, and elixirs containing a variety of ingredients, it wasn’t until at least the 1930s when the terms “snake oil” and “snake oil salesman” began to appear in literature and popular culture.
Nowadays the term is synonymous with any kind of remedy that doesn’t really work. While out and out fraud is illegal, “snake oil salesmen” are still peddling their wares, albeit in a more subtle form. But the more things change, the more they stay the same! For more information, read our article on Anatomy of a Nutritional Supplement!
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