The term “snake oil salesman” is often used to describe someone dishonest and untrustworthy. But where did this term come from? And was it always used in a negative light?
This blog post will explore the term’s origins and discuss how it has evolved. We will also look at how the word is portrayed in popular culture.
The Origins of Snake Oil Explored
The origins of the term “snake oil salesman” are somewhat murky. However, hearing the words makes anyone’s skin crawl with unpleasantness. The term “snake oil” is often used to describe a worthless, fake medical remedy promoted as a cure-all for many illnesses. By extension, a snake-oil salesman is a person who sells these useless products for a quick profit before fleeing the scene to escape the backlash.
These elixirs, tonics, and salves often contained questionable ingredients, such as mineral oil, alcohol, cocaine, and opium. So, these products were fake, but they were addictive to those who fell prey to the nonsense. In some cases, these products might have had a small amount of natural snake oil. However, the active ingredient in snake oil, Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), is not known to have many medicinal properties, but it is an omega-3 fatty acid.
For centuries snake oil has been a folk remedy used in Chinese Traditional medicine to treat joint pain. The use of snake oil dates back to the Transcontinental Railroad days of the 1860s when Chinese laborers were brought over to work on the project.
America’s Belief in Snake Oil
However, the belief in snake oil did not start with the Chinese laborers. Native American tribes like the Choctaw were also using snake oil. For example, in 1820, the tribe used snake oil to treat cuts, burns, rheumatism, and other ailments. The oil was also believed to have healing properties for respiratory problems, such as colds and bronchitis.
During the 1800s, there was a general belief in the power of “earthly” remedies. This was a time before modern medicine, and people were desperate for anything that might ease their suffering. So, when someone came along promising a cure-all, people were quick to believe it.
When Chinese immigrants came to work for the Transcontinental Railroad, all 180,000 would have brought this remedy with them. Most immigrants came from peasant families and couldn’t afford to see a doctor. So, they would have used various homemade remedies like snake oil to self-medicate.
This remedy came from the Chinese Water Snake, which was rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which naturally help reduce inflammation, so snake oil in its original form effectively managed the effects of arthritis and bursitis. After a long day’s work, the Chinese workers would rub the snake oil on their joints, offering it to the American workers partnering with them.
Because of this practice, Americans got to experience the effectiveness of snake oil. It wasn’t long before entrepreneurs in the United States started making and selling their version of snake oil. Entrepreneurs had to get creative since the United States did not have Chinese Water Snakes.
The Rise of the Snake Oil Salesman
With the belief in snake oil came the snake oil salesman. These were often traveling salesmen who would go from town to town peddling their wares. Unfortunately, these profiteers often targeted vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the sick. During this time, “patent medicines,” which were remedies sold on the back pages of newspapers, were all the rage.
In many ways, these salesmen were the predecessors of today’s infomercials. They would make grandiose claims about their products and often used fear tactics to sell their wares. One such snake oil salesman was Clark Stanley. He was known as the “Rattlesnake King” and claimed that his Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment could cure anything. He traveled around the United States dressed as a cowboy and put on shows.
How Snake Oil Was Typically Prepared
So, how was this fake medicine typically prepared? In most cases, the snake oil salesman would take a dead snake and boil it down to extract the fats from the concoction. Unfortunately, this process would often leave behind a foul-smelling, brown liquid that did not look like the clear, greenish-yellow oil found in a live snake. This was how Clark Stanley made his sales and became the prototypical snake oil salesman.
The United States Government Steps In
Of course, we now know that snake oil does not have any magical properties. However, the placebo effect can be powerful. Many experts speculate this is how snake oil salespeople were able to dupe so many people for so long. However, it soon became apparent that snake oil was nothing more than a fraud. There is no evidence that Stanley’s cure-all had any medicinal properties whatsoever.
Eventually, the United States government stepped in and passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. This was the first time that the government had to regulate food and drugs. Upon the passage of this act, Federal authorities seized samples of Stanley’s snake oil and found that it contained only mineral oil, and fatty oils, with a few other additives of no consequence-none of which were sourced from snakes.
Clark Stanley was found guilty of misrepresenting his product and fined $20. Unfortunately, there was no way to determine if other so-called snake oil products contained natural snake oil or just sold mineral oil as a panacea. Even if Stanley’s concoction had material from a rattlesnake, it’s unlikely that it would be that effective.
Modern studies show that Rattlesnakes only contained approximately 8% EPA, which is not enough to have any real medicinal benefits. However, sources stated that Salmon contained at least 18% EPA and were much easier to acquire and handle.
The Damage was Done
The damage was done once the word got out about Stanley’s fraud. Then, the term “snake oil” became synonymous with any product that made false or exaggerated claims. Even today, the term describes anything phony or fraudulent.
While the Chinese remedy might have had some benefits, time lost its existence in Western culture. It’s doubtful that anything the snake oil salesmen sold did anyone any good. They were nothing more than dishonest charlatans.