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Snake Oil

By Staff | Jun 18, 2014

A hundred years ago if you were to attend a county fair or even visit your local drug store, you may have purchased a bottle of snake oil to cure what ails you. Traveling medicine shows and self-proclaimed healers were also plentiful and sold bottles of their homemade concoctions from the back of a wagon to those in need of medical relief.

When I first began my research of snake oil, I figured it would lead to stories of fast talkers selling homemade remedies at the beginning of the last century. A man peddling his bottles of medicine that could be purchased for the small sum of just one dollar. After paying that small price and taking the medicine, all aches, pains, sore stomach, body ailments, and personal itching would be cured. All that for only one single dollar.

Most likely the bottle contained large amounts of alcohol, a little kerosene, and a touch of gun powder. The alcohol for kick, the kerosene for color and smell, and the gun powder for the taste of sulfur. Put that mixture in a fancy brown bottle with a colorful label and who could resist the temptation for a sure fired cure for only one dollar, U.S.?

Snake oil did really exist at one time in our history. It is believed to have come to this country with Chinese laborers that helped to build the railroads in the west during the late 1800’s. The original ointment was rubbed on sore muscles to help with the pain of a hard day’s work on the railroad. And most remarkable of all, it was made from water snakes. The Chinese rendered down the fat in the snake’s body until a topical paste was left. Like a lot of old Chinese medicine, snake oil helped with the relief of all sorts of pain.

Why did it work? We know today fatty tissues of some animals or fish contains Omega-3 fatty acid. The fat in water snakes also contained Omega-3. This compound is used in many medicines to help with the pain of arthritis and muscle problems. The Chinese discovered the healing properties of the snake oil many centuries ago. If indeed snake oil worked as advertised by the early Chinese laborers, why do we think of it as bad medicine when we hear the term today? Most likely the answer lies in the opportunistic charlatans of the day who found ways to sell homemade remedies marketed as snake oil to those uninformed and in pain.

Perhaps they believed what P. T. Barnum reportedly said, “There is a sucker born every minute.” Truth is that may not be the truth. That phrase has most often been attributed to Barnum, but when biographers tried to verify Barnum’s words, they were unable to do so. In the end, we may not know for sure who spoke those words as much as we know they are often true.

Today, if we hear the term, snake oil salesman, we think of a fast talking charlatan and false medical claims. That understanding came after many fast talkers manufactured snake oil as a quick cure or health elixir. The claims of cures for all sorts of illness and diseases went largely unfounded. And most likely, by the time the purchaser of the snake oil found it did no good in curing their problems, the seller was long gone with their money and a smile on his face.

In the early 20th century a lawsuit was settled that found the manufacture of a snake oil treatment was false in it claims. Since that court ruling the term snake oil has been associated with those who may mislead others and often are known as charlatans. We don’t often hear the term snake oil salesmen these days. But, I recently heard that the largest population of snake oil salesman is thought to exist and live in Washington, D.C. Not sure what they may be selling today, but I am sure it will not cure anything and will cost me money.

Before modern medical and large drug companies, most medicines were based on home remedies. Some of those have been passed down for thousands of years. We know compounds found in willow can be used for medical purpose and their uses can be traced as far back as ancient Egyptians. The American Indian is said to have chewed the bark of a willow tree for relief of pain. The extract of the willow may have once been part of some snake oil cure and gave those who took it some relief from pain.

Another early medicine that may have been part of early snake oil cures was vinegar. Today we often think of vinegar as the dressing on our salad. But vinegar has some very real health benefits that can be traced back several thousand years. Many centuries ago Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine in ancient Greece, gave a mixture of vinegar and honey to his patients for a variety of health problems.

Snake oil medicine, like much of our history, is laced with fact and a bit of fiction. Today we know that omega-3s, vinegar, and salicylic acid, the active component of willow extract, are important parts of medicine. And, it wasn’t necessarily early snake oil that was bad as it was the misrepresentation of the snake oil salesman that tainted our upset stomach as we look Through the Lens.