Snake oil

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This article is about medicinal compounds. For snake oil in cryptography, see Snake oil (cryptography). For the album by Tim Berne, see Snakeoil (album).
Clark Stanley's Snake Oil

Snake oil is an expression that originally referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicine but has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, a snake oil salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is themselves a fraud, quack, charlatan, or the like.

A snake oil recipe from the 18th century, printed in Spain

The use of snake oil is far older than the 19th century, and it was never confined to the Americas. In Europe, viper oil had been commonly recommended for many afflictions, including the ones for which rattlesnake oil was subsequently favored (e.g., rheumatism and skin diseases).[1]

There are two main hypotheses for the origin of the term. The more common theory is that the name originated in the Western regions of the United States and is derived from a topical preparation made from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) used by Chinese laborers to treat joint pain. The preparation was promoted in North America by travelling salesmen who often used accomplices in the audience to proclaim the benefits of the preparation.[citation needed]

Wormer's Famous Rattlesnake Oil

One source, William S. Haubrich in his book Medical Meanings (1997, American College of Physicians) mentions the hypothesis that the name came from the eastern United States. The indigenous people of the New York and Pennsylvania region would rub cuts and scrapes with the petroleum collected from oil seeps that occurred naturally in the area. European settlers observed this habit, and began bottling and selling the substance as a cure-all. The preparation was sold as "Seneca oil" in mid-nineteenth century, after the local tribes. Through mispronunciation this became "Sen-ake-a oil" and eventually "snake oil".[2] As Haubrich comments, "This story is almost too good to be true – which means it probably isn’t." It appears to be a case of folk etymology, as no historical evidence appears to exist for this transformation.


Chinese laborers on railroad gangs involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad first gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain.[3] When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, and in time, snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mischaracterized and mostly inert or ineffective.

Patent medicines originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's Elixir in 1712.[4] Since there was no federal regulation in the United States concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act[5] and various medicine salesmen or manufacturers seldom had enough skills in analytical chemistry to analyze the contents of snake oil, it became the archetype of hoax.

The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a traveling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) would often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would leave town before his customers realized they had been cheated.[3] This practice is also called grifting and its practitioners are called grifters.

From cure-all to quackery[edit]

Snake oil in Vietnam
A report of the 1917 decision of the United States District Court for Rhode Island, fining Clark Stanley $20 for "misbranding" its "Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment".

The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly among products.

Stanley's snake oil — produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King" — was tested by the United States government in 1917. It was found to contain:[4]

This is similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments or chest rubs. None of the oil content was found to have been extracted from any actual snakes.

The government sued the manufacturer for misbranding and misrepresenting its product, winning the judgment of $20 against Clark Stanley. Soon after the decision, "snake oil" became synonymous with false cures and "snake-oil salesmen" became a tag for charlatans.

Popular culture[edit]


  • Also on June 25, 2014, Misha Collins released a satirical commercial on YouTube called "Serpessence 2014", advertising a cure-all remedy made from snake oil, probably made as part of the promotion for the 2014 GISHWHES installment.

Films and stage productions[edit]

  • Poppy (1923) is W. C. Fields' musical and film about a Western frontier American snake oil salesman complete with a surreptitious crowd accomplice. His demonstration from the back of a buckboard (transparently fraudulent to the movie audience) of a miraculous cure for hoarseness ignited a comic purchasing frenzy.
  • Disney's Pete's Dragon (1977) The greedy "Doc" Terminus, played by Jim Dale, gave a testament to the persuasive power of the snake oil salesman.
  • Little Big Man features Martin Balsam as traveling snake oil salesman Allardyce T. Meriweather, with whom the titular character is tarred and feathered.
  • Popular internet comedy group LoadingReadyRun produced a sketch on The Escapist titled "Snake Oil," satirizing the early invention of dishonest marketing, in which a salesman invents and attempts to sell actual Snake Oil.
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales: Josey Wales spits tobacco on a snake oil salesman's suit and suggests he use his ointment to clean the stain.
  • The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix: In this animated movie, Snake Oil is used as a name for a shady oil company.
  • Sweeney Todd: The character Pirelli sells Pirelli's Miracle Elixir to help hair grow, and Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett reveal that it is fake.
  • The Inspector General: Walter Slezak plays a gypsy who travels from town, selling his famous "Yakov's Golden Elixir", which fixes almost anything. The demonstration by Shill Danny Kaye (Yakov's assistant) is a complex musical showcase.


  • In Out of the Box Publishing's card game Snake Oil, players take the role of a Snake Oil Salesman and pitch made-up products to one another.
  • Red Dead Revolver: A small subplot in the game revolves around a traveling charlatan by the name of "Professor Perry" who sells an illicit tonic sold as a miracle cure. When the player fights him, he uses his own elixir as a weapon and drinks it to heal himself.
  • Red Dead Redemption: A number of missions involves the player character, John Marston, working with a snake oil salesman, Nigel West Dickens, as a shill, so he can sell his tonics to ignorant farmhands, despite the tonic being useless.


Music and music videos[edit]

  • "Say Say Say" (1983): music video of the song in which Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson peddle a magic elixir that supposedly increases one's strength instantaneously.
  • Steve Earle's "Snake Oil:" Singer-songwriter Steve Earle recorded a song critical of the Ronald Reagan administration entitled "Snake Oil" for the album Copperhead Road (1988).
  • "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves:" In the song by Cher, the singer's father (and later grandfather, as Cher sang the song from two perspectives, those of the mother in all but the last verse and her illegitimate daughter in the last verse) sold bottles of "Doctor Good" at a traveling show.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]