Snake oil, originally a fraudulent liniment without snake extract, 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 a fraud, quack, or charlatan.
The use of snake oil long predates the 19th century. 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). In China, oil made from Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) fat is a traditional liniment used for treating joint pain. Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which has strong analgetic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Chinese laborers on railroad gangs involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad first gave snake oil, a traditional folk remedy in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to treat joint pain such as arthritis and bursitis to their fellow workers. 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. Since there was no federal regulation in the United States concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act 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. This practice is also called grifting and its practitioners are called grifters.
From cure-all to quackery
The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly among products.
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.
- Klauber, Laurence M. (1997). Rattlesnakes, vol II. University of California Press. p. 1050.
- Graber, C (2007-11-01). "Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something". Scientific American. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
- Kunin, R A (August 1989). "Snake oil.". Western Journal of Medicine. 151 (2): 208. ISSN 0093-0415. PMC . PMID 2773477.
- Nickell, J (1998-12-01). "Peddling Snake Oil; Investigative Files". Skeptical Inquirer. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 8 (4). Retrieved 2011-12-04.
- "The Long Struggle for the Law". Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
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