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, or charlatan.
The use of snake oil long predates 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).
William S. Haubrich, in his book Medical Meanings (1997, American College of Physicians), mentions the hypothesis that the term came from the eastern United States.[page needed] The Seneca people, indigenous to the New York and Pennsylvania region, would rub cuts and scrapes with the petroleum collected from oil seeps. European settlers observed this habit, and in mid-nineteenth century they began bottling and selling the substance as a cure-all. They named the product for the local tribe as "Seneca oil". Supposedly through mispronunciation, this became "Sen-ake-a oil" and eventually "snake oil". Haubrich remarked, "This story is almost too good to be true – which means it probably isn't."[page needed] It appears to be a case of folk etymology, since no known historical evidence supports this explanation.
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.
- Crocodile oil
- Golden hammer
- Medicine show
- Patent medicine
- Silver bullet
- Klauber, Laurence M. (1997). Rattlesnakes, vol II. University of California Press. p. 1050.
- Rosie Meistel, "Snake Oil Salesmen Weren't Always Considered Slimy", Los Angeles Times, 1 July 2002
- Graber, C (2007-11-01). "Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something". Scientific American. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
- 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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- Gandhi, Lakshmi (August 26, 2013). "A History Of 'Snake Oil Salesmen'". Code Switch (National Public Radio). Retrieved July 6, 2014.