This article was originally published at Khronikos.
In today’s vocabular practice “snake oil” connotes the deceitful practice of alleging a substance is good for one’s health, when at best it does nothing and at worst may actually injure. The “snake oil salesman” is a slippery figure, preying on people’s desire for health for their own profit. But where did these terms come from, and how did they evolve to the present meaning? The story of snake oil is the process of how Americans came to decide what medicine was—and what medicine was not.
Snake oil has distinctly American roots, though the larger category of quackery was long practiced in Europe and had global dimensions well before 1800, at which point patented cure-alls, elixirs, salves, fever powders, and the generally-applied “remedies” found a robust market in America. Ideas about medicine were informed by early modern beliefs in the “alkahest,” better known now as “the philosopher’s stone” or “Elixir of Life.”1 Seventeenth-century chemists believed the alkahest, as a universal solvent, had medicinal properties that made it a cure-all. As chemical and medical science developed, beliefs about human systems enforced the notion of a cure-all with the adoption of humoral medicine. This theory posited that the human body contained four fluids, or humors, and internal imbalance explained illness; many patent medicines promised to balance the humors, thereby “curing all.”
People did not need to be actively ill to be drawn to cure-alls: Dr. Kilmer’s “Female Remedy” (pictured at the right) was marketed as a sex-specific “system regulator” based on “female constitutions” and advised daily use. Other patent medicines of the era focused on curing a particular symptom or ailment, whatever its underlying explanation. Thomas Hollis’s “Balm of America” claimed to cure “coughs, pulmonary complaints, consumption, asthma, whooping cough, pleurisy, spitting of blood, bronchitis…” and virtually “all diseases of the lungs.” In an era of tuberculosis, pertussis, mining, early industrialization, and laudanum use wreaking havoc on the bodies of many Americans, Hollis’s claims were timely and resulted in his professional success.
The term snake oil came from the American West in the second half of the nineteenth century, where popular medicine shows highlighted cure-alls claimed to be derived from traditions of non-European – therefore, “exotic” – settlers, including Native Americans and Chinese. Clark Stanley adopted the moniker “Rattlesnake King” and incorporated the venomous snakes into his show to sell his “Snake Oil Liniment” in the 1890s.
Stanley’s snake oil collided with ever-increasing demands of physicians, Progressive reformers, and the public for the regulation of such products, which came under the purview of the 1906 Food and Drugs Act.2 Temperance advocates decried the use of remedies that consisted mostly of alcohol, and patent-holder’s claims that their products were curative came under investigation. When it was discovered in 1917 that the “oil” in Stanley’s liniment was mineral oil and contained no snake products (or afforded any medical benefit), he was fined for “misbranding” – and the snake oil salesman was born in American culture.3
K. A. Woytonik is a PhD Candidate in the History department at the University of New Hampshire, and a research fellow at the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and the American Philosophical Society.
1. For medical implications of the alkahest, see Paulo A. Porto, “’Summus atque felissimus salium’: The Medical Relevance of the Liquor Alkahest”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.1 (2002).
2. Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906, aka “The Wiley Act”, available at the Food and Drug Administration website.
3. United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry, “Service and Regulatory Announcements Supplement”, U.S. Government Printing Office: 1917, p. 592.
photo credit: Jeff Nelson, Creative Commons/flickr