“Snake oil” has long been shorthand for flimflam, and “snake oil salesman” has been a nickname for someone who is a trader in lies and false cures.
The origin of the term dates back to the California Gold Rush. Chinese immigrants arrived to seek their fortune, and, later, more were brought to California as indentured labor for the Transcontinental Railroad.
Among the medicinal traditions they brought was snake oil made from the mildly venomous Chinese water snake. The oil is rich in omega-3 acids and was said to reduce inflammation from arthritis, bursitis or sore muscles caused by hewing granite to make way for rail lines.
Apparently, it was seen as an effective medicine and began to find a wide market in the United States. Soon, the sleazy patent medicine industry seized on a hot marketing term.
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Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was popular at the end of the 1800s. Stanley slit open snakes and boiled them at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago. He told the story of an ancient Hopi remedy learned by cowboys as he skimmed fat from the roiling water.
Rattlesnakes are a far less potent form of snake oil with fewer omega-3 acids, and sometimes the closest thing to a snake ingredient was the picture on the bottle.
Stanley was prosecuted and fined in 1917 under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 for selling patent medicine that contained mineral oil, probably beef fat, red pepper and turpentine.
Snake oil became a synonym for fraud and fakery in popular culture.
The Daily Evening Tribune carried a typical patent medicine ad on its front page on Jan. 31, 1884. Needham’s Red Clover Blossoms & Extracts was said to cure cancer, rheumatism and all blood diseases. And dyspepsia, liver complaints, piles and kidney disease. If that wasn’t enough, it regulated the bowels and purified the complexion.
“No one need cease to hope for a cure, as the Clover cures when everything else fails, if directions are followed,” the ad proclaimed.
The same issue of The Tribune had a news article on snake oil reprinted from another newspaper, The Freeman in Kingston, New York, that is excerpted here:
The Rattlesnake Industry
For many years, different persons living in the mountains of Sullivan and Ulster counties have made very snug sums every year in the sale of rattlesnake oil, which is believed to possess wonderful curative powers by a large proportion of the inhabitants of not only those, but adjoining counties.
Many snakes are killed during the summer season, but the grand gathering of the crop is in the fall, when they have returned to their dens and wintering places. These retreats are well known to the snake hunters, and they choose sunny days in October and November for raiding them.
$1 per ounce 1884 price of snake oil
On such days, the reptiles crawl out of their dens in the rocks and huddle together by the score, different varieties frequently being found massed together. The snakes are dull and sluggish at that time of year and come out to bask in the sun.
The hunters arm themselves with old-fashioned flails, and when they come upon a pile of the snakes proceed at once to thrash the life out of them. But few escape. The rattlesnakes are assorted from the other species and carried home, where the oil is tried out as lard is from pork.
No treatment of the oil is necessary. It is bottled up and is ready for the market.
As high as $1 an ounce has been paid for it by believers in its value as a liniment for rheumatism and all kindred ills.
The snake hunters of the Shawangunk mountains receive many orders from the showmen for live rattlesnakes, for which they receive from 50 cents to $2 each, according to size and condition; but during the past summer an industry in snakes sprung up which is entirely new and novel and bids fair to become the most profitable of any of the branches of the trade, for it has its foundation in a new fashion in female adornment.
This industry is the supplying of rattlesnake skins for ladies’ belts.