What Is Snake Oil and Why Is It So Bad?

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Podcast Transcript

If you were to call someone a snake oil salesman, it usually means they are trying to defraud someone, and more specifically it often implies making false medical claims.

But what exactly is snake oil, and why did it develop such a bad reputation, and why specifically do we use snake oil for such a negative metaphor?

Learn more about snake oil and why we still reference it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The first thing you need to know about snake oil is that it is an actual thing. Snake oil is not a metaphor. 

The reason why snake oil became a metaphor for something fraudulent, and why snake oil salesmen are considered hucksters, is actually really interesting. 

It all began in 19th century America. 

As railroads were being built across the country, much of the labor was being done by Chinese immigrants who came over to work on the railroads. 

Working on the railroad was extremely hard work. Much of the work on railroads in the 19th century was all done by hand. Moving rails and hamming spikes with sledgehammers all had to be done manually. 

The result of such backbreaking labor was that the hands and muscles of Chinese laborers would often get very sore. 

To ease their muscle pains, they would often rub their hands and muscles with a traditional Chinese ointment known as snake oil.

Snake oil is an actual product that is created from Chinese water snakes also known as the Erabu snake. It has been used as a traditional Chinese remedy for centuries.

Chinese water snakes live in ponds and rice paddies. They are slightly venomous snakes under a meter long that feed on fish and amphibians.

The snake oil which is derived from the water snakes is very high in the omega?3 fatty acid known as eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. 

Snake oil was, and is, considered by many people to be effective in relieving the pain of ailments such as arthritis, bursitis, and sore muscles. A modern study found that oil from Chinese water snakes actually allowed mice to perform better on cognitive tests. Take that for what you will.

The Chinese workers began to share their remedy with American workers who were working on the railroad and the product began to grow in popularity. 

As the demand for snake oil grew, people began to figure out ways to meet the demand. 

Enter into the story one Clark Stanley, the self-proclaimed rattlesnake king.

Stanley wanted to meet the new demand for snake oil so he created a product known as Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.

Just knowing that the word ‘snake” was in the title, he began using rattlesnakes for the product. However, a rattlesnake is not a water snake. They have totally different fat profiles. 

Eventually, however, he totally abandoned the idea of putting rattlesnake oil in the product altogether.

For 24 years Stanley traveled around the country touting the medicinal benefits of his snake oil liniment. He created a massive show positioning himself as a frontiersman while creating an elaborate backstory. He sold the product at western shows around the country.

He claimed that the recipe for his Snake Oil Liniment came from Hopi medicine men. The Hopi didn’t have anything resembling snake oil and at no point did he ever mention the Chinese origins of the product.

Moreover, Stanley made claims about the product which went far beyond what the original Chinese snake oil was used for. Stanley claimed that it would cure rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago, a sore throat, frostbites, toothaches, and many other ailments.

In one famous demonstration at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he supposedly created the product in front of a live crowd. 

Science writer Joe Schwarcz wrote, “[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”

Those people who bought the product at the world’s fair had the distinction of being one of the few people to buy his snake oil that actually had snake oil in it. 

The use of these demonstrations with live rattlesnakes added excitement to the demonstration and it was one of the reasons why it sold so well. 

In the United States in the 19th century, there were no regulations regarding the claims you could make regarding the effectiveness of drugs and medicine. 

In 1905, Collier’s magazine published a scathing article on the fraudulent claims made by medicine hucksters.

The federal government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 which was one of the very first consumer protection laws in the country. It prevented the sale of products that were falsely labeled or made exaggerated claims.

In 1917, a shipment of Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was seized by the government and was given to the Bureau of Chemistry, the predecessor of the Food and Drug Administration.

What they found was that the product had no snake oil whatsoever. It consisted mostly of mineral oil, beef tallow, chili pepper, turpentine, and a waxy substance called camphor.

After the results of the test became public, thousands of people who had purchased Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment realized that they had been had. 

Clark Stanley was given a fine of $20 and basically disappeared from history, having become quite rich from years of selling his snake oil.

The term snake oil began being used for something fraudulent or a scam. Likewise, a snake oil salesman became synonymous with a quack, huckster, or a fraud. 

The first written use of snake oil as a reference to something fraudulent was in the 1927 poem by Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body. 

The poem referenced, “Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades … sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.”

Likewise, in 1956, playwright Eugene O’Neill mentioned it in his play “The Iceman Cometh”. He described a character as “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

Today, snake oil has very negative connotations. 

The strange thing is, the reason why snake oil is associated with scams is that a popular snake oil product didn’t actually have any snake oil in it. 

Actual snake oil and its unique ??omega-3 fatty acid profile, has actually been found to have health benefits. You can still buy it today in traditional Chinese pharmacies today.

So, the next time that someone says that someone is a snake oil salesman just remember that if they are actually selling snake oil, it might not be so bad.

The associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomsen.

I wanted to let everyone know that this week I’m going to be launching a new weekly newsletter to go along with the podcast! 

In the process of researching all the episodes I do for the show, I come across a lot of interesting items which wouldn’t necessarily make for good podcast material. However, they are still interesting enough to be shared. 

The newsletter will have these stories in addition to updates from previous episodes I’ve done as well as news about new features I’ll be launching, as well as updates on the Everything Everywhere tours, and personal updates from me. 

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