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Clark Stanley's Snake Oil.
Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis), which is used to treat joint pain. However, the most common usage of the phrase is as a derogatory term for compounds offered as medicines which implies that they are fake, fraudulent, quackish, or ineffective. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing, but questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit.


Snake oil originally came from Chinamarker, where it is called shéyóu (). There, it was used as a remedy for inflammation and pain in rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, and other similar conditions. Snake oil is still used as a pain reliever in China. Fats and oils from snakes are higher in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) than other sources, so snake oil was actually a plausible remedy for joint pain as these are thought to have inflammation-reducing properties. Snake oil is still sold in traditional Chinese pharmacy stores.

Snake fat also played a role in ancient Egyptian medicine, mixed with the fats of lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, tomcat, and Nubian ibex into a homogenous mass believed to cause bald men to grow hair.

Chinese labourers on railroad gangs — involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad to link North America coast to coast — gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, especially those selling patent medicines. In time, snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panacea or miraculous remedies, whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mis-characterized — and mostly inert or ineffective, although the placebo effect might provide some relief for whatever the problem might have been.

Patented snake oil remedies originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's Elixir in 1712. Since there was no Federal regulation in the USA 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. American snake fats have EPA contents markedly lower than those of the Chinese water snake. Thus the American snake oils were even less effective in relieving joint pain than the original Chinese snake oil — further promoting the hoax stereotype.

The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling some medicine (such as snake oil) with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence, typically bogus. To enhance sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a "shill") would often "attest" the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would prudently leave town before his customers realized that they had been cheated. This practice is also called "grifting" and its practitioners "grifters".

The practice of selling dubious remedies for real (or imagined) ailments still occurs today, albeit with some updated marketing techniques. Claims of cures for chronic diseases (for example, diabetes mellitus), for which there are reputedly only symptomatic treatments available from mainstream medicine, are especially common. The term snake oil peddling is used as a derogatory term to describe such practices.

An alternate theory for the origins of the term "snake oil" is that it was a corruption of "Seneca oil". The Senecas, a tribe in the Eastern United States, were known to use petroleum from natural seeps as a liniment for skin ailments. However, Native Americans are known to have used rattlesnake fat and the herb snakeroot for various purposes.

Composition of snake oil

The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly between products.

Snake oil sold in San Franciscomarker's Chinatown in 1989 was found to contain:

The Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) is the richest known source of EPA, the starting material the body uses to make the series 3 prostaglandins. These prostaglandins are the biochemical messengers which control some aspects of inflammation, rather like aspirin which also affects the prostaglandin system. Like essential fatty acids, EPA can be absorbed through the skin. Salmon oil, the next best source, contains 18% EPA. Rattlesnake oil contains 8.5% EPA.

Stanley's snake oil – produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King" – was tested by the federal government in 1917. It was found to contain: (Note that this makes the above similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments. Thus, this early snake oil may have worked somewhat as intended, even if it did not contain its alleged ingredients.)

Claims of efficacy

Richard Kunin, a proponent of orthomolecular medicine, wrote a 1989 letter to the editor arguing that oil made from Chinese water snakes is very high in EPA. This substance is known to be a pain reliever, and Kunin argued that it might provide an explanation for the traditional use of snake oil. Snake oil does not have the dubious reputation in China that it has in the US and elsewhere in the Western world, and it is used widely in traditional Chinese medicine. However, it is not seen as a panacea in China either; there it is used only as relief for arthritis and joint pain.

List of uses

Media adaptations

W. C. Fields's film about a western frontier American snake oil salesman complete with a surreptitious crowd accomplice. His demonstration from the back of a buckboard (transparently and hilariously fraudulent —- to the movie audience) of a miraculous cure for hoarseness ignited a comic purchasing frenzy.
Disney's Pete's Dragon
The greedy "Doc" Terminus, played by Jim Dale, gave a testament to the persuasive power of the snake oil salesman. Dealing with a crowd of people he had conned on a prior visit, Terminus turns them from angry vengeance-seekers to believers once more, paying top dollar for Terminus' products despite their previous ineffectiveness.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain presents Aunt Polly as a true believer in various sorts of snake oil, though not always in the form of an alleged medicine. She also adopted cold showers as a cure-all at one point in Tom's childhood. For a time she insisted that Tom Sawyer take a painkiller every day, simply because she thought it would be good for him; Tom finally gave some to Peter the housecat, who reacted to the dose with extreme and comic agitation. After seeing the cat vanish in a frenzy out the window, Aunt Polly no longer forced Tom to take Painkiller. (Note
Say Say Say's music video
In a more modern appearance of grifting in pop-culture, the collaboration of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson in 1983 produced a music video for Say Say Say which depicts McCartney as the salesman selling a dubious strength elixir from the back of a truck and Jackson as his accomplice amongst the audience.
Many of J. B. Morton's books and radio programs included short spoof advertisements for "Snibbo" a fictional treatment allegedly tackling various unlikely human conditions.
Flåklypa Grand Prix
In this animated movie Snake Oil is used as a name for a shady oil company.
Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas
In this muppet Christmas special Emmet and Ma periodically reminisced about his deceased Pa, the unsuccessful snake oil salesman because "Pa couldn't find anyone who would want to oil a snake
Every Time I Die
The New Junk Aesthetic CD uses a line in the song "Host Disorder" containing the term. "Open your heart to the snake oil peddlers".

English musician and comedy writer Vivian Stanshall satirized a miracle cosmetic as "Rillago—the great ape repellent"

The band Alkaline Trio has recorded a song entitled "Snake Oil Tanker"

Steve Earle recorded a song entitled "Snake Oil" for the album Copperhead Road.

See also


Further reading

  • Kunin, R.A. " Snake oil." West J Med. 1989 Aug;151(2):208.

External links

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