The Strange History of Snake Oil

If you are a white Millennial, you probably have a relatively good sense of humor about just how not cool it is to be white - with ping pong, Donny Osmond, Frasier, and ugly sweater parties, you can’t make a strong argument that we are naturally down to get jiggy with it. 

One thing we do really well, though, (speaking as someone with a Master’s degree in History) is starting our cultural History with ourselves, and as I began researching the History of the Snake Oil Salesman, I realized we had a perfect example of this phenomenon on our hands. Take a moment and think about what comes into your mind when I say “Snake Oil.” 

If you are like me, you immediately start humming “Trouble with a Capitol T” from The Music Man. I envision a man coming into an Old West town on a cart, yelling, “Step right up!” and drawing a crowd, peddling a solution to people’s problems, making his money, and skipping town before anyone discovers he has sold them nothing but watered-down brandy. 

This image was a reality in the mid-to-late 19th century, and was so common we still use the phrase “Snake Oil” nearly 200 years later to describe anyone we think is peddling false promises, quick fixes, and fake claims. 

Because of this image so pervasive in our culture, it may be difficult for your preconceived views of the world to hear this: SNAKE OIL WORKS! TRUST ME!

Wait, WHAT?

Well, let me walk that back a little and say that, in reality, real snake oil actually was used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years - before white people got ahold of it (remember I’m a white Millennial, so I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek). You see, the seedy salesmen who were selling snake oil were building on the knowledge of Chinese railroad workers, who used snake oil (in reality the fat from garden snakes) as an anti-inflammatory for their sore muscles after working at backbreaking labor all day. This was a universal remedy for them, and if they had been able to look under a microscope to discover why, they would have found that garden snake fat was extremely rich in omega-3’s, which help manage the inflammation response in the body. These get-rich-quick types, however, weren’t interested in the details, and took this information and started peddling watered down rattlesnake oil mixed with alcohol and opiates. People loved it because, well, alcohol and opiates. It made them feel good. 

This swindling of the American people was rampant by the early 1900s and was part of the reason the FDA and the Food and Drug Administration was created in 1906. The capitalist market left unchecked was creating severe health risks for the American people, so the government decided it was their role to act as protectors and regulators of the free market to preserve the safety of its people. Ten years later, the FDA investigated the most famous snake-oil salesman, Clark Stanley, “The Rattlesnake King.” He was known for his animated showmanship - at the 1893 World’s Fair, he famously gutted and boiled a rattlesnake for the crowds. He made a career out of his snake oil linament, opened production in two states, and sold his concoction for more than 20 years. Then, in 1916, the young FDA investigated his product and found it to be ineffectual, wildly overpriced, and of no medicinal benefit. It also contained no actual snake oil. He was fined and forced to stop production, and it is mostly his influence that led to snake-oil becoming synonymous with fraud. 

There are a lot of people out there today selling lose-weight-fast miracle cures, and we have honed the art of twisting scientific research. For example, Dr. Oz was in hot water a few years ago for promoting green coffee extract, which he said studies showed could help people lose 20 pounds in a month and that he touted as a miracle drug. What he didn’t mention was that several of the studies that showed weight loss were commissioned by companies trying to sell the product. The studies were not long enough or large enough to establish veracity, and some studies showed powerful results while others didn’t (there is more evidence that green coffee beans can help prevent weight gain rather than promote weight loss). But green coffee beans indeed contain caffeine which can boost metabolism and chlorogenic acid, which could help block the absorption of carbohydrates and has other anti-oxidant benefits. So like snake oil, someone took something that had a strong foundation for being beneficial, and twisted its uses, overpromised, and ended up being reprimanded for misleading the public. 

This is very much still a part of our culture, and it is essential to thoroughly research the products you consider using for yourself and your family. It is also beneficial to remember that underneath the hype and the quick money grabs, there are a lot of foods, herbs, and oils that genuinely do have benefits for the human body that are worth discovering. 

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