Snake oil is an expression that originally referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicine but has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, a snake oil salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is themselves a fraud, quack, charlatan, or the like.
The use of snake oil is far older than the 19th century, and it was never confined to the Americas. In Europe, viper oil had been commonly recommended for many afflictions, including the ones for which rattlesnake oil was subsequently favored (e.g., rheumatism and skin diseases).
There are two main hypotheses for the origin of the term. The more common theory is that the name originated in the Western regions of the United States and is derived from a topical preparation made from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) used by Chinese laborers to treat joint pain. The preparation was promoted in North America by traveling salesmen who often used accomplices in the audience to proclaim the benefits of the preparation.
One source, William S. Haubrich in his book Medical Meanings (1997, American College of Physicians) mentions the hypothesis that the name came from the eastern United States. The indigenous people of the New York and Pennsylvania region would rub cuts and scrapes with the petroleum collected from oil seeps that occurred naturally in the area. European settlers observed this habit, and began bottling and selling the substance as a cure-all. The preparation was sold as “Seneca oil” in mid-nineteenth century, after the local tribes. Through mispronunciation this became “Sen-ake-a oil” and eventually “snake oil”. As Haubrich comments, “This story is almost too good to be true – which means it probably isn’t.” It appears to be a case of folk etymology, as no historical evidence appears to exist for this transformation.
The herbal remedies dispensed at apothecary shops often had a dubious reputation. Many of them had merit, while others were nothing more than snake oil sold by quacks pretending to be educated men. These patent medicines were consumed in great quantity by eager patients wanting a quick cure to all their ills.
Theirac Cure All
Theriac, also known as treacle, was an universal cure-all which was widely available at most apothecary shops. Various recipes for this panacea existed, some of which contained up to 64 different ingredients. Many of the ingredients were of herbal origin but this miraculous elixir sometimes included noxious ingredients such as the skin of roasted vipers.
Garlic was also known as poor man’s treacle during the Renaissance. It was thought to cure a wide range of illnesses in addition to being capable of scaring away vampires and werewolves. Today’s herbalists have proven that this herb is indeed a panacea as it can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and it has also been shown to have antibacterial properties.
Modern Day Apothecary
Apothecaries have evolved into our modern-day pharmacists. Although today’s pharmacists are not allowed to prescribe drugs or diagnose patients, your local pharmacist may be able to offer generic medical advice on a limited basis. Herbal remedies are still used with great frequency in today’s society. A look at your local health food, grocery and drug stores will reveal a vast amount of herb based pills, tinctures, lotions and essential oils available for sale.
Lynn Smythe of The Creative Cottage
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