Snake Oil

‘Snake Oil’ is a generic term that comes to us from the days of traveling patent medicine hucksters. It is defined as a substance (or more recently, a political salve) that has no real value-as-advertised.

Snake Oil

Snake Oil

Chinese laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad in the American West in the 1860s often applied to their aching joints a topical lotion made from water snakes, for pain relief.

Two schools of thought evolved from this observation: that of the marketers (who felt that ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ goods would sell briskly) and that of the individuals schooled in ‘real’ (read: Western) medicine (who felt that the potion had no therapeutic value whatsoever).

The former gave rise to the hucksters, and for a while they were quite successful.

The latter gave rise to the definition of snake oil as worthless.

‘Worthless’ eventually won out. But perhaps that was a bit premature.

More recent studies of the water snake concoction reveal that the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis) is unusually high in Omega-3. It is, in fact, a very effective anti-inflammatory, esp when applied topically, since essential fatty acids are known to be quickly absorbed trans-dermally, just as the traditional Chinese healers suggested.

Unfortunately, the hucksters didn’t go to China to find water snakes for their products. In this country, they used rattlesnakes, which do not contain anywhere near as much Omega-3, and thus are far less effective, or wholly ineffective, for analgesia.

Sometimes, their ointments contained no snake at all. Clark Stanley, a man later known as the ‘Rattlesnake King’ in the late 19th century, marketed a snake oil that the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry investigated in 1916; it was found to be totally devoid of snake, containing instead mostly mineral oil and only 1% fats … derived from beef.

Thus, the Western versions of snake oil were likely bunkum. And Stanley was fined $20 for his false advertising.

So, the next time someone tries to sell you snake oil, don’t summarily answer, ‘no thanks.’ Ask ‘what kind?’

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