Did salesmen really sell snake oil?

During the 19th century, many people trusted that snake oil sold by travelling salesmen would cure their ailments. Find out more with BBC History Revealed

Bottles of snake oil

Would you trust a tonic bought from a less-than-credible salesman at a travelling show to cure your ailments, if you were told it contained oils extracted from a rattlesnake? Well, a lot of folk in 19th-century America did.

Snake oil salesmen – a term now used to refer to charlatans peddling their fraudulent wares – got the idea from Chinese labourers working on the First Transcontinental Railroad. They used the oils produced by the Chinese water snake, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, to soothe sore muscles or treat arthritis.

Would you trust a tonic bought from a less-than-credible salesman at a travelling show to cure your ailments, if you were told it contained oils extracted from a rattlesnake? Well, a lot of folk in 19th-century America did.

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Snake oil salesmen – a term now used to refer to charlatans peddling their fraudulent wares – got the idea from Chinese labourers working on the First Transcontinental Railroad. They used the oils produced by the Chinese water snake, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, to soothe sore muscles or treat arthritis.

The problem was that the US didn’t have any Chinese water snakes. Salesmen looking to get rich quick by brewing their own knock-off elixirs therefore had to make do with a plentiful native species, the rattlesnake – even if it didn’t have the same medicinal properties. Alcohol, cocaine and opium were some of the ingredients added to give the concoctions more of a kick. Soon, most snake oils contained no actual snake oil. No matter: a splash of razzmatazz salesmanship made these cure-alls a success.

It wouldn’t be until the turn of the century that reports and exposés really began scrutinising the benefits, which led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed