Although the term "snake oil" in time became a disparaging description of any patent medicine, real snake oil— rattlesnake grease— was actually sold for use as a liniment.
Although snake oil has become synonymous with medical quackery in today's parlance, not many are aware of how it came to be so. This digital collection from the Center for Inquiry Libraries' Dr. Joe Nickell Collection features 27 items relating to the sale of these "patent medicines," including bottles of snake oil, other cure-all liniments, various advertisements, and even a taxidermic rattlesnake.
The latter half of the 19th century saw an influx of Chinese immigrants bound for work on the railroads. Some of them brought the oil of the Chinese water snake with them, a remedy that had been used as a liniment for aches and pains for centuries in China. The oil of the Chinese water snake was "rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation" and was thought to be quite effective. Some Americans, most notably Clark Stanley, capitalized on this Chinese remedy by offering an Americanized version purportedly made with rattlesnake oil. However, rattlesnake oil does not have the same levels of omega-3 acids in it as the oil of the Chinese water snake (Source: Gandhi, 2013).
The efficacy of rattlesnake oil is not how snake oil became associated with quackery. Rather, the advent of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 spelled the end of snake oil and other "patent medicines" because it aimed at "preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes" (Source: History of Medicine Division, 2004). Federal investigators later discovered that Stanley's snake oil did not in fact contain any snake oil upon seizing one of his shipments (Source: Gandhi, 2013).
This collection is a representation of the origins of a cultural phenomenon that falls in line with the mission statement of the Center for Inquiry: to objectively observe and state facts about a believed-to-be significant object. The main stakeholders for the organization and digitization of this collection are researchers who are interested in the origins of cure-alls and quackery. Snake oil is not only representative of the cure-all phenomenon, but it is also flamboyant and eye catching. While there have been plenty of cure-alls before and since, snake oil is significant because it is the one that is so well remembered. Because it was one of the first cure-alls to be widely advertised and later debunked, it became a cultural icon for sham medicine and false advertising. This collection of snake oil artifacts has been assembled by Dr. Joe Nickell, and has had items featured in a variety of formats - including a Clark Stanley bottle which was featured in 2013 on an episode of the Travel Channel television show, "Mysteries at the Museum." You can also find this collection on the New York Heritage digital collections website.
digitized 2014 by Amanda Shepp, MLS