Snake Oil: A Guide for Connoisseurs
In an earlier article, “Peddling Snake Oil” (Nickell 1998), I addressed the question of snake oil’s existence. At least one source had asserted: “There is no such thing as snakeoil, though many thousands of bottles containing stuff called snakeoil were sold to gullible patrons of carnival sideshows in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (Morris and Morris 1988).
Actually, real snake oil was prized for its reputed medicinal properties. However, those were modest compared to the claims of later cure-alls sold under the name “snake oil.” Here is an attempt to trace the evolution of both the product and its labeling-with examples from my personal collection (see figure 1).
Some Native Americans, including the Choctaws, reportedly treated rheumatism and other ills with applications of rattlesnake grease. The practice appears to have been copied by pioneers.
In 1880, a newspaper article on a Pennsylvania man-described as “a celebrated hunter, trapper and snake-tamer by the name of John Geer”-told how he killed rattlesnakes and extracted “oil from their bodies.” The article noted: “this oil is very usable and sells readily for $1 per ounce. It is said to have great curative powers” (“Killing Snakes” 1980).
Such a snake hunter was Peter “Rattlesnake Pete” Gruber (1858-1932) who operated a saloon and museum of curiosities in Rochester, New York. As shown in a rare photograph in my collection, he wore a snakeskin tie and coat, the latter studded with snake heads, and he sported a serpentine walking stick. He claimed an old Indian woman taught him to take out the rattlesnake fat and extract the oil to cure such ailments as rheumatism, stiff joints, carbuncles, boils, and earache. The snakes’ tissue-like outer skin was also used for poultices (Merrill 1952, 22, 27).
Another such hunter was Will “Rattlesnake Willie” Clark of Bolton, New York. According to a local tale (Lord 1999, 96):
Once he stopped at a pub to “wet his whistle” after a long day collecting snakes on Tongue Mountain. While he was imbibing, someone untied the burlap bag he had placed his captives in during the day. Suddenly cries of surprise and fear rose above the din of the bar-room as the snakes were noticed by the patrons. Willie immediately captured the half dozen escaping reptiles and returned them to the sack. The clients became very concerned, however, when old Willie admitted he could not remember if he had taken 6 or 7 of the crawling critters from the hills that afternoon. For the rest of the week the bartender kept a loaded shotgun behind the bar and visitors to the establishment carried forked sticks about with them whenever they went into the groggery.
There were many other snake hunters. In my collection is a Schoolcraft, Michigan, vendor’s license of May 26, 1881, permitting an otherwise unidentified “Snake Man” to “sell oil” for two days. I also have a 1906 postcard picturing one Abe Minckler of Kellam, Pennsylvania, a “Dealer in Snakes, Snake Skins, and Snake Oils.”
The original snake hunters metamorphed into the later medicine-show pitchmen and other vendors of “patent” medicines. (A relative few of the ready-made nostrums were actually patented, since that required disclosure of their ingredients. Instead they merely had their brand names registered.)
From a decade of collecting antique “snake oil” bottles, I have identified no fewer than seven types, as follows:
- Genuine snake oil. This appears to have been sold largely by local suppliers. I have a copy of an entry for “snake oil” that appeared in an 1830s store ledger; one ounce sold for twenty-five cents. I also once saw in a private collection an old blue-glass bottle with a label on which was penned “Snake Oil.” As I recall, it appeared to date from the mid-nineteenth century.
- Liniment containing snake oil as an ingredient. Perhaps the most famous brand of this type was Clark Stanley’s Snake-Oil Liniment. Dressed in western attire and calling himself “The Rattlesnake King,” Stanley is said to have held crowds spellbound (figure 2). In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he slaughtered rattlers by the hundreds and processed the juices to make his cure-all. Its label noted it was for external use only and claimed it “Relieves the Pain of Muscular Rheumatism, Lame Back, Contracted Muscles, Sprains, Bruises, Corns, Chilblains, Frostbites, and Bites of Most Insects” (Fowler 1997, vi, 10-12). In 1917 (ten years after the federal Food and Drug Act became law) samples of Stanley’s liniment were federally seized and tested. They were revealed to be mostly mineral oil containing about one percent fatty oil (thought to have been beef fat), along with some red pepper (which would impart a soothing warmth to the skin) and possible traces of turpentine and camphor (Fowler 1997, 11-12). Among other liniments of this type was Blackhawk’s Liniment, sold by the Blackhawk Remedy Company of Baltimore. Its label pictured a pistol-packing, snake-vest wearing cowboy and boasted, “Positively Contains Rattle Snake Oil.” However, the label went on to state: “This product does not depend upon Rattle Snake Oil for its therapeutic effects.”
- Snake oil in name only. One specimen of this type was sold in a generic screw-top prescription bottle by C.F. Sams of Durham, N.C. Its label proclaims: “Old Fashioned Snake Oil. World’s Famous-Double Strength. Recommended For Corns, Bunions, Toothache, Head and Chest Colds, Sore Throat, Cuts and Bruises, Arthritis, Headache and Sore Feet.” Despite its name and rattlesnake illustration, however, its list of contents (“Mustard Oil, Pine Oil, Petroleum Oil, Paprika, Camphor Gum, Oil of Wintergreen”) does not include snake oil.
- Liniment acknowledging former identity as “Snake Oil.” Like type 3, this is clearly a transitional stage. An example is Miller’s Antiseptic Oil of 1916, sold by the Herb Juice Medicine Co. of Jackson, Tennessee. Its bottle was embossed, “Known as Snake Oil.” In 1929 it was restyled, the same bottle sporting a new paper label reading “Miller’s Anti-Pain Oil” and adding, “For Years Called Snake Oil But Does Not Contain Snake Oil.” Other examples of this type include one distributed by “Chief White Horse” of Madison, Wisconsin. The label reads, “Rub-in-Oil, that Famous Pioneer Liniment Formerly Known as Snake Oil.” Another was White Eagle’s Indian Oil Liniment whose label reads “Formerly called Rattlesnake Oil, the Old Indian Remedy for Rheumatism, Stiff Joints, Inflammation, Catarrh, Hay Fever.” Still another was Worner’s Famous Liniment of Phoenix, Arizona, whose label made no mention of snake oil but prominently pictured a wood engraving of a rattlesnake.
- Liniments like snake oil but not advertised as such. One of these was Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric (sic) Oil which became Excelsior Eclectric Oil (in 1880) and (still later) Dr. Thomas’ Eclectic (sic) Oil. Formulated by Dr. S.N. Thomas of Phelps, New York, Eclectric/Eclectic Oil contained “Spirits of Turpentine, Camphor, Oil of Tar, Red Thyme and Fish Oil specially processed.” Other examples of this type were Omega Oil and the ubiquitous Sloan’s Liniment (which I recall my maternal grandfather using)-both containing an extract of Capsicum (cayenne pepper).
- “Snake Oil” as a pejorative for any of various cure-alls-tonics, especially, many containing alcohol. These included Perry Davis’ Pain Killer (which became famous in the cholera epidemic of 1849), Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound (which transformed her into the most widely recognized American woman of her day), Swamp Root Kidney and Liver medicine (pitched by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company), and Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery (which was promoted as “the best Cough Remedy, Blood Purifier, Anti-Bilious, or Liver Medicine and Tonic, or Strength Restorer, of the Age”). By extension, any worthless remedy-bottled or not-is sometimes referred to disparagingly as “snake oil.”
- Satirically fake “snake oil.” Generally modern, these spoofs on patent-medicine include “Dr. Jake Dawson’s Liniment Tonic” (now there is a contradiction in terms!), which is also billed as “Snake Oil” and “Hair Growing Tonic” promising “Immediate Relief.” (The label bears “stains” which-like the rest of it-were printed by the halftone-screen process.) Another of the genre is “Doc Wizzardz Original Snake Oil Elixir,” said to contain “Aged L.A. Tap Water.” Its label warns, “Danger: Not Fit for Human Consumption.”
Figure 2. Clark “Rattlesnake King” Stanley entertained audiences by killing rattlers and processing the juices for his Snake Oil Liniment. Today his bottles and flyers are highly collectible. (Author’s collection. Photo by Tom Flynn.)
Old-fashioned snake oil has largely disappeared. (One exception is a small bottle of Aceite de Culebra-snake oil-I picked up in Mexico. Sold as an “Emollient-For External Use Only,” it contains “cod liver oil and mineral oil.”)
Although I cannot attest to the effectiveness of genuine rattlesnake oil, many of the snake-oil liniments of yesteryear no doubt provided some relief to aching muscles and certain other minor afflictions-much like today’s popular heat rubs and other topical medicines.
But just as snake-oil liniments were eventually overtaken by outrageous cure-alls, so are today’s respectable over-the-counter medicines suffering unfair competition from various “alternative” treatments that range from the ineffective to the dangerous. In that sense, snake oil is not so much an outdated term but one that needs updating from time to time.
Rob McElroy helped find many of the snake-oil bottles in my collection.
- Fowler, Gene, ed. 1997. Mystic Healers and Medicine Shows. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ancient City Press.
- “Killing Snakes for a Living.” 1880. The Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario), August 7:3.
- Lord, Thomas Reeves. 1999. Still More Stories of Lake George: Fact and Fancy. Pemberton, N.J.: Pinelands Press.
- Merrill, Arch. 1952. Shadows on the Wall. Reprinted Interlaken, New York: Empire State Books, 1994, 19-30.
- Morris, William, and Mary Morris. 1988. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origin. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 535.
- Nickell, Joe. 1998. Peddling snake oil. Skeptical Briefs 8:4 (December), 1-2, 13.