Snake Oil--it's synonymous with being cheated. So, what’s the story behind the term “snake oil salesman”?
It started innocently. As Chinese workers flooded into the United States in the nineteenth century, they brought snake oil with them. It was a cure made from the Chinese water snake. People rubbed it on their joints to reduce swelling, something that seemed to work.
Americans wondered how they could make their own snake oil. Enter Clark Stanley, the Rattlesnake King. The former cowboy traveled around the country, setting up his medicine show in towns.
Think about these western small towns. There was little entertainment. Watching Stanley chop up a rattlesnake and then add it to liquid drew crowds.
Sadly, it was all for show. The actual medicine he sold was mostly mineral water. It did help some, probably because it contained capsaicin from the pepper extract he added. That gave the tingling effect so customers felt the snake oil working.
We know now that capsaicin actually does reduce inflammation. Too, we know that chopped rattlesnake doesn’t. (LOL) Stanley knew that too, but he made a fortune out of his product.
After the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Stanley’s snake oil was tested. Newspapers blasted the news that there was no snake in it. From that, snake oil became a term associated with false promises.