"Snake oil"--it's not a flattering phrase, and definitely not anything we'd want to plaster on a bottle of some cure-all we were trying to sell.
But presumably there was a time when the two small words were a fabulous selling point--when they conjured up images of potency, trustworthiness and miracle cures. Perhaps there were even books titled "Snake Oil: Nature's Miracle Medicine" (because people, after all, were far less sophisticated than today).
In fact, the history of the term is a little slippery to track down. Some historians, for instance, say there never was such a thing as real snake oil.
"The term has nothing to do with snakes or serpents," writes Dr. William S. Haubrich in his book "Medical Meanings" (1997, American College of Physicians). Instead, he says, the story goes like this:
Native Americans in the Pennsylvanian backwoods would rub cuts and scrapes with a slimy, tar-like oil seeping from the ground. Then settlers came along, observed this habit, and decided to bottle the slimy goop and sell it. They called the brew "Seneca oil," after a native tribe, to give it the oomph of a "mystical Indian remedy." Sometimes this was mispronounced Sen-ake-a oil. And thus, eventually, came "snake oil."
But others who've delved into the topic say there really were snake oils that--at least from outward appearance--had rattlers front and central on the ingredient list.
We heard this from researcher Joe Nickell of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (which investigates quack science as well as spaceship sightings). Nickell, while researching an article on snake oil, stumbled upon a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1880 that described an old trapper who killed rattlesnakes, extracted oil from their bodies, then sold it for a dollar an ounce for its "great curative powers."
"The article makes it clear that people were going out and getting rattlesnakes and squeezing the life and the grease out of them," he says. Nickell has seen antique bottles, too, with "snake oil" boldly emblazoned on them. He's seen a later bottle, too, with "antiseptic liniment, known as snake oil" written on it--this one, he believes, from a time in the early 20th century when the government was beginning to crack down on fraudulent cure-alls.
The most colorful snake oil salesman, however, was a late 19th century cowboy known as Clark Stanley, the self-proclaimed "rattlesnake king." Stanley mesmerized crowds at fairs with his antics, though instead of demonstrating vegetable dicers and slicers or miracle floor mops, he slaughtered rattlesnakes and pressed their juices.
Stanley's snake oil was for external use only, like a liniment, and was purported to treat a whole slew of things such as pain, rheumatism, lumbago, animal bites and scratches. It sold for 50 cents a bottle.
Then, in 1917, came the government's crackdown. A shipment of the liniment was seized and chemically analyzed. "They found it to be basically mineral oil," says Nickell. Minor ingredients included camphor, turpentine and hot pepper--which presumably acted like modern-day liniments, bringing relief by providing distracting heat.
Still, one California doctor thinks that the term "snake oil" should be rehabilitated. Dr. Richard Kunin of San Francisco says he's analyzed oil extracted from two rattlesnake species among others and found them to be good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
And Chinese medicine makes good use of the snake for ailments such as gout, eczema, coughs and more--though not particularly the oil, says Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, director of UCLA's Center for East-West Medicine. Snakes (whole animals or parts of them, such as the venom, skin or gall bladders) are prepared in a variety of ways: fried with herbs in wine, boiled in soup. Then the extracts are either drunk or applied topically.
Hui doesn't recommend stewing up your own rattler brew, though: "The snake has to be prepared correctly to properly extract the toxins," he says.
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