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Where did the term “snake oil” come from?

The history

When Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1880s to construct the cross-country railroads, they brought snake oil, an ancient remedy, with them.

It was made from the oil of Chinese water snakes and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

By all accounts, it did wonders when rubbed on aching muscles after a long day’s work.

At the same time that thousands of Chinese people were arriving to work in the U.S., there was a rise in popularity of patent medicines — trademarked home remedies made with ingredients that weren’t necessarily disclosed in full.

The American spin

“American-made” snake oil — made with rattlesnakes — became an alternative to the thousands-of-years-old formula.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as industrialization and urbanization were speeding up, so were the rates of infectious diseases.

Most people were distrustful of “legitimate medicine”, which, according to the Smithsonian, often used extreme techniques like blood-letting.

Americans who felt a cold coming on often felt more comfortable turning to patent medicines — like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup — rather than calling a doctor.

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The first American “oily guy” on record.

The Smithsonian reports that Clark Stanley was born in Texas around 1854.

He was a cowboy for years before he transitioned to “medicine”.

His snake oil liniment first gained major attention at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

According to the bottle label, it was supposed to help with “muscular rheumatism, lame back, bruises and insect bites,” among other things.

But his heyday happened before the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which attempted to ban the sale of “adulterated” foods.

Tests on Stanley’s liniment in 1916 revealed his concoction contained mineral oil, beef fat, capsaicin from chili peppers and turpentine.

He was fined the equivalent of $555 in today’s money, and soon the term “snake oil salesman” came to mean a purveyor of fake products marketed as medicine.

Modern day equivalents of “snake oil”

While snake oil itself may have evaporated into the past, the expression didn’t.

It’s important to note that some “snake oil remedies” do have roots in ancient cultures from around the world, and many people respect them for adding a certain “unquantifiable” health benefit to their daily routines.

The key word is “unquantifiable”.

Here is a list, by no-means exhaustive, of 21st century products that have been presented as a “health cure”.

They aren’t backed by science, but each has been incredibly financially successful.

Juicing

In the U.S., the popularity of juice cleanses can be traced back to the 1930s, when Dr. Max B. Gerson developed a protocol to cure himself of persistent migraines.

Beyond other things, the therapy called for 15-20 pounds of organic produce per day, often only possible through juicing.

While juicing can help your body absorb nutrients, the Mayo Clinic points out that most juicers remove healthy fiber.

The American Cancer Society cautions against treating cancer with Gerson therapy; it can cause nutrient deficiencies.

According to Fortune Business Insights, the market for cold-pressed juice was $1.15B in 2022, and is expected to grow to $1.86B by 2030.

Crystal healing

According to the independent news network The Conversation, astronomer Carl Sagan theorized that, although it’d been a part of different traditions for centuries, the resurgence of crystal healing in the 1980s was ignited by the Crystal Healing series of books published by Katrina Raphaell during that decade.

The pandemic also inspired a revived interest in crystals.

Crystal healing has been called a pseudoscience, but the numbers provide evidence that it comforts a lot of people. The quartz crystal market alone was valued at $4.69B in 2021, according to Transparency Market Research.

Essential oils

Not only do they make your house smell great, but many people claim that certain essences may have antimicrobial properties.

Scientific American warns readers that there is currently no evidence-based research that proves essential oils can cure illnesses.

However, SA also notes that essential oils have a good track record for positively affecting mood and stress levels.

Regardless of why people use them, essential oils are a huge industry, making just under $22B in 2022 according to Grandview Research.

“Natural” weight-loss cures

The Mayo Clinic reports that dietary supplements don’t need to be approved by the FDA.

A prime example would be garcinia cambogia, a fruit used in the south of Asia in cooking and food preservation.

In the 2000s, it made a splash in the U.S. as a weight loss aid, although its actual effect remains unclear.

One of its key ingredients, hydroxycitric acid, was banned by the FDA in 2009 for its contribution to “fulminant hepatic failure”, or acute liver failure occurring in someone who hasn’t previously had liver issues.

Just on their own, garcinia cambogia supplements made $114.5 million in 2022, according to Future Market Insights.

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A snake in medicine’s clothing

While natural health products may actually have various health benefits, what makes something snake oil is the fake promises attached to it — or the side effects of taking it being conveniently hidden — and the person behind the ad campaign.

Often, the person who benefits the most from a “natural cure-all” is the distributor themselves, who, rather than having an eye on public welfare, is watching their wallet and exploiting the vulnerability of their customers.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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