Thursday, June 10, 2021

Have I Got A Cure For You…and Other Snake Oil Salesmen Promises

By Suzanne Norquist

“Have I got a cure for you!” The snake oil salesman called into the crowd of interested bystanders. “Do you have gout, fever, diarrhea, lethargy, or sore muscles? One teaspoon every morning, and all your ailments will be gone.”

In modern times, no one wants to be called a snake oil salesman, a term fitting for someone who crawled out from under a rock to engage in shady dealings.

A once respected profession declined into a disreputable racket. In the 1800s, Chinese immigrants brought an ointment made from the oil of water snakes to America. Omega 3 and fatty acids in the oil had a healing effect, creating a moderately effective treatment for sore muscles. I don’t get the impression it was touted as a cure-all at the time.

Since the United States didn’t boast an abundance of Chinese water snakes, men wanting to make a quick buck figured any snake would do. Rattlesnakes were used. In California, rattlesnake hunters bottled their oil for sale. Unfortunately, the snakes didn’t provide any healing properties. However, with enough alcohol, opium, and herbs, people believed the hype. Salesmen used their charisma, visual demonstrations, and storytelling to push a product that could heal any ailment.

Around the same time, cure-all patent medicines became popular in America. Many people didn’t trust doctors with their extreme cures, such as bloodletting and purgatives. Easy health in a bottle proved attractive.

Most patent medicines weren’t actually patented. The term comes from letters of patent granted by the English crown in the late seventeenth century. Patents authorized the use of royal endorsements in advertising. Many of these contained generous levels of alcohol and opioids but no snake oil.

The US government didn’t regulate or oppose these medicines. Instead, they taxed them. During the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, every bottle wore a tax stamp. Proceeds funded the war efforts.

Both patent medicines and snake oil were sold by traveling medicine shows. The events ranged from a single mom-and-pop wagon to an elaborate circus-like company. Wild West or Native American themes were popular. Jugglers, acrobats, dancers, musicians, or fire-eaters could be part of the group. Residents of rural communities flocked to enjoy free entertainment, and between acts, “doctors” or “professors” described the benefits of the medicine. The show left town before people had a chance to learn that most claims were false.

Many believed in the curative powers of ancient Native American remedies, so some salesmen said they learned secrets directly from natives. They brought “Indians” along as part of the show.

Companies published books and pamphlets to push their products. These included almanacs which provided a plethora of helpful information. Publishers and newspapers strongly supported the patent-medicine industry because so much money was spent on advertising.

In the early 1900s, investigators began publishing articles about the dangers of these patent medicines, leading to a massive public outcry. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Soon after, the Food and Drug Administration was created.

Medicine shows continued into the mid-1900s under the new regulations.

Surprisingly, a few patent medicines were legitimate, such as Listerine, Bayer Aspirin, Milk of Magnesia, Ex-Lax, and Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve, which is now known as Vick’s VapoRub.

Thankfully, "snake oil salesmen" don’t use actual snakes anymore. They just act like them.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

For a Free Preview, click here:

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.


  1. Interesting. I like learning these little known facts. I grew up with Vick's on my chest when I had congestion.

    1. Thanks. I was surprised to learn that a few were actually useful.

  2. Thanks for posting this morning! That picture of the snake oil bottle almost did me in, though. I can't imagine having one of those on my shelf!

    1. It is pretty creepy. I almost didn't include that picture, but the blog was about snake oil.

  3. I remember hearing old wives tales even for babies.