Snake Oil Salesmen

I’m sure you have heard the term “snake oil salesman.” However, have you ever stopped to wonder how that term came to be? Snake oil salesmen got their name from Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment. It was mineral oil that had been mixed with various herbs and compounds. It was marketed as a cure for a variety of joint and back pain. For good measure Stanley thought he’d pitch his snake oil as providing instant relief from frostbite, bruises, sore throat, and bug and animal bites. A well known ad for the product said, “Good for everything a liniment ought to be good for.”

With claims like these it is no wonder that Clark Stanley had a successful venture on his hands. He wasn’t the first, and he wasn’t the last. However, his snake oil became a common term for medication that boasted outlandish and fraudulent claims. While doing little, if anything, of real benefit to the recipient.

Snake Oil Salesmen Go to Court

In 1916, Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was tested by the government’s Bureau of Chemistry. This was a government agency that was a precursor to the Food and Drug Administration. It provided limited value for its cost. It contained mineral oil, 1% fatty oil, capsaicin from chili peppers, turpentine and camphor. 

Stanley faced federal prosecution for distributing mineral oil in a fraudulent manner as snake oil. There was nothing involving snakes in his oil. Stanley pleaded no contest to the charges. The judge accepted his plea and he fined him $20. In today’s money that would be around $470. He basically got off with nothing but a slap on the wrist. 

Snake oil is a prime example of a patent medicine. This was a concoction that was put together and had claims of tremendous benefit to those who would take it. This is a topic that has come up again and again as I’ve researched other episodes. A lot of soda that we know and love today started as a patent medicine. Coca Cola, Dr Pepper, Pepsi, 7 Up and Root Beer all have roots in promising tremendous health benefits for nothing more than a sip of the product. 

The First Patent Medicines

Patent medicine originated in England. The name originates from the letters of patent that were granted by the English Crown. After patent medicine came to America, few producers actually sought patents. As time went on, the term “patent medicine” began to describe any medicine sold over the counter. 

Early colonial life proved that no one could escape the reach and popularity of these early patent medicines. Turlington’s Balsam of Life, Bateman’s Pectoral Drops and Hooper’s Female Pills were very successful in early America. Some, like Bateman’s Pectoral Drops maintained popularity well into the 1900s. The original patent for these drops was granted by King George I in 1726. 

Of course, it didn’t take long for Americans to understand the vast potential and financial success that could come with development of patent medicines. Successful inventors enlisted the help of savvy marketers to get their products noticed by the public.

Patent medicines were one of the first major product categories that the advertising industry promoted. Advertising often promoted these medications as a cure to multiple ailments. They emphasized exotic ingredients and were often endorsed by experts or well known celebrities. This influx of medication showed that no disease was beyond a possible cure. 

So how did this craze start? The very first letters of patent given to an inventor of a secret remedy was issued during the late 17th century. The patent ensured that the medicine maker had a monopoly over his particular formula. They could then market and sell that medicine at will.

Different Types of Patent Medicines

There were hundreds of different patent medicines on display across the country. Some of these contained hard drugs such as opium, meth, morphine, heroin and cocaine. There were also absurd concoctions that were nothing more than a placebo. However, people still sought out these cures. Next week I’m going to discuss how these medications could be dangerous. Furthermore, we will discuss how these dangers led to the formation of the FDA.

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Snake Oil Salesmen: How Patent Medicines Changed Food Forever (Part1)

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