The term "Snake Oil" is now associated with quack herbal "cure-alls" and medicines of questionable origin and effectiveness. These are usually assumed to be a scam or marketing ploy. The origins of snake oil has its roots in very legitimate Chinese Herbal medicine. There are various snakes that were traditionally used medicinally by Chinese Herbalists for pain. Snakes were a favorite ingredient for liniments and internal formulas for joint aches from over work and strain.
As railroads moved west in the 19th century, large numbers of Chinese laborers were hired throughout the west to do the back breaking labor of building the railroads. Those Chinese workers soothed their aches and pains with the medicine that they knew well- Snake oil. They would have used snake based concoctions the way modern laborers rely on aspirin or ibuprofen.
Nineteenth century traveling salesmen (with little government oversight) took advantage of popularity and reputation of the Chinese snake oils. It is quite likely that these salesman started selling various cure-alls, with snake oil being one of them. Some (if not many) of these salesman would have mixed up fraudulent concoctions (with lots of alcohol) to cure all kinds of ills.
Eventually "snake oil" became synonymous with scams and phony medicinal products.
This type of medicinal product marketing continues even today. The ads include before and after weight loss pictures, and references to questionable scientific studies and testimonials. The marketing of "a cure for what ails you" goes on, its just no longer called "snake oil" by the salesmen.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066