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Snake oil is an expression that originally referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicine but has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, a snake oil salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is himself or herself a fraud, quack, charlatan, or the like.
Two main hypotheses for the origin of the term are as follows: The more common theory is that the name originated in the Western regions of the United States and is derived from a topical preparation made from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) used by Chinese laborers to treat joint pain. The preparation was promoted in North America by travelling salesmen who often used accomplices in the audience to proclaim the benefits of the preparation.
One source, William S. Haubrich in his book Medical Meanings (1997, American College of Physicians) claims that the name came from the eastern United States. The indigenous people of the New York and Pennsylvania region would rub cuts and scrapes with the petroleum collected from oil seeps that occurred naturally in the area. European settlers observed this habit, and began bottling and selling the substance as a cure-all. The preparation was sold as "Seneca oil" in mid-nineteenth century, after the local tribes. Haubrich claims through mispronunciation this became "Sen-ake-a oil" and eventually "snake oil". Haubrich's claim, however, appears to be a case of folk etymology, as no historical evidence appears to exist for this transformation.
Chinese laborers on railroad gangs involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad first gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, and in time, snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mischaracterized and mostly inert or ineffective.
Patent medicines originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's Elixir in 1712. Since there was no federal regulation in the United States concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act and various medicine salesmen or manufacturers seldom had enough skills in analytical chemistry to analyze the contents of snake oil, it became the archetype of hoax.
The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a traveling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) would often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would leave town before his customers realized they had been cheated. This practice is also called grifting and its practitioners are called grifters.
The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly among products.
The government sued the manufacturer for misbranding and misrepresenting its product, winning the judgment of $20 against Clark Stanley. Soon after the decision, "snake oil" became synonymous with false cures and "snake-oil salesmen" became a tag for charlatans.
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