How We Got the Term “Snake Oil Salesman”

The term "snake oil salesman" conjures up images of seedy profiteers trying to exploit an unsuspecting public by selling it fake cures. Because the term is derogatory, it has been a favorite go-to for politicians and lobbying groups on both sides of the aisle. Exactly what is snake oil and why is peddling it so offensive? According to historian Richard White, about 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882. They brought with them various medicines, including snake oil. Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake — which is rich in omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation — snake oil in its original form was very effective when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. Workers would rub the oil on their joints after a hard day at work, and before long they were sharing it with American workers, who marveled at the oil’s effects. So, how did a legitimate medicine become a symbol of fraud? The negative connotation dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, which saw a dramatic rise in fake medicines. Greedy perpetrators began using rattlesnakes to make their own version of snake oil, but it didn’t work. Of course, that didn't matter to the scammers, who managed to rake in quite a bit of money selling their useless potions. The difference was that Chinese snake oil contained almost triple the amount of a vital acid as did rattlesnake oil. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 sought to clamp down on the sale of patent medicines, and it was that legislation that led to snake oil becoming a symbol of fraud.