Tonics, Powders, Salves and Oils: Guaranteed to cure what ails ya!

Although snake oil shows are perceived as American in origin, their roots can be traced back to the mountebank and zany shows that flourished throughout medieval Europe. The mountebank peddled pills, ointments and tonics from a small stage. He attracted a crowd with the assistance of a clownish partner called a zany, who gained attention by juggling and tumbling. Together, while acclaiming the marvels of their nostrums, the pair would perform farcical skits and magic tricks to the audience’s delight. It was a style of entertainment that would endure for centuries.

American medicine shows were traveling horse and buggy teams that peddled miracle medications and other products between various acts of entertainment. In most cases, patent medicine companies hired entertainers and pitchmen to sell their medicines across the country. Free shows with acts such as singers, comic sketches, jugglers, acrobats, music, magic, sword swallowing, ventriloquism and dancing drew a crowd. Sometimes there was a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts and storytelling. The shows were often the only form of entertainment a town would see, so their arrival was an event. Stores closed, school let out, and townsfolk got dressed up to go see the show. Once the people were in a jolly mood, the pitchman who often called himself a doctor or professor would be announced.

The pitchman would then pitch the medicine from the medicine company the show represented. The average medicine show generally consisted of 2 to 5 people. They did everything in the show from entertaining to the bottling of the medicine. Independent shows that didn’t represent a “patent” medicine company, made their medicine right in the back of the wagons.

Medicine shows generally traveled within a certain radius of the medicine company. Other shows traveled within a given state or states. Some shows adopted Indian names after so-called Indian remedies. These shows were often referred to as a Traveling Indian Medicine Show. The medicine that was sold seldom did what was claimed.

The product most commonly associated with medicine shows is an elixir, also known as snake oil, which was supposed to cure diseases, smooth facial wrinkles, remove stains in clothing, prolong life, grow hair or cure a multitude of ailments. Potions had names like Lydia Pinkham’s Compound For Female Weakness, Professor Low’s Liniment & Worm Syrup, Dalley’s Magical Pain Extractor, Dr. Kilmer’s Swamproot, Hood’s Sarsaparilla, Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, Dr. King’s New Discovery, Edgar’s Cathartic Confection and Schenck’s Mandrake Pills.

So where do we get the term snake oil? True snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine used to treat joint pain. From the research I did, I think it was most likely Snake Root or Echinacea. Chinese laborers on railroad gangs gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. Rival medicine salesmen, especially those selling patent medicines, ridiculed this claim.

Rattlesnake oil, gathered at presumably great risk, was especially prized. The snake oil sold at medicine shows didn’t come from any kind of slithering reptile or a root. Over-the-counter products such as white gasoline and wintergreen oil provided the potent mix that carried the sure-sell label of snake oil.

Now the most common usage of the phrase snake oil is as a derogatory term for compounds offered as medicines that imply they are fake. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality.

The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a traveling “doctor” with dubious credentials, selling some medicine such as snake oil with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by bogus pseudo-scientific evidence. An accomplice in the crowd called a shill would often declare the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm.

The traveling doctor often provided the illusion of curing the afflicted. Faithful believers lined up at the medicine show to get that mystical cure-all.

Is your arthritis kicking up again? Medicine Show doctors offer immediate relief. How? Strong hand pressure and vigorous rubbing of the liniment dulls the pain just long enough to clinch the sale.

Hard of hearing? Showmen can make your ears audibly better. Listen closely how it’s done. Knowing that impacted earwax commonly affects hearing, the application of a few drops of oil and a deft sweep of a finger results in a loud pop and improved hearing for the appreciative customer.

Got tapeworms worth measuring? If you suspect you might, try the miracle pill guaranteed to expel more than you can imagine. The trick? The pill conceals a ball of string that will work its way out of the body as a slimy worm-like creature. Once the sales were made, the “doctor” would leave town before his customers realized that they had been cheated. This practice was also called grifting and its practitioners grifters.

The Big Sensation Medicine Company was an impressive show featuring thirty performers under a canvas tent with room for fifteen hundred potential customers. It drew people in with the promise of free dentistry. Hamlin Wizard Oil of Chicago had thirty shows on the road at one time, each with a large inventory of tonics, pills and cough balsam. In 1900, the Kickapoo Indian Oil Company claimed two hundred one-man shows touring the country simultaneously.

Over the years, Hollywood has perpetuated the notion that medicine show hucksters were men of dubious character. Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz and Doc Meriweather in Little Big Man are examples. But there were valid counterparts.

Legitimate products included Doan’s Pills, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Geritol, Castoria, Bromo-Seltzer and Bayer Aspirin. One product, Dr. Pepper’s Tonic, wasn’t accepted as a blood purifier, but folks enjoyed it as a carbonated beverage. Both the public and the medical community are rediscovering many of the old herbal remedies sold at medicine shows. They include Chamomile, St. John’s Wort, Goldenseal and Snake Root (Echinacea).

When you think about it, it’s no different than the advertising we see and all the hype we hear today. Diet pills, hair removers, hair growth products, wrinkle removers, bust enhancers – the list goes on. Infomercials! Some of that stuff is legit, some is a waste of money. Ever been suckered into buying something that looked too good to be true–because it was?

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23 thoughts on “Tonics, Powders, Salves and Oils: Guaranteed to cure what ails ya!”

  1. Hmm, I am still trying to digest swallowing something that would take stains out of clothing! Yuck, that can’t be good for you.

  2. I bought “Nads” that hair waxing stuff…I got part of one leg done and couldn’t do any more it was so painful…one of the things they claimed it wasn’t. It was also messy and the little strips of cotton they included weren’t enough to do both legs and underarms. Rediculous!

    I’m sure there have been other things, but more than likely I’d rather not remember! Haha!

  3. Compound for Female Weakness. Oh, I love that. It’d be interesting to know what ‘medicines’ that was composed of.

    Very interesting, informative and you’ve given me a great idea!

  4. Cheryl, loved this blog! It reminded me of when I was researching THE MERCENARY’S KISS. My heroine’s father was a pitchman for his elixir. It was a bit magical, and it really did cure what ails you. The elixir made for a happy ending for everyone.

    Have I ever been duped? ‘Fraid so. A couple years back, I was going through the big “M” symptoms and found a product called “Zalestra” on Amazon. It claimed to take away all my menopausal symptoms, help me lose weight AND improve my sex life. Well, I read each and every glowing review, even called my OB/GYN about it. (He’d never heard of it). Long story short, I paid $60 for the bottle of pills and noticed absolutely NO change.

    Ah, well. I knew it was a long shot from the get-go, but I did it anyway. Silly me. LOL.


    This makes me think of those awful, endless commercials now on TV selling…oh, Sham Wow, Mighty Putty, Green Bags, and a scad of music CDs and juicers and exercise equipment.

    Here’s the deal with this. They get you with the postage and handling. The postage and handling is often the only real money maker. Love the product, fine, hate it, fine. Either way, they keep the outrageous shipping and handling fees. And if they offer you two for the price of one, WATCH OUT, they charge DOUBLE the shipping and handling. And if you order two, meaning the one, plus the freebie two-for-the-price of one…they send FOUR and charge you four times the shipping and handling.

    My mom get majorly ripped of by an … oh, juicer I think it was. She ended up with four and over sixty dollars in shipping and handling and no way to get it back. Oh, they refunded her money for the actual product, just not the exhorbitant S/H charges.

  6. Taryn I bought the “Nads” too and they were terrible.
    Cheryl I like the thumb nails you put at the bottom to order your books that is a nice and easy way to order.

  7. Cher- There once was this waxing gel that claimed no heat and no pain. Just put it on at room temperature and it takes off body hair like a charm. A Miracle. HAH! It didn’t work and Mary is right. You end up keeping the darn stuff, because it cost you so much more to send it back! I rarely get suckered in these days. Middle age has made me a skeptic.
    We live and learn!

  8. My worst puchase was one of the Epil- things to remove hair ‘painlessly’ from legs. Yowza! I have a high tolerance to pain but that thing hurt!!! I tried it on small areas, several minutes apart, but I just couldn’t take the yanking on those root hairs. Even waxing doesn’t hurt that bad.

  9. We get wiser as we get more mature, don’t we? There’s a lot to be said for experience.

    By the way the PED egg for calluses works great and is available in stores–Walgreens, but I bought it at Bed bath and Beyond with the 20% coupon.

    Yeah, they sucker you with things that just sound so-o-o-o good and they’re something you’d desperantly want to work the way they say. Like those pills, Pam. What a bummer. Were they herbs like black cohash and evening primrose?

    Brenda, that is our new plug-in feature to make it convenient for readers to order books right here while we’re talking about them. Cool, huh? Those little covers will be on all our guest author blogs if their books are available through amazon.

    Mary, my daughter and I once ordered furniture refinishing stuff that was supposed to remove paint and varnish by applying and wiping. It wasn’t quite that simple, but it worked like any other.

    And years ago she and I tried this vibrating belt thing that was supposed to work off belly fat. I can’t believe we did that one, but we did. It was painful! Like electric shocks! We sent it back. I don’t rememeber the shipping being expensive, but no doubt it was.

    I can’t wait to hear your idea, *lizzie!

  10. Fantastic blog, Cheryl! I have dry skin in a very dry climate. A few months ago I tried a pricey mail order skin oil that was basically shark liver oil. It’s wonderful stuff. I just re-ordered. So some of the “snake oil” really works.
    Once I saw an old ad that sold tapeworm eggs like little pills for weight loss. Yikes!!
    Love the thumbnails.

  11. Cheryl, what a fun blog! It reminds me of when I was a teenager. I envied women with big boobs. I wanted bigger ones more than anything in the world. I saw an add that was guaranteed to add cup size with a unique exerciser. I used that plastic exerciser faithfully every day and never got a bit bigger. I never sent it back but I realized what a dope I’d been. Live and learn!

    I’m sure there were other rip-offs I got involved with but only the breast increaser comes to mind at the moment.

    Thanks for making me grin this morning! 🙂

  12. Oh my goodness, I am totally grossed out thinking about tapeworm pills to lose weight! Besides disgusting, how unhealthy!

    Linda, I am laughing because my daughter and I work out at the gym and she stays away from the machines that she claims will make her boobs bigger. I use them, because if it worked like that, every flat-chested woman in the city would be there. I figure a little muscle is better than a lot of sag any day.

  13. LINDA!!!!!! My friend and I had one of those things.

    It also did not work. I quit with it pretty fast but my friend was DILIGENT. No go.

    years later, pregnancy and weight gained helped though.

  14. In defense of using herbs however, I must tell this story:
    About ten yrs ago, the kids and I came down with some awful ‘bug’. The kids were throwing up all over the place! For me, some sticky stuff kept getting caught in my throat…I wasn’t able to breathe…this is when the kids would vomit theirs but for me, I’d be strangling. I remember kicking out at walls, kitchen doors, anything trying to clear this ‘stuff’ from my throat.
    We went to the doctor’s and he did throat swabs. The answer floored us – we were the first ones diagnosed in Saskatchewan with a new strain of whooping cough – yes – the old strain had been irradicated years ago.
    But, the doctor said – there was no medicine for it. What? He shrugged and looked at the door.
    I went home, called up a friend who sold herbs, and got the kids and me on black licorice root, mullein, elderberry and garlic. Within 10 days, we were cured and the doctor wanted to know our secret.

  15. LOL! Awesome blog, Cheryl! And if those machines really worked, I think I’d spend some more time at the gym! And Mary, pregnancy helped, but after I finished nursing, the boob fairy took it all back and then some! 😉

  16. Some of those so-called “remedies” were pretty
    yucky! I’m glad I wasn’t around during those days!

    Pat Cochran

  17. You know when you think about it there are more ‘cures’ these days than ever. My mil takes about…two pills prescribed by the doctor, but she takes all this ginsing and ginkoe baloba (I don’t know how to spell this stuff) gluecosamine, and there are a zillion others. My mom takes this ‘reliv’ stuff. I had a friend tell me to take ‘black cohosh’ for menopausal complaints. This isn’t sold out of the back of someone’s medicine wagon, this is in a regular drug store. I don’t suppose they’re harmful but there are serious doubts if they really do any good and it’s a mult-million (probably billion) dollar industry.

  18. I have found many homeopathic remedies that are right on, and for the most part prefer them to another alternative whenever possible. Mary, Glucosamine truly does work for joint lubrication. Chondroitin is most often included in the ingredients because it boosts effectiveness. Sort of like Vitamin D makes calcium absorb better.

    Black cohash has several likely side effects, like dizziness. But evening primrose works quite well.

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