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.
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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