Snake Oil

Bill Neinast

Snake oil salesman is a derisive term.  The phrase conjures up images of seedy profiteers trying to exploit an unsuspecting public by selling it fake cures.

Historically, the phrase is somewhat inaccurate.  There was, in fact, a snake oil. This was an ointment made from a Chinese water snake and brought to this country in the 19th century by the Chinese coolies imported to build the transcontinental railroad.

The ointment was massaged into arthritic joints or sore muscles and seemed to give some relief from the pain.  The American workers noticed that relief and began borrowing the snake oil for their use.

As the word got out, unscrupulous vendors began manufacturing bogus lotions, potions, and “medicines” that were advertised as curing everything from ingrown toenails to kidney problems.

Other vendors began hawking their wares from tents in traveling carnivals.  Others dumped their wares on naive customers as traveling salesmen.

One of the most entertaining depictions of a snake oil salesman may be Robert Preston’s movie portrayal of Harold Hill as a boys' band organizer and leader who sells band instruments and uniforms in The Music Man.

The heyday of snake oil salesmen was the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th.

That does not mean there are none around today.  There is a lot of snake oil out there that is being hawked in more sophisticated ways than the old door-to-door salesmen.

Last week’s mail brought a slick brochure for a snake oil that was, according to the salesman, first developed to cure sick salmon.

Here are just a few sentences from the brochure, “And so was Lief Thorenseon, the first human in Norway to experience the incredible power of Dr. Jan’s discovery.

“Lief had been very sick.  He suffered from a persistent stomach infection, aggravated by a nasty spastic colon, skin problems, and constant flulike symptoms….

“..Within three weeks [of starting this miracle cure], all of his health problems, including his chronic stomach infection (a condition he had suffered from for years) had completely vanished…”

Were you aware that “snake oil” like that  is still available?

Printed material for those fantastic remedies is not the only thing entering your home.  A more pernicious form comes right into your living room via the TV screen.

The endless ads on FOX News and CNN for the Willow Curve comes to mind.

Before shelling out $600 for this device with the blinking red lights to avoid knee surgery, check it out on Google.  Be cautious and note that most of the entries are from the Willow Curve manufacturer tooting its own horn.

So here’s the perspective.

Snake oil salesmen are not limited to miracle cures.  They have been showing up in politics.

The political personification of that appellation may be the front runners for the presidential nomination in both parties.

Listen to Donald Trump’s constant puffery of his own greatness and how he can change anything by just ordering it to change.

Then switch over to Hillary Clinton’s claims about being the most transparent politician in history and that she understands the working poor because she came from them.  Remember she and Bill were dead broke when they left the White House.

So there are still plenty of snake oil salesmen and women out there.  Just watch for them on TV.    


HOME page>                  NEW STUFF page> 
          WRITING CONTENT page>       GUEST ARTISTS page>Home_1.htmlNew_Stuff.htmlEssays.htmlGuest_Artists.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0shapeimage_1_link_1shapeimage_1_link_2shapeimage_1_link_3