View Full Version : Rattlesnake-Oil
07-23-2007, 08:26 PM
I was at Holiday World in Indiana today...of all places...and in one building I saw what they call the Abraham Lincoln Era Collection...which has all sorts of displays from that time frame. Very interesting. While looking through the displays I looked at a medical collection with medicine bottles dated during the Civil War era. One bottle in particular caught my attention. It said: Rattlesnake-Oil. I had heard of all the other bottles and their purposes, but this one threw me for a loop. Since I have returned home, I have found a few references to it searching a few engine searches, but nothing for the Civil War. Do any of you know what its purpose could have been if it is indeed period correct? Any kind of help would be appreciated!
07-24-2007, 04:20 AM
The term "snake-oil" itself may be post-war. So may be the bottle in the museum. They were peddled at medicine shows from the backs of wagons, and "drummers" were known to exaggerate the claims. There were lectures, skits, songs, testimonials from satisfied customers, Indians endorsing the product to add the air of legitimacy. It was a party/circuslike atmosphere.
A cowboy named Clark Stanley sold a snake-oil liniment he claimed had the real thing in it. He reportedly got slaughtered snakes from his home back in Abilene, Texas and processed the juices into the product he sold nationwide from his plant in new England. He claimed this was the same receipe the Indians back home rendered from rattlesnakes and used to treat aching muscles and sore bones. But since the ingredients in medicines were not required by law to be placed on the label, there was no way a trusting consumer really knew what was in those medicines. Many, if not all, were nothing more than vegetable bitters cut with alcohol, and sold only on the strength of testimonials and the frenzy of excitement created by the show itself. (1)
The term "snake-oil" morphed into a generic term for post-war patent medicines and their infamous polyglot of insane ingredients and panaceas they claimed to cure. Often they claimed it was from an "Indian receipe". Sort of like how the term "organic" and/or "all-natural" are catchphrases designed to instill trust in today's homeopathic remedies.
(1)Bethard, Wayne. "Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs - Frontier Medicine in America". Taylor Trade Publishing, Latham, 2004. pp. 112-118.
07-24-2007, 06:26 AM
The term "snake-oil" itself may be post-war. So may be the bottle in the museum.
Micah, you've solved a long-standing question I've had. I'd not been able to find mention of "snake oil" in the period, let alone its use as symbolic of all quack medicines and traveling medicine salesmen, yet it seemed odd that it had exploded full-blown later as a medicinal substance.
Well, it seems the more common period name for the medicine, as a minor folk medicine, not as a synonym for generic quackery, was "rattlesnake oil."
Try a google book search, limited to pre-1865, and there are a few hits recommending it for rheumatism externally, or croup internally. (Watch out for a couple of magazine articles that are misdated when you actually click on the hit.)
A cowboy named Clark Stanley sold a snake-oil liniment he claimed had the real thing in it.
I agree with Noah that there's a good chance the bottle was post-war, since it seems that era was one in which patent medicines with (rattle)snake oil came into widespread public notice. It's very common for displays to mix 1880s bottles with 1860s bottles and call them all Civil War era, because all those patent medicines are old timey looking, y'know? Ironically, anyone who's used to looking at labels could probably tell the approximate date by clues such as the inclusion of the word "trade mark," the type style and design, etc.
So I'd say the answer is that rattlesnake oil was known in the period as a minor folk medicine for rheumatism externally, croup internally, and a few other uses, but was most likely not sold on a large commercial scale as a patent medicine and therefore probably not bottled and labeled as such, and didn't have the emotional associations that "snake oil" has for us today.
07-24-2007, 06:47 AM
Here is some more info on patent medicines:
The patent medicine era was in its infancy during the war. There were very few patent remedies available. They exploded after the War, though. The famous one being Mrs. Lydia Pinkham's Pills.
Hoesteteller's Bitters (probably misspelled; it may be on the CD ROM of product labels by Bob Sullivan) is another one. The rest I'd have to look up at home; they are listed in Virginia Mescher's booklet on historical uses for herbs.
"It's very common for displays to mix 1880s bottles with 1860s bottles and call them all Civil War era, because all those patent medicines are old timey looking, y'know? Ironically, anyone who's used to looking at labels could probably tell the approximate date by clues such as the inclusion of the word "trade mark," the type style and design, etc."
Indeed. See the thread on laudanum for discussion on how labels would look in our period.
07-24-2007, 11:24 AM
I had a feeling that when I first saw the display that it was a post-war kit, but the curiosity in me had to find out for sure. Still interesting to see however. Most of the info I pulled up was similar to what you all posted. To be honest, the first thing that popped in my head when I saw it was some fashion of an old indian remedy.
03-20-2009, 09:51 PM
Yeah, I know, I pulled one out of the basement of this section, but I stumbled onto something to add to this post war snake oil thing while researching another topic.
Interesting link about the "then and now" of the product.
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