Extracted from the Bodies of North Carolina Rattlesnakes

Item #099 - Rattlesnake Oil, from the C. L. De Costa Pharmacy of Burnsville North Carolina.

"The great strength of this oil renders it capable of being reduced before use."

Blue glass bottle, 4" x 1.5", corked, the cork being secured at some time with tape, the top of the cork protected from the tape by a small square of paper.

Snake oil lineaments were common in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Though claiming to contain snake oil, analysis showed they contained mineral oil, a bit of beef fat, camphor and pepper extract: not only did snake oil not work, it wasn't even snake oil. Miller's Snake Oil confessed in the finest of print that it hadn't any in it at all

This bottle, however, may contain the real thing.

There are legends concerning the origin of snake oil:
  • Seneca Indians were observed smearing tar on their joints for relief from ailment. It is claimed the name was corrupted over the years from Seneca Oil to Snake Oil. There seems to be no evidence for this story, but it sounds good.
  • A newspaper clipping from the 1880's tells of a Pennsylvania man who made a living capturing and rendering snakes for skins and oil. There are a number of documented 'Snake Men' who dealt in the genuine article. Many claimed they learned of the practice from the American Indians.
  • Snake oil has been used in traditional Chinese Medicine for cure of joint pain and may have been brought over by immigrants. There is no evidence that the practice spread beyond the Chinese.
  • Spaniards living in the New Mexico mountains make a lineament made from oil and powdered dried snake meat and use it for arthritic joints.

The bottle is half full of a clear liquid. The liquid has thrown a white snowy precipitate over half its volume.

Whatever the substance in the bottle, the use of snake products for joint pain seems to have several independent origins. The sinuous and obviously non-arthritic nature of snakes is likely to have suggested that there is something in snakes that keeps the joints limber. Unfortunately for arthritics there is no evidence this is so.

Snake oil is undergoing a marketing resurgence, this time with claims of magical Omega compounds. Well, what would one expect: if it isn't full of Omega XX then it must be an anti-oxidant.

A 3-panel photographic 'paste-up' of the label.