Snake Oil – It’s Good for what Ails You

Part one of a two-part series.

With the exception of most political advertisements, we’ve come to expect that the products we see promoted on television, online, and in newspapers and periodicals are safe to use as directed and will generally perform as represented. That hasn’t always been the case.

Long before congress and various states began passing legislation that provided oversight and protection for consumer products and services, businesses were free to promote and sell whatever the free market would buy. Many products posed more dangers than benefits, and the claims of many sellers were so outrageous that it is hard to conceive that they made onto to the labels or into the advertising copy.

Some of the more egregious offenders in both advertising and manufacturing are shown below. What we are certain will be a surprise to many, a good deal of these products were manufactured and sold by companies that are considered reputable in today’s world. Some of these will make you laugh, some will make you cringe, and some will likely offend you. If you have any doubts behind the reasoning of creating government agencies aimed at protecting the consumer (sometimes from his own lack of wisdom & common sense), take a hard look at some of the products and claims in these promotions and perhaps you will rethink your position.

It should be noted that all the advertisements and products shown here are real. There are dozens of very convincing parodies out there that have been circulating for years. Everything shown here has been verified as to having been manufactured and advertised as shown – proving once again that truth is often stranger than fiction.

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Alcohol & Pharmaceuticals

Anything that makes you feel better is obviously good medicine.

The Temperance Movement was alive and well in the mid-1800’s. Alcohol had long been a staple in the diet of most early Americans. Water wasn’t always potable, but distilled alcohol certainly was. By the middle of the century, certain communities had banned the sale of many alcoholic beverages – unless of course they were considered medicinal. Here is an advertisement for one such product, “Gilbert & Parson’s Hygienic Whiskey.” It was “certified” not to contain “fousel (sic) oil.” Fusel oil is basically harmless, it simply alters the taste a bit and can be easily eliminated with longer fermentation at lower temperatures; but in the 1860’s, whiskey without it was obviously “medicinal” in nature and “hygienic” in quality! At least that is how the seller justified selling it in those markets where ordinary alcoholic beverages had been banned, so how many fun-loving whiskey drinkers were going to challenge that claim?

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It looks like mom has been sampling some of Mrs. Winslow’s cocaine based Soothing Syrup.

Prior to legislation that defined certain drug ingredients as being “controlled substances” and then carefully regulated – or even banned – their use, the pharmaceutical business was a bit of a free-for-all. If the woman and her children depicted in this turn of the century advertisement look glassy-eyed and at bit out of it, it might be because “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup” was loaded with cocaine – a perfectly legal substance at the time.

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1910 advertisement for cough syrup containing heroin.

Or if you had a nagging cough, and morphine or codeine wasn’t doing the trick, you could always ask your pharmacist for some “Smith Glyco-Heroin.” Every bottle contained ½ grain of real honest-to-goodness heroin. One teaspoon every two hours during the day and one or two teaspoons prior to retiring for the night would solve that nasty old cough for sure!

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Snake Oil – Guaranteed to cure just about every ailment known to man.

We’ve all heard about the proverbial snake oil salesman. But he was real and honesty in the manner he promoted his product was the furthest thing from his mind.

One of the most best-known con men who peddled snake oil was a former cowboy named Clark Stanley, better known as the self-proclaimed “Rattlesnake King.” Stanley claimed he got his snake oil liniment formula from a Moki Pueblo tribesman. Dressed in colorful western garb, he captivated carnival crowds. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he had a sack full of live rattlesnakes from which he pulled one, slit it down the middle and tossed it into a vat of boiling water. As the fatty oil from the surprised, but now deceased, snake rose to the top of the vat, he scooped it out and poured into a bottle which he would then sell to the first customer willing to shell out the fifty-cent tariff. He did this repeatedly throughout the day and evening while an assistant would sell previously filled bottles to the rest of the crowd.

In 1905, Collier’s Magazine published a scathing article accusing patent medicine pushers as being fraudsters who often sold poisonous products. An outraged public demanded something be done and congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907.

In 1917, a shipment of Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was seized by the U.S. government to be analyzed by scientists. Their research revealed that it contained mineral oil, red pepper to warm the skin when it was applied, traces of turpentine or camphor to make it smell medicinal, and just one percent of fatty oil, likely from cattle. It contained not one single trace of snake oil – rattlesnake or otherwise.

Apparently, the only customers who had ever received real rattlesnake oil from Stanley were those folks who bought the bottles that had been filled before their eyes at one of Stanley’s carnival sideshows.

Exploitation of children in advertising and product sales.

Yes, this was a real product!!!

The “baby cage” was patented in 1923 by Emma Read of Spokane Washington. It is unknown if Emma was a mother, but looking at this ridiculous contraption, it would seem likely that she could not have been. When secured from a window, the baby cage hung from the side of a building, giving children access to fresh air and sunlight through the cage’s wire frame, and room to play with toys. According to the patent application, the cage could be outfitted with removable side curtains and a covering on top that could prevent unwanted drafts and protect the child from inclement weather – like maybe a blizzard during the winter? The cage could also double as a sleeping area. Or perhaps a place for pigeons to roost?

The actual wording of the patent application which was granted on March 13, 1923: “It is well known that a great many difficulties rise in raising, and properly housing babies and small children in crowded cities, that is to say, from the health viewpoint. With these facts in view, it is the purpose of this invention to provide an article of manufacture for babies and young children, to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed.”  Yeah, that sounds like a real “healthy” option.

Sadly, these cages were sold in the thousands – mostly in crowded European cities such as London – throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was featured in popular magazines and was even highlighted in a short Pathe Newsreel shown in movie theaters.

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What where the producers of this Gillette advertisement thinking?

This 1920’s advertisement for Gillette’s new safety razor surely wasn’t meant to suggest that infants should shave, but the mere fact that a baby was depicted holding a razor might have convinced an eight-year-old that it was perfectly safe to play with dad’s razor. The lack of thought that went into many ads was prevalent throughout the era.

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What could go wrong with an open flame in an alcohol burner and some red-hot glass in a child’s hand?

One of the most dangerous experimental craft sets ever sold was A. C. Gilbert’s Glass Blowing Set produced in the 1920’s and marketed to pre-teen boys as being “fascinating and fun.” How many unwitting parents purchased this product for their adolescent sons is unknown – as are the number of fires and severe burns that resulted from the set’s use. Depicted on the box are two pre-teen lads neatly attired in dress shirts and neckties. The product looks safe enough until you realize the heat needed to soften glass enough to either bend it or blow through the tube to expand it. That temperature is at least 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Any parent who took the time to read Gilbert’s instruction manual would have thrown the entire set in the trash.

The 62-page instruction manual that accompanied the set should have set off alarm bells in the head of any parent who took the time to get past the first 3 or 4 pages. Cutting glass tubes that then needed to be smoothed to avoid cuts, using an alcohol fueled burner that produced a white-hot open flame, and handling one end of a glass tube with your bare hands while heating the other end until it became “red hot” was all that any sane parent would need to see before relegating this dangerous set into the trash can.  

The manual can be read in its entirety here: http://glassian.org/Making/Gilbert/fcover.html

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Before lead was considered to be an extreme health hazard for children.

1923. Dutch Boy Paint enticed children to help promote their lead-based paint in their parent’s home. A paint book for boys and girls entitled “The Dutch Boy’s Lead Party” showed a variety of household products that contained lead. But rather than warn of the dangers of the products shown, it instead encouraged their use. Particularly egregious were the toy lead soldiers that small children would have played with and then put their hands or fingers in their mouths – or worse yet, the toys themselves.

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11 months of age and he’s not even their youngest customer according to the makers of 7-Up

This 1955 advertisement for 7-Up shows an 11-month-old child drinking soda. The copy reads in part: “7-Up is so pure, so wholesome, you can even give it to babies and feel good about it.” Unlike the previous razor ad, this one was meant to entice children to use the product. The earlier they began to drink this product, the more the bottler would sell. It may not have been technically dangerous for a small child to consume 7-Up, but it most certainly wasn’t as healthy for that child as milk, fruit juice, or even plain water would have been.

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Radioactive material for adolescent boys. Five-plus years after Hiroshima and no one saw this as a being a potential problem?

Move forward about thirty years from our first example of A. C. Gilbert’s products and see how the company managed to outdo itself with another incredibly dangerous science-oriented set aimed at adolescent boys. The Atomic Energy Lab was every boy’s dream! It contained real radioactive uranium! The saving grace here was the astronomical price – $49.50 in 1950, the equivalent of about $600 in today’s dollars. How many takers of this irresponsible product isn’t clear.

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Not even a “Don’t try this at home” warning.

Dupont’s promotion of its new clear plastic wrap, Cellophane, underscored the company’s lack of common sense when it came to responsible advertising. Showing a stork delivering a newborn child wrapped in Cellophane might have been one of the most egregious offensives ever when it came to depicting the unsafe use of a product.

Bad products, Bad Ads, or Both

For those glow in the dark tuna casseroles dad loves so much.

X-Radium cookware was sold in 1905. Made of radium infused clay, it was touted as being so safe that it was endorsed by the “medical faculty and professors of cookery,” of some unknown, unnamed, and likely non-existent entity. This ad is archived in the Library of Congress and is the only one we could find hawking this cancer-causing product – thank goodness!!

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Did absolutely no one working for this company see the obvious dangers with this product?

From 1925. The Dog Palace was designed to transport pets on the outside of the automobile. Where does one even begin to point out all the dangers of this product? The most obvious to us is that rear mounted carrier where the animal(s) would have been subject to copious amounts of both road dust and noxious carbon monoxide air emitted from the exhaust pipe. Obviously designed by someone who hated dogs!

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Another incredibly horrible product.

From 1947. “DDT is Good for Me!” Obviously tested for only a year (as stated in the ad), way too short a time period to determine long term adverse effects on anything other than the insects it was designed to kill, this was one of the most dangerous products ever produced and sold anywhere. It was eventually banned, but not until it caused the Bald Eagle to come close to extinction.

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For the “Do it Yourselfer”

In 1952, homeowners who didn’t want to deal with burning their trash in the back yard had another alternative. Sears & Roebuck offered a home garbage incinerator that could be used inside the house. We kid you not!!!! With the smoke exhausting outside, garbage could be eliminated anywhere in the home according to their advertising. For example: “Right in the kitchen,” the company promised. “You save steps by on-the-spot disposal. Dump your food scraps, sweeper dirt and rubbish–anything burnable–into the Kenmore garbage burner. Simply light it and leave. No more trash-burning sessions outdoors, no more bother with garbage cans. The heavy-gauge steel body has a smooth, metallic brown baked-on enamel finish. Top, grate, and burner are made of sturdy, warp-resistant cast iron” The cost for residential trash incineration – along with the increased probability of burning your house down – a mere $31.50. Installation, smoke piping, air freshener, and fire extinguisher not included. Along with the lack of safety concerns, it appears that liability issues were also unimportant to the folks at Kenmore.

Part Two will highlight sexist and racist advertising, in addition to showing a few more difficult to comprehend products and claims.

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