Snake Oil Salesmen

Our TV started acting up last week, and for the life of me I could not figure out the problem. It wasn’t responding very well to any of the remotes we use, e.g., I couldn’t change the volume or switch between inputs or even turn it off. Sometimes it would work, but there would be a major delay. I’d push the volume button and it would take about 10 seconds to respond. I felt it was extremely unlikely that the batteries in two remotes would die at the same time, but tried replacing them anyway.

No luck.

I unplugged the TV from the outlet, waited a couple of minutes, and plugged it back in.

No luck.

Finally, in desperation, I said, “I guess I’m buying us a new TV this weekend!” and headed to bed.

The next morning, Tara said, “Good news! I fixed the TV.” I asked her what she’d done, and she said it was very complicated to explain, so she’d have to show me instead. OK, fine. At which point she got up from the couch, walked to the TV stand, and moved the holiday candle that was blocking the remote sensor.


As stupid as I felt, I’m glad I didn’t have to buy us a new TV!

In case you didn’t know, Tara and I are very much into vintage items, primarily from the 1960s and 1970s. If our new beanbag chair wasn’t a dead giveaway, there’s our lava lamp and record collections and beaded curtain in the wood-paneled basement.

Yesterday, I headed to St. Joe Antiques Mall downtown to see if I could find anything new to add. This place is the biggest antique store in South Dakota, with 21,000-square feet of vintage-y goodness from 45 dealers spread over two floors. It’s paradise if you’re into this kind of stuff. I was thrilled to pick up these 1975-era canisters…


But then I found some items that really intrigued me: old medicine bottles and bathroom products, many of which still had their original contents. Mange medicine, liniment, quinol. I thought they’d make a perfect conversation piece on a cabinet in our bathroom basement (or at least raise the eyebrows of future visitors).


I was especially intrigued by the Foley & Co. Honey and Tar Compound, which advertises 7% alcohol but “no opiates or other harmful drugs.” Intriguingly, the bottle is nearly full—and according to my best estimate (along with the help of Google), about 100 years old. I thought the price ($1.20) was exorbitantly high for a century ago, but according to the National Association of Retail Druggists (NARD) journal from 1918, the medicine sold for $1.20 for a dozen bottles that year. It was made with alcohol, honey, and pine tar (yum!) and purported to “cure coughs and colds and prevent pneumonia and consumption.”

John and Harry Foley formed the company in Chicago in the 1880s and came under fire for selling patent medicines, a category of products that contained secret ingredients (many of which had narcotics, hence Foley & Co.’s non-opiates disclaimer) with little or no proven medical benefit. Some people were inadvertently poisoned after taking them, which prompted consumer protection laws like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which  didn’t ban these ingredients but required them to be listed on packaging (they weren’t actually outlawed until 1936).


I find all of this fascinating. I wonder what 100-year-old honey and tar compound tastes like? (Don’t worry, even if I’m hacking up a lung I’m not going to actually try it!)

I haven’t even delved into that bottle of liniment, a precursor to products like Bengay, Icy Hot and Tiger Balm. Early liniments supposedly contained snake oil and gave rise to the term “snake oil salesman” for deceptive advertising. Fascinating.

I kinda want to start collecting these old medicine products now and researching their history.

19 thoughts on “Snake Oil Salesmen

  1. So funny about the candle blocking the tv. And I didn’t know that about snake oil! My husband has a small collection of bottles he dug up in a field as a kid. The labels are gone but some have the names of the product as part of the glass. We should get them out and Google!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently, there are markings on the glass bottles that can help you determine their age, so you don’t even need the label. It definitely has the potential to be an interesting hobby!


  2. “…and moved the holiday candle that was blocking the remote sensor.”

    That’s HILARIOUS, Mark! Tell Tara I said, well done and bravo!

    Okay, I am so loving that beaded curtain with the peace sign on it. I used to have a beaded curtain on my bedroom door when I was living at home. LOVE those things!

    I am also so loving those old medicine bottles and bathroom products! Fascinating indeed!

    “contains so opiates, or other harmful drugs” HA!

    And I love that it may be “safely used on both Old and Young!

    You know, as funny as some of these are, I bet they worked!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the Foley brothers wrote a rather heated editorial defending his company’s medicines and I read that they manufactured cough syrup up until the mid-’60s, so I’m sure at least some of their products were effective!


  3. Tara and the candle! Hilarious.

    My Chinese-American husband gets this stuff called “Woodlock” from relatives from Hong Kong. It’s a topical rub and I swear it has turpentine or something in it. Only used for desperate times, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So annoying about the TV, but way to go, Tara! Glad you didn’t have to buy a new one. That old stuff IS fascinating. I’m actually surprised it isn’t worth more. Where did the sellers get this stuff? I love that they’re still around!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I LOL about the sensor! BUT! Our sensor is actually dead, so while we can stream, we cannot turn it up or down or off or on from bed. However, our son just up and gave us the tv years ago, and it did work then. It’s huge and mounted to the wall, so we shan’t be buying a new one anytime soon.
    Canister set is groovy 🙂
    I love to go to the Hook’s drugstore at the state fair. Honestly, I could spend hours in there. I have so much interest in old things. I link you, just the photos will inspire your new obsession — err, I mean hobby.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was unable to comment on your post, but OMG, yes!! What an awesome display. That’s exactly what I envision in my bathroom!

      …which means I’m going to need a bigger bathroom…

      Thanks for the link. So cool!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s