The Snake Oil Salesman

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The size and scope of Morgan Weistling’s The Snake Oil Salesman places us in the middle of the action, in amongst a crowd of our friends and neighbors at Dr. Stanley’s Traveling Medicine Show. Back in the 1800s traveling salesmen crossed the land from town to town, promoting what they claimed were remedies for all manner of ailments. To sell their fake medicines, these charlatans would pose as professors of medicine or doctors with dubious credentials.

Their shows were, in fact, quite the production. To help sell their elixirs, an accomplice, or “shill,” would be chosen from the crowd to come up on stage and test the magic cure. In this painting, the shill has come on stage with his cane to examine the bottle. Soon, after taking a spoonful, he will discard his cane and hop around the stage to the delight of the enthused crowd while the banjo player doles out a lively tune.

And who’s buying? To the right of the banjo player, the woman in green seems to think her husband can use a little more get up and go. On the other side of the painting, the man in the dark top hat shows keen interest but his wife is not so sure. The children are taking in the spectacle as they would a lesson at school. Those in the front row paying rapt attention while those in back goof off with each other.

Artist Mian Situ appears in the in the upper right of the painting. His character is not drawn to the “doctor’s” presentation because he knows better. Originally, Chinese laborers on railroad gangs brought to America their own oil made from Chinese water snakes, which actually had healing properties for joint pain. Soon after, a Western version was being concocted from a plentiful snake at hand, the rattler. Unfortunately, rattlers do not produce any of the benefits of the Chinese water snake. But that didn’t stop salesmen like the fellow depicted here.

Even Weistling’s choice of “C. Stanley” and the bottle’s label on are a tip of the hat to perhaps the greatest “Snake Oil Salesman” of them all, Clark Stanley. This Texas native took his road show to Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and soon parlayed his Snake Oil Liniment into mass production and sales across the country. Ultimately, actions taken under the Pure Food and Drug Act would reveal it held no medicinal value and soon the liniment disappeared. Nor will the “doctor” here hang around long, either. Soon he will pack it up and be out of town before his customers realize they have been fooled.

There is little doubt that Norman Rockwell himself would be impressed with this stunning piece of Americana artwork. Would you like to "test drive" this work of art in your home? Explore our Try It at Home Free option.