Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
During the mid 1980s, many Métis settlements published histories of their communities, each one written together by the community Elders and high school students. One of those histories talks extensively about what Métis did for medical care before western doctors and hospitals became more accessible. In the main, Métis stuck to traditional healing practices involving prayer and ceremony alongside teas and poultices. They also made great use of victorian patent medicines. It's tempting to interpret Métis use of patent medicines as a reflection of their european heritage, but this is a temptation worth resisting. Having a european ancestor or two doesn't make someone more likely to use patent medicines. What was more important was that these medicines were available, and Métis found them useful for specific ills. One patent medicine in particular may seem like it must be european, yet doesn't quite fit. That medicine is "Dr(sic) Thomas' E(c)lectric Oil," still available so recently that in 1985 the Métis historian writing about medical care in his settlement could literally pull a bottle of it from his medicine cabinet and write the text from the label into the book. In fact, you can still get reprints of poster advertisements for it, along with emptied bottles (at least, I *think* the one I saw on eBay was empty). As the image at right reveals, this was potent stuff, sold in 1.5 ounce bottles, and made according to Arnold Zwicky's blog entry of "A formulation of spirits of turpentine, camphor, oil of tar, red thyme, and fish oil." This stuff would probably make Buckley's cough syrup smell pleasant by comparison.
"Electric Oil" as Métis referred to it was used where today we would reach for products like Vick's Vaporub and A5-35. There's a nice account of what ailments it is recommended for on the bottle and legible in the picture, although the card reproduced below from antique-bottles.net is even clearer. According to the Métis historian, it smelt like a cross between kerosene and lighter fluid, and came in brown glass embossed bottles. The tell-tale feature is what electric oil smelled like – it so happens that First Nations living in ontario, new york, and pennsylvania maintained a thriving business in oil-based medicines from well before the arrival of europeans.
The Anishinabeg, Leni-Lenape, and Seneca Nations in particular knew about and used oil deposits. They collected oil from pools along rivers and creeks near the thames river and bear creek in ontario, from swamps, and from wells. In 1861 Charles Robb of the montréal mining company wrote that Indigenous people living in what is now southern ontario and pennsylvania regularly tapped oil pools with wells, and that he had seen evidence of ancient wells in the same region. So later 'shallow oil discoveries' in north america are not so much 'discoveries' as heavy duty exploitation of known deposits.
The most famous oil-based product made in the Indigenous market was widely considered a sacred medicine, and the earliest sales of it to europeans were recorded in 1627. It was typically made from seepage oil, which Anishinabeg collected by using a blanket to soak it up from the surface of pools. After wringing the blanket out into bowls, the collectors patiently skimmed off the oil, and then 'preserved' it. 'Preserving' likely meant heating the oil carefully to drive off any remaining water and more volatile components, thickening it for storage in jars, bottles, or waterproof bags.
The resulting 'medicine oil' was used for exactly the things that later Dr Thomas' product would be by Métis: as a lotion applied to sore muscles, as a salve applied to rheumatic joints, sore heads, and toothaches. In some instances the oil was taken internally, but those uses were understandably rare. One use the original oil didn't have in Indigenous communities was as an ointment for burns or insect bites. They invented petroleum jelly for that instead. Petroleum jelly was almost as popular as medicine oil because it could deter insects from biting in the first place, and was key to treating skin chapped by wind, cold and water, the very things it is still used for now. I should add, for all those readers who like me remember being loudly and repeatedly told not under any circumstances to put butter or petroleum jelly on a burn, that the information we got was a bit garbled. A fresh burn should be gently rinsed with cold water to stop the burning, but once that is done it is important to keep the burn from getting infected, which deep or large burns are very much prone to. Once the burn was cooled off and crusted over, originally what people did then was spread a layer of not butter but petroleum jelly to keep it clear of germs before carefully wrapping it.
When the opportunity arose, Anishinabeg used asphalt to seal up their canoes in place of pitch, and were known to make waterproof baskets and moccasins using it as well. Chumash of present day california also waterproofed their plank boats with asphalt. Once they began to trade for metal tools, they quickly discovered that the grease they collected from the ground lubricated tools more effectively than that from animals. europeans didn't believe this right away, and continued to use animal grease for another two hundred years.
The medicine oil trade continued until eurocanadian and euroamerican oil prospectors began to realize that Indigenous traders had to be getting it systematically from somewhere, and that they could make money from selling it themselves. With the first horseless carriages already rapidly growing in popularity, they could also see a far more profitable use for that oil than in patent medicines. So they went hunting for the exact locations of those oil seepages and oil pools, and were a bit chagrined when they couldn't find anything. Ontario authorities made a famously unsuccessful foray onto Anishinabeg and Haudenosaunee lands in 1832 to find oil, but were defeated by a densely treed swamp.
It isn't quite clear why Anishinabeg guides first led these prospectors to the actual oil and gas fields they were aware of. Perhaps it was an act of kindness. After all, the newcomers apparently had no intention of giving up the search, but were also prone to serious accidents in lands they didn't know how to travel in safely. In 1858, James Miller Williams dug the first canadian commercial oil well at a place today called oil springs, ontario. The old wells still exist, pumped with old-style wooden gear and maintained as a tourist attraction. In 2007-08, the price of oil rose so high that these marginally producing wells became temporarily profitable again.
Oil companies rapidly took over the former supply sites for the north american medicine oil trade, and changes in western ideas about what constituted effective and safe medicines caught up with it as well. Yet long after patent medicines had ceased to be sold in britain, they continued to be available in canada, including Dr Thomas' Electric Oil, the closest thing to the original medicine oil. To this day, people are still trying to purchase this product, or even figure out its precise recipe so that they can make it. I notice that Arnold Zwicky's blog posts includes several people asking where they can purchase it, and I get an amazing number of people contacting me to ask where to buy electric oil, and happening on this site while hunting for someone to buy it from. If I am wrong and there is a place to buy it, as opposed to a person who may have a bottle with more or less left in it, I don't know a thing about it or of any such people, and have no plans to research it. For folks looking to apply what I understand to be an old folk remedy for wheezing in horses, please, please, call the vet.