LYDIA ESTES PINKHAM (1819-1883)
Lydia Pinkham was a local healer in Lynn, Massachusetts, whose sons turned her herbal medicine for women into a global commodity, using her name and face as its trademark. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was one of the most popular medicinal preparations in history, for decades the leading patent medicine for menstrual and menopausal symptoms. The company, founded in 1875, eventually ran factories in Canada, Mexico, Spain, and France as well as in Lynn. The business was still worth $3 million in 1937 and the family controlled the company until 1968. The Pinkham archives, which went to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America when the company closed in 1973, offer the most complete records we have for any patent medicine company. A product called Lydia Pinkham Herbal Liquid Supplement is still on the market, but its seven herbs include only two of the original five.
At first Lydia Pinkham made all the company’s medicine, and even after her sons took over manufacturing, she continued to tend to women patients. A notebook in the archives indicates that she had considerable experience with many plants besides those in the Compound. In these pages of case histories and remedy ideas, she mentions dozens of barks, roots, leaves, flowers, seeds, and resins, as well as non-herbal ingredients such as borax, alum, and cream of tartar. Besides the Vegetable Compound, she formulated – and the company produced – other remedies including blood purifier, liver pills, and a douche.
The original recipe, containing plants well known as women’s herbs, can be found in Lydia Pinkham’s handwriting, between a remedy for dyspepsia and a comment about a South Boston woman’s swollen bowels. The note reads: “12 F. G. [fenugreek], 8 U. R, [unicorn root], 6 L. R. [life root], 6 P. R. [pleurisy root], 6 B. C. [black cohosh]”.
There is no way of knowing where Lydia Pinkham heard about fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graceum), her Vegetable Compound’s most abundant ingredient. It does not appear in mid-nineteenth century American medical textbooks, but the seeds have been used for millennia in Greece, India, China, and the Middle East, variously for inducing childbirth, stimulating lactation, menstrual pain and cervical cancer. Fenugreek has a strong and distinctive flavor, which must have stood out in the Compound.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is now the most studied of the Pinkham formula’s plants, widely used by contemporary herbalists to treat menopausal symptoms. Also called bugbane and black snakeroot, it is an American native, at one time abundant east of the Mississippi, and still common enough in West Virginia to be harvested for sale. American botanists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all described it, including Benjamin Smith Barton, who wrote in 1803 that Indians called it squawroot.
Life root, Senecio, (usually S. aureus or S. gracilis), is another indigenous American plant that grows in wet places throughout the northern and western states. One of its many common names is “squaw weed,” and the earliest English colonists, familiar with a European senecio, used the American species as a female tonic. Senecio is still recognized by herbalists like David Hoffman, who mentions its use for leucorrhoea, a common condition that Pinkham advertising called “the whites” and that American women now usually attribute to yeast or vaginal infection.
Two different plants are called unicorn root — Aletris farinosa and Chamaelirium luteum – and various sources call both of them both “false” and “true” unicorn. They were generally confused with each other in nineteenth century trade, though they do not look alike. The Pinkham company ordered by common names in its early years, and Lydia’s version of the formula offers no hint of which unicorn she used, or if she knew the difference. Eventually the company decided to use equal parts of both. C. luteum, however, is more generally considered a women’s tonic.
Assuming the correct unicorn root, then, four of the Compound’s five herbs were well-known remedies for women’s ailments. Pleurisy root, Asclepius tuberosa, was the only plant ingredient in the Compound with no such tradition. As its common name suggests, it has respiratory uses, and is best known as a diaphoretic, increasing perspiration.
The five herbs were macerated for a week or two in alcohol and water, in two-gallon stone jars, then moved to percolators. The alcohol extracted medicinal constituents from the plants and preserved them. Notwithstanding the scorn of critics including Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward Bok and historian James Harvey Young, probably few regular users of the Compound drank it to get high, nor does the 18% alcohol content explain why they bought it. The medicine was meant to be taken by the spoonful; imbibing it would have been expensive and probably unpleasant.
As the business grew, the Pinkhams tended hundreds of jars; an 1883 inventory includes “127 Jars in soak” and 23 percolators. In other words, Lydia and her sons at first expanded manufacturing capacity by multiplying her small-scale methods and equipment rather than by developing large-scale apparatus and techniques for mass production. Whether by design or by luck, this gave them flexibility for responding to market conditions – for example, when a decision to try cutting back on advertising reduced sales.
The first of the trademark portraits of Lydia Pinkham appeared in 1879. It linked an intimate product with a picture of a presumably wise old woman, representing the social relations of traditional herbalists and creating a new form of commercial celebrity. The pitch was tied not only to the product – which probably offered at least as much relief from menstrual cramps and hot flashes as anything else on the market — but to this trustworthy commercial character. At a time when the homemade and the handmade were yielding to goods produced in distant factories, the trademark further offered the consumer a portrait of the entrepreneur, suggesting that trade relationships might still be personal.
But the effectiveness of the trademark cannot be explained solely by its appearance. Consumers encountered enormous amounts of Pinkham advertising, some of it making hyperbolic claims. Once they started buying newspaper and billboard advertising, the Pinkhams bought a prodigious quantity, and the company’s success was due at least in part to the sheer volume of contact that consumers had with the advertising. By the time she died in 1883, Mrs. Pinkham’s image had become ubiquitous, and she was the butt of countless jokes, many of which survive in print. Once when the company ordered a dictionary, someone from G. & C. Merriam & Co. replied, “We feel that we are dealing with old friends, so many times have we seen Mrs. Pinkham’s portrait and our Webster Advs. side by side.”
Unfortunately for historians, the Schlesinger Library did not receive the vast trove of letters that women, and sometimes their husbands, sent to Lydia Pinkham seeking advice. Ads invited readers to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham,” who answered all the mail herself during the early years. When her health began to fail, her son hired help. After she died in 1883, the invitation remained in the ads, and Lydia’s daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham, was represented as the “Mrs. Pinkham” in charge. By the 1890s, a staff of thirty women answered questions on a broad range of women’s health topics, including masturbation and abortion.
This service subjected the Pinkhams to attack. Editor Edward Bok, in the Ladies’ Home Journal campaign for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, maintained that male clerks answered such letters with preprinted forms and ridiculed the women who had unburdened their hearts. Bok further claimed that medicine companies sold correspondents’ names and addresses for direct mail campaigns. He did not mention the Pinkham company, which was not guilty of many of these practices. But in 1905, Bok published a photograph of Lydia Pinkham’s gravestone next to a current advertisement inviting women to write to Mrs. Pinkham, under the headline “Pictures That Tell Their Own Stories.”
Further information about the company can be found in the Harvard Business School’s R. G. Dun & Co. Credit Reports collection. The credit reporters first visited the Pinkhams in 1879; the reporter described the firm as a family business that was probably making money, though they did not require much credit because they traded finished medicine to wholesale druggists, in exchange for raw materials. By the time Lydia died four years later, the credit reports suggested a stable company, run by her only surviving son Charles. Soon he displayed the confidence to experiment with not advertising, and to refuse to give the Dun reporter information. The reporter responded by recommending caution to anybody who might be thinking of giving the Pinkhams credit. Groundbreaking for a new laboratory surprised the observers. When it was completed in 1886, Charles spoke to the Dun reporter (though still without many details) and the financial community accepted the company as creditworthy.
I have adapted this post from my article, “Commodifying Lydia Pinkham: A Woman, A Medicine, and A Company in a Developing Consumer Culture.” See the article for footnotes and much more detail.
Sarah Stage, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (W. W. Norton, 1979)
James Harvey Young, “PINKHAM, Lydia Estes,” Notable American Women