Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Patent Medicine Trail Blazer, Lydia E. Pinkham

Last week I wrote of the traveling medicine shows and the phenomenon of patent medicine. I wanted to share this biography of one of the biggest producers of patent medicine, Lydia E Pinkham. Her success was not only the product, which like all the patent medicines contained a high alcohol content, but her unique marketing strategy.

Her strategy was to simply give the women of the 1800's a voice. Women' s medical conditions and problems were not discussed in the 1800's. Lydia Pinkham encouraged women to talk about their conditions and gain knowledge on how to treat them.

Lydia E Pinkhams story is a fine example of the strength and resolve of the women in the 1800's.

(biography from Wikipedia)

Lydia Estes Pinkham (February 9, 1819 – May 17, 1883) was an iconic concocter and shrewd marketer of a commercially successful herbal-alcoholic "women's tonic" meant to relieve menstrual and menopausal pains.

Lydia Pinkham was born in the manufacturing city of Lynn, Massachusetts, the tenth of the twelve children of William and Rebecca Estes. William Estes was originally a shoemaker, but by the time Lydia was born in 1819 he had become wealthy through dealing in real estate and had risen to the status of "gentleman farmer" Lydia was educated at Lynn Academy and worked as a schoolteacher before her marriage in September 1843.

Isaac Pinkham was a 29-year-old shoe manufacturer when he married Lydia in 1843, he would try various business without much success. Lydia gave birth to her first child Charles Hacker Pinkham in 1844, lost her second child to gastroenteritis, and gave birth to her second surviving child Daniel Rogers Pinkham in 1848. A third son, William Pinkham, was born in 1852 and a daughter Aroline Chase Pinkham in 1857. (All the Pinkham children would eventually be involved in the Pinkham medicine business.)

Like many women of her time Lydia Pinkham brewed home remedies, which she continually collected. Her remedy for "female complaints" became very popular among her neighbors to whom she gave it away. One story is that her husband was given the recipe as part payment for a debt, whatever truth may be in this the ingredients of her remedy were generally consistent with the herbal knowledge available to her through such sources as John King's American Dispensary, which she is known to have owned and used. In Lydia Pinkham's time and place the reputation of the medical profession was low. Medical fees were too expensive for most Americans to afford except in emergencies, in which case the remedies were more likely to kill than cure. For example a common "medicine" was calomel, in fact not a medicine but a deadly mercurial toxin, and this fact was even at the time sufficiently well known among the skeptical to be the subject of a popular comic song. In these circumstances there is no mystery why many preferred to trust unlicensed "root and herb" practitioners, and to trust women prepared to share their domestic remedies such as Lydia Pinkham.

Isaac Pinkham was financially ruined in the Panic of 1873, he narrowly escaped arrest for debt and his health was permanently broken by the associated stress. The fortunes of the Pinkham family had long been patchy but they now entered on hard times. Lydia sometimes accepted payment for her popular remedy for female complaints. It is reputed to have been her son Daniel who came up with the idea, in 1875 of making a family business of the remedy. Lydia initially made the remedy on her stove before its success enabled production to be transferred to a factory, she answered letters from customers and probably wrote most of the advertising copy. Mass marketed from 1876 on, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound became one of the best known patent medicines of the 19th century. Descendants of this product are still available today. Lydia's skill was in marketing her product directly to women and her company continued her shrewd marketing tactics after her death. Her own face was on the label and her company was particularly keen on the use of testimonials from grateful women.

Advertising copy urged women to write to Mrs. Pinkham. They did, and they received answers. They continued to write and receive answers for decades after Lydia Pinkham's death. These staff-written answers combined forthright talk about women's medical issues, advice, and, of course, recommendations for her product. In 1905 the Ladies' Home Journal published a photograph of Lydia Pinkham's tombstone and exposed the ruse. The Pinkham Company insisted that it had never meant to imply that the letters were being answered by Lydia Pinkham, but by her daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham.

Although Pinkham's motives were partly self-serving, many modern-day feminists admire her for distributing information on menstruation and the "facts of life" and consider her to be a crusader for women's health issues in a day when women were poorly served by the medical establishment.

In 1922, Lydia's daughter Aroline Chase Pinkham Gove founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, Massachusetts. The clinic, still in operation as of 2004[update], provides health services to young mothers and their children. It is designated Site 9 of the Salem Women's Heritage Trail.

You can still purchase Lydia Pinkham Vegetable Compound today. The ingredients have been updated to meet FDA standards, but the claims of relief are the same.

The original formula for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was:

* Unicorn root (Aletris farinosa L.) 8 oz.
* Life root (Senecio aureus L.) 6 oz.
* Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa (L.) Nutt.) 6 oz.
* Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa L.) 6 oz.
* Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.) 12 oz.

Modern formula-straight from the bottle

Supplement Facts
Serving Size: 1 Tablespoon
Amount Per 1 Tablespoonful %Daily Value
Vitamin C
20 mg 33%
Vitamin E
5 mg 16.5%%
Proprietary Blend
3 g
Jamaica Dogwood (bark)

Motherwart (leaf)

Dandelion (root)

Pleurisy (root)

Glycyrrhiza (licorice root)

Black Cohosh (root)

Gentian (root)

†Daily value not established.
Ingredients: water, fructose, ascorbic acid, dogwood bark, motherwart leaf, flavor, dandelion root, alcohol 10%, pleurisy root, licorice root, salicylic acid, edetic acid, sodium benzoate, black cohosh root, dl-alpha tocopheryl acetate, BHA, butylparaben, gentian root.

Directions: Shake before using. Take 1 tablespoon 3 times a day with meals. For best results, take regularly throughout the month. If preferred, mix with fruit juice.

If you are pregnant or nursing a baby, seek the advice of a health professional before using this product.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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1 comment:

SouthShore Chick said...

Hello, I really enjoyed reading your article on Lydia E. Pinkham. I stumbled across your article while running a search for the Vegetable Compound. While at an antique store I purchased a bag full of old cookbooklets for $4. In it was a cookbook of "Sweets". On every page, among the candy recipes, there are testimonials and advertisements for the vegetable compound. I fear, however, that the cover to the cookbook is missing. Can you tell me if the "Come to the Kitchen" cookbook is indeed the booklet that has recipes for "Sweets" (Fudge, nut candies, drops, etc) as well as other Daily help tips for cleaning and cooking?

Also, I am writing a blog post on my cookbook finds, and I would like to reference your blog to my readers, if you don't mind. Thank you! -SSC