“I had been completely run-down. I would try to do my housework and could not. I would want to just fly, if only I could. I would lie down but wasn’t satisfied there and would have to get up and do whatever I could to content myself.”
So wrote Mrs. Dora Sanders of 112 West J Street, Casper, Wyoming, of the physical and mental distress that attended her days as a homemaker in the decades following the turn of the twentieth century. Like many women engaged in the full-time task of running a household in an era before the widespread ownership of automatic home appliances, Dora Sanders found herself both psychologically and physically taxed to the point of nervous exhaustion. In fact, Dora felt so rotten that her daughter recommended a medical solution: specifically, a dose of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. “I have taken six,” Dora reported eagerly to the owners of the company that sold the bottles, “and am so much better and will take more.” Mindful of the enormous relief her daughter’s recommendation had brought her, Dora ended her letter to the Pinkham Company with a promise to “recommend the Vegetable Compound to all who are suffering.”
Dora’s story was published in a pamphlet entitled Pinkham Pioneers, issued by the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in 1926 or 1927.1 This pamphlet, only 32 pages long, is a fascinating illustration of the advertising strategies the Pinkham Company used to appeal to modern women hoping to regain their health. A woman in 1927 picking up the pamphlet might have wondered, upon looking at the cover, what flying airplanes could have to do with herbal remedies — but for the Pinkham advertisers, nothing could be a better answer to women like Dora who, weighed down by suffering female bodies, wanted badly to “just fly.”
The Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company, founded in 1873 by Lydia E. Pinkham herself, had long promoted its brand as one of domestic feminine wisdom and its founder as a kind of medical matriarch, confiding to the women of the nation the secret to health. Born in 1819 — the same year, Pinkham Pioneers noted eagerly, as Queen Victoria, whose life was “destined to have a far-reaching influence” at least comparable to that of Mrs. Pinkham — Lydia Pinkham came from a respectable Quaker family in Lynn, Massachusetts (yes, the city of sin). Mrs. Pinkham had been making her compound for years and distributing it to her friends and neighbors before her profit-minded sons suggested that she sell it beyond the confines of the ladies’ network of their neighborhood.2 Most of the Pinkham Medicine Company’s advertising emphasized the domestic and social origins of her enormously successful patent medicine business, painting Pinkham as a wise, nurturing grandmother to “The Women of the World” and the company as essentially a nationally-operated form of the friendly, helpful lady neighbor.3
In Pinkham Pioneers, this medical sisterhood took visual form in quotes from letters like Dora Sanders’. Of the thirty-three other testimonials included in the pamphlet, sixteen reported that they had heard about the life-saving compound from another woman–a daughter, like Dora’s, or a mother; a neighbor or close friend; or simply, in the case of Mrs. R. Conger of South Bend, Indiana, “a lady who had an apartment at my place.” Only one woman reported being prescribed the medication by a physician; far more common than “The Doctor Advised Me” was “My Mother Told Me” or “My Neighbor Told Me.” Mrs. Lucy E. Baxter of Philadelphia went so far as to personify the Vegetable Compound itself as “a family friend” of many years.
But, as Pinkham Pioneers reminded readers, Lydia Pinkham — the founder, owner, and amateur chemist behind one of the most well-recognized and financially successful patent medicine companies in an age when patent medicine advertisements sprang thick as blackberries in the pages of American newspapers — was more than just a confiding ear with a national range. She was also “A Pioneering Manufacturer” and “A Pioneering Advertiser,” and — most exciting — the grandmother of the “Pioneer of the Air” Miss Lydia Pinkham Gove, then Assistant Treasurer and Advertising Manager of the Pinkham Medicine Company. The bulk of the pamphlet, after a brief biography of the elder Lydia, told readers the story of Miss Gove’s daring transnational flight, taken on “A Woman’s Whim” on a return journey from Southern California to Portland, Maine.
This story painted Lydia Pinkham Gove as an adventurous and modern woman flying with enthusiasm and grace into the modern age. Not burdened by the bodily woes from which her more unfortunate countrywomen suffered, Lydia Gove was free to break away from the well-traveled paths of the women who came before her and strike out for new horizons. Speaking in her grandmother’s voice, Lydia Gove proclaimed to the women of the world, “No one has ever done it but I shall.”
How might readers of the Pinkham Pioneers pamphlet see themselves in this story? Page by page, the story of Miss Gove’s transnational flight skimmed along the tops of testimonials from satisfied customers sharing the wisdom of experience with their fellow women. The physical proximity of these two narratives — the lone pioneer inspired by feminine ingenuity and adventurousness and the social network based upon feminine wisdom — implies the kinship of all women’s endeavors. Just as a woman freed of her physical woes by the Vegetable Compound might rise above and become a pioneer like Lydia Gove and her grandmother, the network of women that gave the Compound its greatest value supported the ventures of such pioneering women. If you take the Vegetable Compound, the pamphlet whispered, you too become part of the story of innovation and adventure Lydia Pinkham began three generations ago in her humble kitchen. If you listen to your sisters, your friends, your daughters and your mothers, you too can brave the modern world in perfect health and strength and dare to do that which “no one has ever done.”
Unlike most of the patent medicines that proliferated in the late nineteenth century, Lydia E. Pinkham’s remedies have survived to see the rise of new technologies and new opportunities for innovation — especially for women. Today, the Compound can still be found in drug stores across the country, though it’s no longer the popular remedy it once was: we’re more likely to reach for Midol than Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound when our “female complaints” hit us hard. Type “Lydia Pinkham’s vegetable compound” into the Amazon search bar, though, and you’ll get 620 results — including several for the actual medicine in various sizes and forms (both liquid and pills are available). The ingredient list has changed, of course — the original recipe combined pleurisy root, life root, black cohosh, fenugreek, and unicorn root along with a healthy dash of alcohol (the teetotaling Quaker Pinkham family saw no issue with imbibing large quantities of the hard stuff when it was for medicinal purposes). The “Lydia Pinkham Herbal Compound” produced by Numark Laboratories today contains motherwort, gentian, Jamaican dogwood, licorice, and dandelion in addition to the pleurisy root and black cohosh included in the original formula.4
In many ways, Lydia Pinkham Herbal Compound seems to be a wholly different product from the Vegetable Compound on which Dora Sanders and her fellow homemakers relied in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nor does it seem to occupy the same social role hinted at in Pinkham Pioneers — in an age fraught with worries that smartphones are slowly tearing us apart and social media is killing the conversational instinct, when the individual right to medical care is one of the hottest political bones of contention, the idea of a social-medical network of ordinary women seems almost foreign and quaint.
Scroll to the bottom of the Amazon product page for Lydia Pinkham Herbal Compound, Lydia Pinkham Tablets, and similar products, however, and you’ll find the traces of the same network of feminine wisdom constructed in Pinkham testimonials at the beginning of the twentieth century, living on in a surprisingly familiar form in the information age:
Like Dora Sanders, Linda Herrod reports a confluence of physical and mental symptoms, relieved on the knowing recommendation of a female relative. Other reviewers also imply that Lydia Pinkham’s medicine is a family affair: Vy C. Calhoun tells Amazon customers that her grandmother and mother both “swear by” Lydia Pinkham’s Compound, and a “reasonable reader” refers to the positive experiences of her grandmother, her mother, and “many women” she’s talked to about Pinkham products:
The story of Lydia Pinkham’s patent medicines allows us to draw connections between the ways that women in the nineteenth century used social connections and medical remedies together to keep themselves healthy and the state of women’s health today. Outdated as some of the Pinkham advertising techniques may seem, the Amazon reviews for Lydia Pinkham products suggest the persistence of the values that informed Pinkham Pioneers. Even after a century of astounding advances in medical science, women today, like Dora Sanders, still rely on other women for wisdom on how best to deal with the “female complaints” that threaten to drag pioneers down from the heights of their potential to the drudgery and confusion of physical pain.
Stage, Sarah. Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine. New York: Norton, 1979.
- Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company, Pinkham Pioneers, 1873-1926 (Lynn, MA: Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., 1926?). Return to text.
- Sarah Stage, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (New York: Norton, 1979.); Jean Burton, Lydia Pinkham Is Her Name (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1949); Robert Collyer Washburn, The Life and Times of Lydia E. Pinkham (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931). Return to text.
- Lydia Estes Pinkham and the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company, Guide to Health and Etiquette (Lynn, MA: Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., 189?); Lydia Estes Pinkham, Treatise on the Diseases of Women: Dedicated to the Women of the World (Lynn, MA: Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., 1901). Return to text.
- Numark Laboratories homepage. Return to text.