Of all the patent medicines of the 19th century, Mrs. Lydia Pinkham Vegetable Compound, made of alcohol and herbs, was perhaps the best known.
Aimed at relieving menstrual and menopausal symptoms, its success owed as much to Mrs. Pinkham’s shrewd marketing as it did to its effectiveness. Her kindly face peered out from every package, and she printed booklets of advice for women. She used advertising slogans such as, “A wife can blame herself if she loses love by getting ‘middle age’ skin!” and “Are YOU just a plaything of nature?”
Lydia E. Pinkham was born in Lynn, Mass., on Feb. 9, 1819, to a well-to-do family. She married Isaac Pinkham, a shoe manufacturer, in 1843, but the Panic of 1873 ruined him. She began selling her homemade remedy to survive, inviting customers to write to her and ask questions about the facts of life.
Today, Pinkham is credited for discussing women’s health more forthrightly than just about anyone else in her day. Her remedies — well, maybe not so much. The original vegetable compound included pleurisy root, life root, fenugreek, unicorn root and black cohosh. They had anti-spsmodic, anti-inflammatory properties. Some had traditional uses as treatments for dysmenorrhea and restoratives. The vegetable compound also included drinking alcohol, which can alleviate pain and improve the mood.
Doctors, who did little to treat women’s health problems, dismissed the compound as quackery.
The National Institutes of Health conducted a clinical trial of herbal remedies in 2005-06 and found they didn’t work.
The Pinkham Family Empire
The company continued under family control until the 1930s. When the Food and Drug Administration began enforcing the Pure Food Laws, the vegetable compound underwent some changes.
Lydia E. Pinkham died on May 17, 1883 at the age of 64. But women continued to write to her about their health problems. Her staff continued to answer them.
Pinkham’s house in Lynn was then placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Her daughter also founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, Mass. to provide health services to young mothers and their children.
Designated Site 9 of the Salem Women’s Heritage Trail, it is still in operation.
This story updated in 2023.
Image of Salem clinic: By Dpbsmith at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17741538.