Peggy Keener: A woman for her time

Published 6:30 am Saturday, June 12, 2021

Was she a businesswoman? A scientist? An inventor? Or a downright disreputable quack? Yes to all. A marvel in her day, her homemade herbal compound became one of the best known patented medicines of the 19th century.

In Lydia Pinkham’s time and place, the reputation of the medical profession was in serious question. So called “doctors” were expensive and out of reach for most Americans unless there was a dire emergency. In some cases, the remedies offered by the seeming professionals were as likely to kill than to cure. Calomel, for example, a commonly used prescription, was not even a medicine. Rather it was a deadly mercurial toxin. (Nice!)

As did many women of her time, Lydia brewed home herbal compounds. Her most successful concoction was for female complaints which she happily gave away to her neighbors. Although not all “root and herb” practitioners could be trusted, Lydia and her potion were. Implicitly.

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In the early economic depression of the 1870s, Lydia’s father fell into financial ruin. His fortunes had always been sketchy, but now the family entered into dirt scratching, hard times. The grave import of their predicament caused the family to search in vain for an escape from total financial ruin.

It took five years, but the idea of making a family business out of Lydia’s mixtures was at last decided upon. In earnest she set about compounding large pots of her elixirs on the family stove. Before long the overwhelming success of her products enabled her to move to a factory. Lydia was on her way!

Eager customers wrote to Lydia, to whom she religiously responded. From their glowing comments came her advertising copy. Within a year, her most successful brew, the Lydia E. Pinkham Vegetable Compound, was mass marketed and became one of the best known and trusted patent medicines of the century.

Without a doubt, Pinkham’s true skill was in marketing. She sold directly to women for they were after all the ones who needed her offerings. And to reassure them, she put a photo of her face on the label. When a patient looked at the bottle, it was as if her mother, her grandmother or her kindly old aunt had arrived to relieve her of her womanly anguish.

The 1882 label read: this vegetable compound is a positive cure for all the painful complaints and weaknesses of our best female population. (I’m not sure what happened to the worst?) It will cure entirely all ovarian troubles, inflammations and ulcerations. It will also assist in falling and displacements and the consequence of spinal weaknesses, in particular as it applies to the change of life.(Is that all?)

It will also speedily dissolve and expel early stage tumors of the uterus as well as addressing faintness, bloating, headaches, stomach weakness, flatulence, nervous prostration, general debility, sleeplessness, depression and indigestion. (Are you kidding me?)

The feeling of bearing down, pain, weight gain and backache will permanently be cured by its use. And all this will be done at all times under the circumstances that act in harmony with the laws governing the female system. (Whoa! Those are mighty big claims, Lydia … but, then, who cares? Bring it on!)

The price was $1 a bottle, six bottles for $5. It came in pills or lozenges. Mrs. Pinkham freely answered all letters of inquiry. Additionally she urged that no family should ever be without Lydia Pinkham’s Liver Pills. They cured constipation, biliousness, and torpidity of the liver. 25 cents per box. (I think I have developed a raging case of torpidity just from reading this.)

Now I ask you, what female of sound mind would not have wanted the Lydia cure for it answered most of her complaints, including that spinal weakness thing. To add to the reassurances on the label, Lydia included testimonials from grateful customers. Where men dismissed women’s laments as simply being hysterical, Lydia took them seriously. Like a protective mother hen, she drew the women in under her nurturing wings.

The fact that the medicine wasn’t exactly a cure-all for all its numerous claims didn’t matter one iota. It was at least something the desperate ladies could turn to. And they did. In droves.

What no one bothered to tell the public, however, was that Lydia had died. The family somehow—or purposely—failed to share this info. Thus the personal letters to Lydia kept coming in long after her demise. They were answered by her daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham, who continued with the forthright talk and advice. This was always followed, of course, by a solicitous recommendation for their products.

Finally in 1905, the Ladies Home Journal published a photo of Lydia’s tombstone with fully matured shrubs thriving upon it. The ruse was exposed. In defense, the Pinkham company insisted they had never meant to imply that Lydia herself was answering the letters. They had simply not seen the necessity of telling folks.

For those interested in the five herbs that made up Lydia Pinkham’s original formula, here they are:

Pleurisy root – disphoretic, anti-spasmodic, carminative and anti-inflammatory

Life root – traditional uterine tonic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory and emmenagogue used for amenorrhea or dysmenorrhea

Fenugreek – a vulnerary, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, tonic, emmenagogue galactogogue and hypotensive

Unicorn root – used by several Native American tribes for dysmenorrhea, uterine prolapse, pelvic congestion and to improve ovarian function, (Must say that I’m impressed with the Indian medicine men!)

Black cohosh – an emmenegogue, anti-spasmodic, restorative, nervine, and hypotensive, used traditionally for menopausal symptoms.

The formula also contained drinking alcohol which relieved muscular stress, reduced pain and enhanced the mood. (And now I’m thinking we’ve arrived at the heart of the potion!)

Some of the original advertisements encourage sexual activity with husbands. (What? Not the milkman?). Furthermore they encouraged reproduction (as if women then needed more children!) and the restoring of women’s pep so they might prove to be better wives and mothers. (Pep, you say? How about taking the little woman on a vacation to get her pep re-pepped?)

The Lydia Pinkham Company continued under the family’s control until the 1930s, continually increasing their profit margins for 50 years after she drew her last breath. Eventually the advent of the Food and Drug Administration stepped in. It dismissed the Pinkham’s claims as quackery. In 1922, it was finally described as a “valueless preparation which had been kept on the market for nearly five decades with lying advertisements and worthless testimonials.

Although Pinkham’s motives were purely financial (well, aren’t all businesses?), many modern day feminists admire her for voicing important information that females needed to hear. Indeed, Lydia was a crusader for women’s health issues at a time when they were poorly served by the medical establishment.

In 1922, Lydia’s daughter, Aroline Pinkham, founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, Massachusetts. It provided health services to young mothers and children. It has been controlled since 1990 by Stephen Nathan Doty, a fourth generation descendant of Lydia and is a memorial site on the Salem Women’s Heritage Trail, as well as being Stephen’s personal residence. It is still in operation.

I remember decades ago taking Lydia’s potion. I think it helped. After all, what choice did I have? There was nothing else. Besides her photo on the bottle did look a lot like my caring Gramma.