Biography of Lydia Pinkham

"A medicine for women. Invented by a woman. Prepared by a woman."

Lydia E. Pinkham
Lydia E. Pinkham. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Quote: "Only a woman can understand a woman's ills." - Lydia Pinkham

Lydia Pinkham Facts

Lydia Pinkham was an inventor and marketer of a famous patent medicine, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, one of the most successful products ever marketed specifically for women. Because her name and picture were on the label of the product, she became one of the best-known women in America.

Occupation: inventor, marketer, entrepreneur, business manager
Dates: February 9, 1819 - May 17, 1883
Also known as: Lydia Estes, Lydia Estes Pinkham

Lydia Pinkham Early Life:

Lydia Pinkham was born Lydia Estes. Her father was William Estes, a wealthy farmer and shoemaker in Lynn, Massachusetts, who managed to become wealthy from real estate investments. Her mother was William's second wife, Rebecca Chase.

Educated at home and later at Lynn Academy, Lydia worked as a teacher from 1835 to 1843.

The Estes family opposed slavery, and Lydia knew many of the early abolitionist activists, including Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Sarah Grimké, Angelina Grimké and William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass was a lifelong friend of Lydia. Lydia herself became involved, joining, with her friend Abby Kelley Foster the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society, and she was secretary of the Freeman's Society. She also became involved in women's rights.

Religiously, the Estes family members were Quakers, but left the local meeting over a conflict around slavery. Rebecca Estes and then the rest of the family became Universalists, also influenced by the Swedenborgians and spiritualists.

Marriage

Lydia married widower Isaac Pinkham in 1843. He brought a five-year-old daughter into the marriage. Together they had five more children; the second son died in infancy. Isaac Pinkham was involved in real estate, but never did very well. The family struggled financially. Lydia's role was primarily as the typical wife and mother of Victorian middle-class ideals.

Then, in the Panic of 1873, Isaac lost his money, was sued for nonpayment of debts, and generally fell apart and was unable to work. A son, Daniel, lost his grocery store to the collapse. By 1875, the family was nearly destitute.

Lydia E. Pinkham Vegetable Compound

Lydia Pinkham had become a follower of such nutrition reformers as Sylvester Graham (of the graham cracker) and Samuel Thomson. She brewed a home remedy made of roots and herbs, and including 18-19% alcohol as "solvent and preservative." She had shared this freely with family members and neighbors for about ten years.

According to one legend, the original formula came to the family through a man for whom Isaac Pinkham had paid a debt of $25.

In desperation over their financial circumstances, Lydia Pinkham decided to market the compound. They registered a trademark for Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound and copyrighted a label which after 1879 included Lydia's grandmotherly picture at the suggestion of the Pinkham son, Daniel. She patented the formula in 1876. Son William, who had no outstanding debts, was named the legal owner of the company.

Lydia brewed the compound in their kitchen until 1878 when it was moved into a new building next door.

She personally wrote many of the advertisements for it, focusing on "female complaints" which included a variety of ailments including menstrual cramps, vaginal discharge, and other menstrual irregularities. The label originally and assertively claimed "A Sure Cure for PROLAPSIS UTERI or Falling of the Womb, and all FEMALE WEAKNESSES, including Leucorrhea, Painful Menstruation, Inflammation, and Ulceration of the Womb, Irregularities, Floodings, etc."

Many women were unwilling to consult physicians for their "female" difficulties. Physicians of the time often prescribed surgery and other unsafe procedures for such problems. This might include applying leeches to the cervix or vagina. Those supporting that era's alternative medicine often turned to home or commercial remedies such as Lydia Pinkham's.

The competition included Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription and Wine of Cardui.

Growing Business

Selling the compound was at core a family enterprise, even as it grew. The Pinkham sons distributed ads and even sold the medicine door to door around New England and New York. Isaac folded pamphlets. They used handbills, postcards, pamphlets, and advertisements, beginning with the Boston newspapers. The Boston advertisement brought in orders from wholesalers. A major patent medicine broker, Charles N. Crittenden, began to distribute the product, increasing its distribution to nationwide.

Advertising was aggressive. The ads targeted women directly, on the assumption that women understood their own problems best. An advantage that the Pinkhams emphasized was that Lydia's medicine was created by a woman, and the advertisements stressed endorsements by women as well as by druggists. The label gave the impression of the medicine being "homemade" even though it was commercially produced.

Ads often were designed to look like news stories, usually with some painful situation that could have been alleviated by the use of the compound.

By 1881, the company began marketing the compound not only as a tonic but also as pills and lozenges.

Pinkham's goals went beyond commercial. Her correspondence including advice on health and physical exercise. She believed in her compound as an alternative to standard medical treatment, and she wanted to counter the idea that women were weak.

Advertising to Women

One feature of the advertisements of Pinkham's remedy was open and frank discussion of women's health issues.

For a time, Pinkham added a douche to the offerings of the company; women often used it as a contraception, but because it was marketed for hygienic purposes, it was not targeted for prosecution under the Comstock Law.

The advertising prominently featured Lydia Pinkham's image and promoted her as a brand. Ads called Lydia Pinkham the "Saviour of her Sex." The ads also urged women to "let doctors alone" and called the compound "A medicine for women. Invented by a woman. Prepared by a woman."

The advertisements offered a way to "write to Mrs. Pinkham" and many did. Lydia Pinkham's responsibility in the business also included answering the many letters received.

Temperance and the Vegetable Compound

Lydia Pinkham was an active supporter of temperance. Despite that, her compound included 19% alcohol. How did she justify that? She claimed that the alcohol was necessary to suspend and preserve the herbal ingredients, and so she did not find its use incompatible with her temperance views. Using alcohol for medicinal purposes was often accepted by those who supported temperance.

While there were many stories of women being affected by the alcohol in the compound, it was relatively safe. Other patent medicines of the time included morphine, arsenic, opium or mercury.

Death and Continuing Business

Daniel, at 32, and William, at 38, the two youngest Pinkham sons, both died in 1881 of tuberculosis (consumption). Lydia Pinkham turned to her spiritualism and held seances to try to contact her sons.

At that point, the business was formally incorporated. Lydia had a stroke in 1882 and died the next year.

Although Lydia Pinkham died in Lynn in 1883 at age 64, her son Charles continued the business. At the time of her death, sales were $300,000 per year; sales continued to grow. There were some conflicts with the company's advertising agent, and then a new agent updated the advertising campaigns. By the 1890s, the compound was the most advertised patent medicine in America. More images showing women's independence began to be used.

Ads still used Lydia Pinkham's picture and continued to include invitations to "write to Mrs. Pinkham." A daughter-in-law and later staff members at the company answered the correspondence. In 1905, the Ladies' Home Journal, which was also campaigning for food and drug safety regulations, accused the company of misrepresenting this correspondence, publishing a photograph of the tombstone of Lydia Pinkham. The company responded that "Mrs. Pinkham" referred to Jennie Pinkham, the daughter-in-law.

In 1922, Lydia's daughter, Aroline Pinkham Gove, founded a clinic in Salem, Massachusetts, to serve mothers and children.

Sales of the Vegetable Compound peaked in 1925 at $3 million. The business decreased after that point, because of family conflict after Charles' death over how to run the business, the effects of the Great Depression and also changing federal regulations, especially the Food and Drug Act, that affected what could be claimed in the advertisements.

In 1968, the Pinkham family sold the company, ending their relationship with it, and manufacturing was moved to Puerto Rico. In 1987, Numark Laboratories acquired a license to the medicine, calling it "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound." It can still be found, for instance as Lydia Pinkham Herbal Tablet Supplement and Lydia Pinkham Herbal Liquid Supplement.

Ingredients

Ingredients in the original compound:

  • False unicorn root, true unicorn root
  • Black cohosh root
  • Life root
  • Pleurisy root
  • Fenugreek seed
  • Alcohol

Newer additions in later versions include:

  • Dandelion root
  • Black cohosh root (as in the original)
  • Jamaican dogwood
  • Motherwort
  • Pleurisy root (as in the original)
  • Licorice root
  • Gentian root

The Lydia Pinkham Song

Responding to the medication and its widespread advertising, a ditty about it became famous and remained popular well into the 20th century. In 1969, the Irish Rovers included this on an album, and the single made the Top 40 in the United States. The words (like many folk songs) vary; this is a common version:

We sing of Lydia Pinkham
And her love of the human race
How she sells her Vegetable Compound
And the newspapers publish her Face.

Papers

The Lydia Pinkham papers can be found at Radcliffe College (Cambridge, Massachusetts) at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library.

Books About Lydia Pinkham:

  • Elbert Hubbard. Lydia E. Pinkham. 1915.
  • Robert Collyer Washburn. The Life and Times of Lydia E. Pinkham. 1931.
  • Sarah Stage. Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine. 1979.
  • R. Sobel and D. B. Sicilia. The Entrepreneurs: An American Adventure. 1986.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Rebecca Chase
  • Father: William Estes
  • Siblings: nine older and two younger

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Isaac Pinkham (married September 8, 1843; shoe manufacturer and real estate speculator)
  • children:
    • Charles Hacker Pinkham (1844)
    • Daniel (died in infancy)
    • Daniel Rogers Pinkham (1848)
    • William Pinkham (1852)
    • Aroline Chase Pinkham ( 1857)
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Lydia Pinkham." ThoughtCo, May. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/lydia-pinkham-biography-3529532. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, May 1). Biography of Lydia Pinkham. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lydia-pinkham-biography-3529532 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Lydia Pinkham." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lydia-pinkham-biography-3529532 (accessed November 17, 2017).