As her family was struggling to make ends meet, afew women stopped by the kitchen of Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883) and offered to pay cash for some of her homemade herbal medicine. That visit steered the family into a venture that would make them rich and would make Pinkham an advertising pioneer and an American cultural icon.
Lydia Estes Pinkham, born in Lynn, Massachusetts, on February 9, 1819, was the tenth of twelve children of William and Rebecca Estes, radical Quakers. The Esteses encouraged all their children to be freethinkers. Mr. Estes, originally among the many shoemakers of Lynn, realized enough profit from a saltworks during the War of 1812 that he was later able to make a fortune in real estate. Mrs. Estes introduced the family to the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and theologian who claimed to have had contact with the spiritual world. Lydia would attempt to communicate with departed loved ones during her lifetime. Followers of Swedenborg were abolitionists (opposed to slavery), vegetarians, and nondrinkers (they abstained from drinking alcoholic beverages). Swedenborgian teachings and the Esteses' opening of their home to reformers (including escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass) no doubt influenced young Lydia to join social movements and be a reformer and feminist. At 16 she joined the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society and was an advocate of women's rights.
After graduating from Lynn Academy, Lydia taught school until she met and married Isaac Pinkham, a widower with a young daughter, in 1843. A shoe manufacturer, Isaac soon was pursuing one speculative venture after another in hopes of attaining his father-in-law's success. Consequently, his fortunes rose and fell as he tried various occupations and moved his growing family about. It was during one of his financially better times that he paid the 25 dollar debt of a Lynn machinist named George Clarkson Todd. Todd gave Isaac the formula for a nostrum (a cure-all) in exchange for the payment. According to legend, the formula was for the vegetable compound Pinkham would later manufacture for sale. At the time, however, many homemakers brewed home medicines. Pinkham herself kept a notebook with directions for various folk remedies, so the legend may not be entirely accurate.
The family attained some security during the Civil War, but a financial panic in 1873 resulted in banks in Lynn beginning foreclosure on mortgages. Isaac was sued and threatened with arrest for not paying his debts. Though the suit was eventually dropped, he was left a broken man no longer able to work. All the Pinkham children secured jobs to sustain the household. Two years later the family was nearly destitute when some ladies visited the house and offered to buy a half-dozen bottles of the medicine Pinkham brewed as a cure for "women's weakness"; she usually gave it away. Pinkham's son Daniel immediately saw a business opportunity for the family. Soon Pinkham, with son William's help, was brewing Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound in the cellar and writing advertising copy, and Daniel was peddling it. Children Charles and Aroline helped buy herbs and alcohol with their wages. And Isaac sat in his rocker and folded the four-page "Guide for Women" pamphlet that was distributed with each bottle of the nostrum. William was named proprietor (because he had no outstanding debts) when the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company officially organized in 1876.
The Pinkhams launched their business at a fortuitous time. "Lydia Pinkham began selling her Vegetable Compound in an era marked by medical controversy, public dissatisfaction with doctors, an obsessive concern with women's weaknesses—a climate ideally suited to promote the success of the Pinkham venture," remarked Sarah Stage in Female Complaints. Despite medical advances, many doctors employed unsafe therapies and actually increased mortality rates by spreading bacteria. Though a simple mixture of herbs and 18 percent alcohol, the Vegetable Compound was touted as a cure for female complaints from menstrual problems to reproductive disorders and was viewed as a safe alternative to a doctor's medicine. Of the 36 proof alcohol content, Pinkham—herself and her children members of the temperance society (meaning they advocated abstinence from intoxicating drink)—said it was necessary for the therapeutic effect and as a preservative. (Indeed, decades later when the government forced the company to reformulate the compound, it didn't keep as well with less alcohol.) Pinkham claimed that consumption of the cure-all as directed would not conflict with temperance. However, because it was thought alcohol might aggravate menstrual disorders, by 1881 the company was also manufacturing the compound in pill and lozenge form.
Pinkham, still a reformer, helped dispel the nineteenth-century view of women as being weak. She dispensed commonsense advice on diet, health, and exercise when she answered letters and wrote pamphlets on a range of household topics. Testimonials eventually poured in from women who had heeded Pinkham's advice and "let doctors alone," finding relief instead in the compound. There probably was some truth in the reports. According to Dan Russell in "Drug War: Inquisition," "All [the ingredients of the compound] had been official or semi-official in the U.S. Pharmacopeia or the U.S. Dispensatory for various female ills." Scientists analyzing the compound in the 1940s and 1950s found estrogens in the ingredients, which could have therapeutic value to women. (One ingredient, black cohosh, is currently recommended by herbalists to relieve the symptoms of menopause.) "So far from being bunkum, Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was probably the best female tonic on the market, although Lydia did go a bit overboard in claiming to cure all female ills, and in advising customers to 'write Mrs. Pinkham,' avoid doctors altogether and just guzzle Compound," concluded Russell. Pinkham likely was echoing her grateful customers when she declared herself the "Saviour of Her Sex" in advertising.
The Vegetable Compound may have been a safe alternative to dangerous gynecology, but at first it was just one more nostrum in a sea of proprietary medicines. Daniel did his best to sell Pinkham's mixture by circulating pamphlets and contacting druggists, yet sales were low. It was an impulsive action by William that catapulted Pinkham's compound ahead of all the other patent medicines. He stopped into the Boston Herald and asked how much it would cost to print the four-page Pinkham pamphlet on the front page. William spent 60 of the 84 dollars he had just collected from a drug wholesaler for the space. The family could be upset with him only a short time. "Within two days new orders came in from three other wholesalers, and the Pinkhams had the first glimpse of their eventual boulevard to fame and fortune," wrote Donald Dale Jackson in Smithsonian.
The Pinkhams had hit upon the perfect way to market their product. Pinkham was one of the first women to write the advertising copy for a product. The compound, she stated flatly, was: "A medicine for women. Invented by a woman. Prepared by a woman." Most of the early newspaper ads for Pinkham's had sensational headlines that appeared to be lead-ins for news stories. One ad talked of a clergyman killed by his wife suffering from female complaints. Of course, regardless of the tragedy revealed in ad text, it always could have been prevented if the woman had taken Vegetable Compound. Pain and suffering ads were the most effective; the company's less sensational ads just didn't produce sales. Customers preferred to know that it was "the surest remedy for the painful ills and disorders suffered by women everywhere" rather than how it "plants on the pale cheek of woman the fresh roses of life's spring and early summer time."
For decades the company would spend a large percentage of its annual sales on advertising, but it paid off handsomely. The brewing operation moved out of the cellar into a building next door in 1878; the building then had to be enlarged. Unsolicited testimonials poured in that were sometimes incorporated into advertising, and upwards of 150 letters a day came in asking Pinkham's advice; these she answered personally in strict confidence. Her daughter-in-law oversaw answering correspondence after her death.
In 1879 Daniel Pinkham had a brainstorm that would make his mother a cultural icon. Trying to figure out a way to capitalize on the popularity of products made in New England, he hit upon the idea of using his sixty-year-old mother's picture as the company symbol. Pinkham posed for her portrait dressed in her best black silk dress with a bit of ruching (trim) at the neck and her hair swept up in a bun. Her grave, composed countenance exuded caring and competence, a grandmotherly feel. "Lydia's 'cast-iron smile' began appearing in the press at a time when female faces were still rare enough in American dailies to seize a reader's attention. For years hers was one of the few on display; editors lacking a picture of Queen Victoria or other noted women would sometimes use Lydia's portrait as a substitute," noted Jackson. Pinkham's likeness was put on product labels, newspaper advertising, lithographs, trade cards, souvenir plates, and gift items—all of which today are sought-after medical collectibles. Business doubled as a result. It was estimated in the 1940s that some $40 million had been spent publishing Pinkham's picture.
As with well-known figures today, Pinkham drew ribbing from humorists, especially since her expertise was in female complaints. College boys parodied Pinkham and her advertising copy in songs. The refrain of one song went: "OH-H-H, we'll sing of Lydia Pinkham, / And her love for the human race. / How she sells her vegetable compound,/ And the papers, the papers they publish, they publish her FACE!" The verses of another song referred to a product claim: "'There's a baby in each bottle.' / Thus the old quotation ran. / But you read in every textbook / That you still will need a man." All this attention, of course, made the Vegetable Compound even more popular.
Distraught over the deaths of sons Daniel and William in 1881 due to tuberculosis, Pinkham held frequent seances hoping to communicate with them. Late in 1882, she suffered a paralyzing stroke; in May 1883 she died and was buried next to her sons. Under the helm of son Charles, and with an enormous advertising budget, the business thrived and expanded into foreign markets. "In 1898 the compound was the most heavily advertised product in the United States, its name as familiar as Coca-Cola and McDonald's are today," reported Jackson. After Charles died, a divisive company power struggle ensued for years among family members. Yet the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company managed to survive the infighting and the passage of the Food and Drug Act, with its attendant regulations. Sales gradually declined after peaking at $3 million in 1925. In 1968 the heirs sold the company to a large pharmaceutical company, which moved bottling operations to Puerto Rico.
"Biographers, the lusty songs, the national sense of humor, the company's ads, which kept Lydia's spirit marching on, have all combined to perpetuate the name of a shrewd and plucky New England woman who was engaged in the manufacture of patent medicine for only the last eight years of her life," observed Gerald Carson in One for a Man, Two for a Horse.
Applegate, Edd, Personalities and Products: A Historical Perspective on Advertising in America, Greenwood Press, 1998.
Carson, Gerald, One for a Man, Two for a Horse: A Pictorial History, Grave and Comic, of Patent Medicines, Doubleday, 1961.
Stage, Sarah, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine, Norton, 1979.
Smithsonian, July 1984.
"Drug War: Inquisition," http://www.drugwar.com/inquisition.htm (January 12, 2001).
"Lydia Estes Pinkham," Women in American History by Encyclopedia Britannica, http://women.eb.com/women/articles/Pinkham-Lydia-Estes.html (January 12, 2001).
"Lydia Estes Pinkham: Herstory and Genealogy," http://www.kithandkin.net/pinkham.html (January 12, 2001).