Women Herbalists: Lydia Pinkham
The Essential Herbal (www.essentialherbal.com) Mar/Apr ‘12
While Lydia Pinkham might not be at the top of the list as a famous female herbalist, I think she appeals to me so much because of business savvy and because her business began as a family enterprise. Her Vegetable Compound continues to be produced today.
Lydia Pinkham lived from 1819-1883 in Lynn, MA. To better understand her success it helps to have a little bit of background on the medical history of that time. The beginning of the century medicine was in a “heroic phase” of purging, bloodletting, and blistering. This was the common treatment form everything from pneumonia, hernia, to amenorrhea. Emetics, leeches, lancets, harsh purgatives were all used with a free hand for any ailment. And then in addition was calomel (chloride of mercury) a powerful cathartic. Therapeutically useless calomel broke down the intestines into a virulent mercurial poison. It produced a violent laxative effect and profuse salivation as the body continued to rid itself of the drug. Continued use lead to softening of the gums and mucus membranes and loss of teeth. These treatments continued through to the middle of the century and into the end of the century by older docs.
In addition to purging, puking and bleeding, Doctors of the time were creating an anxiety within women of the weakness of their sex. The concept of the delicate wife or the woman taking to her couch with the vapors was played upon. Menstruation was seen as an infirmity. In addition physician’s odd treatments of prolapsed uterus, leucorrhea, menstrual pains or menopause lead women to feel they had little to gain with a visit to the regular doctor.
As people were gaining a mistrust of “regular” doctors, other medical theories were being developed. Samuel Graham (of Graham bread and crackers) was lecturing on diet. Thompson studied with a local yarb and root doctor and learned of Lobelia inflata, Indian tobacco, leading to his theories of disease “heat is life, cold is death” and his Thomsonian School of medicine. Then Hahnemann came with his theories of “infinitesimal dose” and his homeopathy school.
Lydia Pinkham began selling her compound in an era marked by medical controversy, public dissatisfaction with the medical profession and an obsessive concern with woman’s weakness. Lydia Pinkham had been making her compound for years and giving it to friends and neighbors. Her family had the idea to sell the Vegetable Compound when her husband a speculative business man hit financial ruin in the “Panic of 1873”. It was a true family business sons working on promotion and advertising, daughter turning over her paycheck to underwrite the business, Lydia did the manufacturing and so the business of “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” began.
Promotions began with circulating flyers door to door in small towns and larger cities. The return on the investment of the printing and time spent circulating was not worthwhile so the Mrs. Pinkham bravely took out a four page ad in the Boston Herald for close to $900.00. Sales soared! The company continued to print advertising in newspapers and magazines, hiring agents and eventually having an in house advertising agent for over 60 years. The advertising expenditures for 1900 were over $770,000! The company also produced a variety of booklets on such topics as Home Dressmaking or War time Cook and Health Book as cleverly camouflaged advertising. In 1920, 11 million booklets were printed and the company built their own printing press to do so. Part of the advertising campaign encouraged woman to write for help with their health. Advertising that “Mrs. Pinkham regards every letter as a Sacred Message” and that “No man will ever see your letter”, thousands upon thousands of letters were received and a bevy of young women hired to write standardized responses.
The company certainly went through its share of problems through its 100 year history. By 1905 a steady barrage of criticisms were being leveled at patent medicines hurt business. Major magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Colliers were printing articles with such titles as “The Great American Fraud”. Patent Medicine Counterfeiters were fairly common to the industry. The Passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1911, whose slogan “Let the Label Tell” required proprietary medicines to list ingredients which cut down on quackery. While the Vegetable Compound needed to change its labeling and its healing claims, this led to an era of prosperity for the company. Family squabbles occurred and in the 1930’s-1940’s, with all of the original family deceased, there were numerous court battles among the cousins for control of the company. The 1940’s changes were brought on by the Federal Trade Commission, American Medical Association and the FDA, the company adapted and complied.
In 1950, sales hit below the two million dollar mark for the first time in a decade. Lydia Pinkham was now an old woman in old fashioned clothes. Druggist’s described the consumer of the Vegetable Compound as well over 30, mature, less educated and in the south or cities often Black. The company created a fictitious and modern Ann Pinkham but in the end did not respond astutely enough to changing times. In 1968 the company was sold to Cooper Labs and moved out of the country.
In 1980, when I first began giving garden tours in the herb gardens of The Rosemary House, when I spoke of pleurisy root as one of the ingredients in Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound invariably there would be a woman say “a baby in every bottle” a carry over from one of their stronger advertising campaigns. Now, at the mention of Lydia Pinkham I am faced with blank stares. While today it seems easier to find a bottle of her Vegetable Compound in an antique store then in a pharmacy, I still admire the woman behind the compound for her shrew business sense and for her willingness to talk about female issues honestly and forthrightly.
The original formula of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was based on John King’s American Dispensary.
For 100 pints:
8 oz Unicorn Root (Aletris farinose)
6 oz Life Root (Senecio aureus)
6 oz Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
12 oz Pluerisy Root (Asclepias tuerosa)
12 oz Fenugreek Seed (Foenum graceum)
Suspended in alcohol
Susanna Reppert Brill, The Rosemary House, Mechanicsburg PA