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Lydia Estes Pinkham

Lydia Estes Pinkham

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.

"Saviour of Her Sex"

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.

Grandmother of Modern 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.

Cultural Icon

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.

Name Lived On

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," (January 12, 2001).

"Lydia Estes Pinkham," Women in American History by Encyclopedia Britannica, (January 12, 2001).

"Lydia Estes Pinkham: Herstory and Genealogy," (January 12, 2001). □

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Pinkham, Lydia Estes (1819-1883)

Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883)


Social reformer, patent-medicine entrepreneur

A Household Name. Over the late nineteenth century, in the booming patent medicine industry, the most popular brand was Lydia Pinkhams Vegetable Compound. Her name and likeness integral parts of the products packaging, Pinkham became a household name and one of the best-known women of the period. And yet, she entered the business world late in her life, after spending thirty years as a housewife and mother, in a desperate effort to save her family from poverty.

Background. Pinkhams father was a shoemaker in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she lived virtually all her life. She went to school at the local academy and after graduating became a schoolteacher. In the decades before the Civil War she joined a number of the reform movements that emerged in northern antebellum middle-class circles, including abolitionism, temperance, Swedenborgianism, and womens rights. In 1843, at the age of twenty-four, she married Isaac Pinkham and settled into the traditional Victorian roles of wife and mother, rearing five children. She may well have remained in these roles all her life, but in 1873 her husbands real estate speculations collapsed amid the general financial panic, throwing the Pinkhams onto hard times.

Remedies. It was at this point that Lydia Pinkham made herself into an entrepreneur and her family into a business, when she began bottling and selling the home remedies she had been concocting for years and dispensing to neighbors and kin. Made principally from unicorn root and pleurisy root, with a healthy dose of alcohol (a solvent and preservative), they were popular in Lynn because they were thought to treat female complaints that many women were reluctant to discuss with their male doctors. The family put it on the market in 1875, starting in Lynn and beginning to widen their customer base. Business got off to a slow start, but the famly worked assiduously at promotion: Pinkham dispatched her sons through the area, and eventually across New England and New York to drum up sales. The family printed handbills and pamphlets, and solicited testimonials from customers and druggists. In 1876 the product began to circulate more widely when New Yorks major patent medicine broker, Charles N. Crittenden, took his first cash order. Newspaper advertisements in the Boston Herald cultivated the Boston market at around the same time. By her death in 1883, Lydia Pinkhams medicine was grossing $300,000 a year, and sales were still growing. The product remained popular well into the twentieth century, in part because the company continued to spend heavily on advertising.

Homemade in the Mass Marketplace. What ultimately put Mrs. Pinkhams across was the image the company built around their product. At the suggestion of Daniel, who had a good feel for the market, they began using Mrs. Pinkhams image on labels in 1879. They also adopted a general pitch that Daniel first suggested while traveling in New York and Brooklyn, trying to persuade druggists to sell the product. If we should hitch on to the medicine somehow The Great New England Remedy, he predicted, and then after awhile have our Trade Mark picture some New England Scenery with a humble cottage, these golds would consider it homemade and rush for it, as they seem to be all tore out on homemade goods. It was a shrewd assessment, and a telling insight into Americans ambivalence over the economic transformations happening all around them. Even if they were going to be mass-produced and distributed, it would be those goods that managed to create an aura of being homemade would attract customers in the new marketplace.


Robert Collyer Washburn, The Life and Times of Lydia E. Pinkham (New York: Putnam, 1931).

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Pinkham, Lydia Estes


Lydia Estes Pinkham (18191883) was a life-long resident of Lynn, Massachusetts. In 1875 she became a successful businesswoman by marketing a homemade herbal remedy known as Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. By spiking a combination of two herbs with a generous dose of alcohol, Lydia Pinkham produced a bottled remedy for women. Promoting it was a cure for "female complaints," she took advantage of the advertising media available to her. Her remedy was an immediate success and one of the earliest products made for female consumers. At the time of her death the business was grossing $300,000 per year, a large sum for her day. The business continued to thrive, and Pinkham's remedy was purchased by generations of American women.

Lydia was the tenth child in a Quaker family of twelve. Born into middle class circumstances, she graduated from Lynn Academy and became a schoolteacher. Taking after her parents, champions of the anti-slavery movement and other reform, Lydia was a passionate social crusader. As a young student she was involved in the women's suffrage movement and was a member of the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society. She never gave up her support for women's right to obtain a medical education.

At one point her family ran into financial problems because of her husband's failed business ventures. Pinkham began to market the homemade herbal remedies for women that she had privately produced for years, several of which were based on Native American lore. One of her remedies was very popular among neighbors, and was in demand. She aggressively labeled her product "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." Her product was patented in 1876, and included false unicorn root, true unicorn root, life root, black cohosh, pleurisy root, and alcohol. By the 1890s it was the most widely advertised over-the-counter patent medicine in America.

Pinkham was an ardent believer in the powers of her remedy and made many promises to her customers in her advertising. She marketed directly to women because she believed only women could understand female health problems.

Pinkham's desire to become a businesswoman involved more than just the need to make money for supporting her family. She also hoped to reform medicine and reduce the needless suffering she felt male doctors often caused their female patients. Pinkham believed her remedy, in addition to diet and exercise, was an effective alternative to medical treatment.

Focusing on women's needs and pursuing a massive advertising campaign including church newspapers, the front pages of commercial newspapers, leafleting in theaters and parks, and a smiling picture of the maternal Pinkham on every label, Lydia Pinkham marketed one of the most successful women's products ever created. She became one of the first role models for American businesswomenshe was successful, she embraced the model of motherhood, and she showed how social reform and business could work successfully together. Lydia Pinkham died in 1883.

See also: Advertising


Burton, Jean. Lydia Pinkham is Humane. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1949.

Dictionary of American Medical Biography, s.v. "Pinkham, Lydia Estes."

Encyclopedia of American Biography, 2nd ed., s.v. "Pinkham, Lydia Estes."

Pinkham, Lydia E. Lydia E. Pinkham's Private Textbook. Lynn: Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine, n.d.

Stage, Sarah. Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine. New York: Norton, 1979.

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