Pinkham, Lydia E. (1819–1883)

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Pinkham, Lydia E. (1819–1883)

Founder of the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company, who became the most familiar American woman of her time. Born on February 9, 1819, in Lynn, Massachusetts; died on May 17, 1883; daughter of William and Rebecca Estes; attended local schools; married Isaac Pinkham; children: five, including Daniel, William, and Aroline Pinkham.

Born in 1819, Lydia Estes Pinkham was the tenth of twelve children of William and Rebecca Estes , who were Quakers active in the anti-slavery cause, and dabbled in mysticism and Swedenborgism. William Estes had several occupations, but made most of his money in real estate. Lydia eagerly joined her parents' crusades and was also an early feminist.

In 1843, Lydia met Isaac Pinkham, a 29-year-old widower with a five-year-old daughter. Isaac was a shoe manufacturer, and at different times was a produce dealer, kerosene distiller, laborer, farmer, and builder. After a short courtship, they married. The following year, Lydia gave birth to her first child, and seemed content to be a housewife. A second child followed in 1847, but this one died, in his first year, of cholera infantum. Other children followed.

As Pinkham raised her children, she often resorted to home remedies. For example, for dyspepsia, she used pleurisy root steeped in boiling water. She kept a notebook, labeled "Medical Directions for Ailments"; one entry read: "A hog's [teat] procured fresh from the slaughter house split in halves, one half to be bound on the sole of each foot and allowed to remain there until perfectly dry, will produce relief and in many cases effect a cure of the complaint called asthma."

Pinkham had been born into a world in which medical knowledge was what it had been a millennium earlier. Typhoid fever and diphtheria were the two leading causes of death. There was no anesthesia. Sterilization was unknown. Life expectancy at birth was around 37 years for men, 40 years for women. More women died in childbirth than of cancer or heart attacks. There were ten medical schools in the nation, but few of those who called themselves doctors had attended any kind of school. There were fewer than 100 institutions recognizable as hospitals, and patients went there to die, not to recover.

Medicines were many but few were efficacious. One patent medicine promised cures for cancer, heart ailments, warts, dysentery, and chilblains; it contained grain alcohol plus a variety of herbs. During Lydia Pinkham's early years the likes of Wright's Vegetable Pills, Oman's Boneset Pills, Vegetine, and Hale's Honey of Horehound and Tar were popular nostrums. They were sold by peddlers, dry goods stores, and groceries, along with pamphlets and books with such titles as "Every Man His Own Physician" and "The People's Common Sense Medical Advisor in Plain English." Coca-Cola, which appeared in 1886, was initially touted as a patent medicine to cure headaches, indigestion, hangovers, and other ailments.

When the Pinkhams suffered financial setbacks during the calamitous panic of 1873, Lydia cast about for ways to supplement the family income. According to family legend, a few years earlier Isaac had endorsed a note for one George Clarkson Todd, who defaulted, obliging Isaac to pay the $25 owed on it. In partial repayment, Todd gave him a formula for a medicine to cure female complaints. The recipe (for 100 pints) was:

8 oz. unicorn root
6 oz. life root
6 oz. black cohosh
6 oz. pleurisy root
12 oz. fenugreek seed

To the resulting mixture was added sufficient alcohol to produce a medicine that was around 20% alcohol, or 40 proof.

At first, the Pinkhams gave away bottles of the medicine, but occasionally they were able to sell them. In 1875, Lydia and two of her sons, Daniel and William, decided to manufacture the medicine on a commercial basis, naming it "Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound." They brewed the mixture on the family stove. While Lydia attended to production and wrote advertising copy, the brothers marketed the compound. At first, they printed a brochure, "Guide for Women," which Isaac, now wheelchair-bound, folded and Daniel hand-delivered in Lynn. This resulted in some sales. Encouraged, in 1876 Daniel distributed the circulars in New York, where a leading pharmaceutical dealer, Charles Crittenton, agreed to handle the product. That year, Lydia incorporated the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company. William was named sole proprietor, because he was the only member of the family, besides his sister Aroline Pinkham , who was free of debts.

Sales were slow, so to add to the appeal of the Vegetable Compound other ailments were appended to a growing roster of complaints it was supposed to cure. When this did not help, Daniel decided to try his luck in Boston. In desperation, he ran an advertisement in the Boston Herald, which

did the trick. Sales picked up, and the Pinkhams dedicated more of their revenues to advertising.

In 1879, Daniel, who by then had taken charge of promotion, came up with a jingle: "She is as healthy a woman as can anywhere be found/Having taken four bottles of Mrs. Pinkham's Compound." He also decided to alter the plain label, and feature a picture of a robustly healthy woman: his mother. Within a few years, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound had become a national medicine, and Lydia Pinkham was one of the nation's most recognizable individuals. In the 1880s, a group of Dartmouth students wrote a song about her:

There's a face that haunts me ever,
There are eyes mine always meet;
As I read the morning paper,
As I walk the crowded street.

Ah! She knows not how I suffer!
Her's is now a worldwide fame,
But till death that face shall greet me.
Lydia Pinkham is her name.

The family turned down an offer of $100,000 for the business and the new trademark.

Within two months of each other, Dan and Will died, and Lydia took on added responsibilities. The company continued to grow. In 1881, sales came to $200,000, and the family prospered. But the now disconsolate Lydia turned once more to spiritualism. A few days before Christmas 1882, Pinkham suffered a paralytic stroke and claimed to have visions of William and Daniel. On May 17, 1883, she died at the age of 64.

West Virginia">

Before taking Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound I was afflicted with female complaints so that I could hardly walk. My back ached terribly, in fact, I ached all over. Was not able to raise myself up some of the time. I had no appetite and was so nervous that I could hardly sleep. I have taken but two bottles of your Compound and feel like another person; can now eat and sleep to perfection, in fact, am perfectly well.

—Letter to Lydia Pinkham from Mrs. Sue McCullough, Adlai, West Virginia

The company continued to prosper, as progress in gynecological research and practice lagged behind that in other medical fields. By the 1920s, sales of the Vegetable Compound climbed to $3 million annually. Then, in 1938, the American Medical Association cited the Pinkham company for false medical claims, but the company deflected the attack. Nonetheless, the nation's women were turned off by extravagant claims for the Compound. Sales declined as the nation increasingly avoided patent medicines. In 1968, in the face of a shrinking market, the Pinkham family sold the company to Cooper Laboratories for over $1 million.


Burton, Jean. Lydia Pinkham Is Her Name. NY: Farrar, Strauss, 1949.

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

suggested reading:

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Dierdre English. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of Experts' Advice to Women. Garden City: Doubleday, 1978.

Holbrook, Stewart. The Golden Age of Quackery. NY: Macmillan, 1959.

Robert Sobel , Professor Emeritus of Business History, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York