Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

Amidst a recent donation of artefacts from Parks Canada Agency’s collection to the Museum of Health Care, a woman’s face peers up at mine. “Yours in Health,” the line of slanted cursive below her steady gaze reads. Behind this seemingly innocuous packaging lays a historical figure whose life and work continues to intrigue to the present day; a woman at the intersection of gender, medical, advertising and regulatory history and of great importance to those who study these topics.

One of two Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company artefact recent  donated to  the Museum
Recent donation to Museum of Health Care collection.

Lydia E. Pinkham was born in 1819 to a Quaker family in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her family were avid abolitionists, at one time hosting Frederick Douglass in their home. They were also followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian who taught about the virtues of vegetarianism and means of direct communication with the dead. Although she only turned to the commercial creation of medicine during the last eight years of her life, Pinkham experienced within that brief timeframe meteoric success as a producer of medicines marketed exclusively for women. Her vegetable compound became “the most successful patent medicine of the century.” [1] Her remedies claimed to treat ailments ranging from menstrual cramps and reproductive disorders to menopausal symptoms. Within her lifetime, Pinkham became a cultural icon. [2] Speaking of her fame within a reflective biography published in the Globe and Mail decades after her death, the author wrote “Mrs. Pinkham was the first business woman in the United States to become widely known. Her features, as we have said, became better known than the features of any of her contemporaries. There could hardly have been a person in the United States-and perhaps in Canada, too-who would not have recognized her by sight in a crowd.” [3] By 1898, fifteen years after her death, her most successful product, a vegetable compound, had become one of the most heavily advertised products in the United States. Indeed, a biographer has compared the familiarity of Pinkham’s advertisements within turn-of-the-century North America to the brand recognition enjoyed by McDonald’s Corporation by modern Americans and Canadians. [4] 

Pinkham’s legend is such that books, articles, and dissertations continue to be written about facets of her life and success. Much of the literature has been produced surrounding her relationship to women’s medical history. Perhaps by virtue alone of being known as a powerful and prominent 19th-century figure within the history of medicine, within medical histories she is often identified first as a feminist and second as an inventor. For instance, in the late 19th-century edition of the “Science and Its Times” encyclopedia, Pinkham is described as an “American feminist who manufactured a home remedy for female reproductive pain that earned millions of dollars.” [5]  Other writers have sought to incorporate Lydia Pinkham products’ popularity within the more recent trajectory of medical products created and marketed exclusively for women. Indeed, in a recently-published book entitled The Estrogen Elixir: A History of Hormone Therapy in America, author Elizabeth Siegel Watkins claims that the estrogen-based hormone therapy replacement drugs which became the most widely-prescribed medicines of the 20th century are in some ways the descendents of Pinkham’s products. [6]

Interestingly, Pinkham seems a complex figure to weave within feminist histories. Pinkham both lived and worked within and against a cultural climate bound by notions of women’s inherent weaknesses. In the early years of her business, her advertisements often contained sensational stories, such as one detailing how a clergyman was killed by his wife driven mad by “female complaints.” Obviously, such advertisements served to reinforce stereotypes of women’s illogical and inscrutable natures.

That being said, Pinkham deserves attention for her role in breaking taboos surrounding women’s medical issues. Her products often came enclosed with pamphlets detailed with straightforward health advice. Moreover, the very act of claiming such prominent public space through her bold advertising campaigns was shocking enough to promote significant backlash. According to one biography, college groups mocked Pinkham with popular songs. One such tune’s lyrics were: “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!” Another refrain went: “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.”[7]

Indeed, we can conceive of Pinkham’s work as a subversion of patriarchal medical practices on both a concrete and symbolic level. She advertised her products as “A medicine for women. Invented by a woman. Prepared by a woman.” [8] This assertion seemingly implied that only a woman could understand and treat women’s bodies, a theoretical challenge to male-oriented medical practices which frequently stigmatized and pathologized women’s bodies. On a pragmatic level, her product leaflets advised women to steer clear of doctors, as they were harmful to their health. Of course, such advice may have been motivated at least as much by profit margins as by feminist inclinations. Indeed, her products were even used to thwart prohibitive contraception legislation. Her douche product was widely used as a contraceptive, though marketed as a hygiene product to avoid prosecution under the Comstock Law (an Act passed in 1873 which made contraceptives illegal for sale across U.S. state lines and was adopted by many states).[9]

Pinkham remains deeply relevant today to both advertising professionals and historians of advertising. Marketers continue to heatedly debate her legacy and pore over the amounts her company spent on advertising and its effectiveness. [10] Indeed, judging from the title of “The Languishing of Lydiametrics: the Ineffectiveness of Econometric Research on Advertising Effects,” her name has become synonymous with effective advertising! [11] Pinkham’s decisions to place her own image on her packaging, to write directly to women who wrote to her, and to include advice within her packaging were astoundingly effective. In this regard, Pinkham is also credited with creating a sea change within the broader culture of medicine and medical advertising. Her products are the most successful pre-late 20th –century example of direct-to-consumer medical advertising using a personal connection with the consumer to bring issues previously considered personal and non-medical into the realm of public and medical discourse. A recent article published within the Journal of Sociology parallels the advertising of erectile dysfunction drugs in the late 20th century to Pinkham’s advertisements-in both cases, producers argued the ailment was not a private issue, but a medical one to be treated with drugs. The authors of the article claim that Pinkham’s advertisements, as well as those for erectile dysfunction, changed the public perception of reproductive ailments. [12]

L0019508 Lydia E. Pinkham's vegetable compound
This advertisement demonstrates Pinkham’s emphasis on direct personal contact with the consumers of her products

The sheer amount of resources Pinkham invested in advertising was also unusual for the time period. Indeed, some of the recent  literature on theories in advertising seems to suggest that Pinkham remains so relevant to the field because her strategies in this regard set her apart from a market flooded with competition. Indeed, as a University of Toledo presentation on Pinkham’s advertising concluded, “thus was born modern advertising.” [13]

Pinkham has also been discussed by those interested in the intersections between legal and medical history.  Her work is often held up as a popular example of the fierce battleground between medical professional associations, regulatory bodies, advertisers and producers of medical remedies. Towards the end of Pinkham’s lifetime, the practice of medicine within North America was undergoing rapid and profound change. The American Medical Association was founded in 1847, primarily to control the licensing of physicians. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, physicians sought to streamline, professionalize, and monopolize the legitimate practice of medicine. Organizations like the AMA formed strong lobby groups to pressure lawmakers to crack down on independent producers of patent medicines. In 1906, the AMA finally succeeded in getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed, the first federal American legislation to control medicines and drugs. The Act “put constraints on advertising and marketing, stating that manufacturers had to print accurate ingredients on the label, they could not make false or exaggerated claims on the label, and that drugs had to meet certain standards of purity.” [14]As Chris Rutty wrote in a 1990 paper about patent medicines and popular health in Ontario, these developments proved very relevant to the Canadian context, as many patent medicines were imported from the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. [15] Moreover, Canada was undergoing similar processes of professionalization of the medical field and fierce battles over patent medicine legislation in the early 20th century.[16]

Pinkham’s products were deeply affected by such legislation. By 1915, Pinkham could no longer market her products specifically for women and could only claim they were “Recommended as a Vegetable Tonic in conditions for which the preparation has been adapted.” [17] Her products did not immediately lose their popularity. Indeed, the company’s sales peaked in 1925. [18] Nonetheless, the Pinkham Company fought a losing battle over the long run of the 20th century as federal bodies in North America gained increasing control over prescription drugs and physicians consolidated their medical authority.

*We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada (Youth Employment Strategy) through the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Young Canada Works Program.

Bibliography

Conrad, Peter and Valerie Leiter. “From Lydia Pinkham to Queen Levitra: direct-to-consumer advertising and medicalisation.” Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 30 No. 6 (2008): 825-38.

“Lydia Estes Pinkham.” Encyclopedia of World Biography: Second Edition (Detroit:Gale Publications, 2004).

“Lydia Estes Pinkham.” In Science and Its Times, Volume 5: 1800-1899, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, 385.  Detroit: Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. Accessed 8 June 2014.

Mariel, Petr, and Susan Orbe. “Nonparametric Estimation of the Effects of Advertising:

The Case of Lydia Pinkham.” The Journal of Business Vol. 78, No. 5. (March 2005): 649-74.

McAree, J.V. “Famous Lydia Pinkham.” Globe and Mail, 25 October 1949, p. 6.

Pollay, R. W.The Languishing of Lydiametrics: the Ineffectiveness of Econometric

Research on Advertising Effects.” The Journal of Communication Vol 34 No. 2 (1984): 8-23.

Rutty, Chris. “Patent Medicines and Popular Health in Ontario: Medicine, Pharmacy andthe Development of Government Legislation, 1890-1908.” Dissertation: University of Western Ontario, 1990.

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

University of Toledo Libraries. “Patent Medicine.” Last updated January 3 2012, accessed June 8 2014, http://www.utoledo.edu/library/canaday/exhibits/quackery/quack3c.html

Watkins, Elizabeth Siegel. The Estrogen Elixir: A History of Hormone Therapy in America.John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2007.

 

[1] “Patent Medicine,” University of Toledo Libraries, last updated 1/3/2012, accessed June 8 2014, http://www.utoledo.edu/library/canaday/exhibits/quackery/quack3c.html

[2] “Lydia Estes Pinkham,” Encyclopedia of World Biography: Second Edition (Detroit: Gale Publications, 2004): 351-3.

[3] J.V. McAree, “Famous Lydia Pinkham,” Globe and Mail, 25 October 1949, p. 6.

[4] “Lydia Estes Pinkham,” Encyclopedia of World Biography: Second Edition (Detroit: Gale Publications, 2004): 351-3.

[5]“Lydia Estes Pinkham” in Science and Its Times, Volume 5: 1800-1899, ed. Neil Schlager et al. (Detroit: Gale Virtual Reference Library, accessed 8 June 2014): 385.

[6]  Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, The Estrogen Elixir: A History of Hormone Therapy in America(John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2007).

[7] “Lydia Estes Pinkham,” Encyclopedia of World Biography: Second Edition (Detroit: Gale Publications, 2004): 351-3.

[8] Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, “From Lydia Pinkham to Queen Levitra: direct-to-consumer advertising and medicalisation,” Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 30 No. 6 (2008).

[9] Sarah Stage, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (New York: Norton Press, 1979).

[10] Petr Mariel and Susan Orbe, “Nonparametric Estimation of the Effects of Advertising: The Case of Lydia Pinkham,” The Journal of Business Vol. 78, No. 5. (March 2005).

[11] R W Pollay, “The Languishing of Lydiametrics: the Ineffectiveness of Econometric Research on Advertising Effects,” The Journal of Communication Vol 34 No. 2 (1984).

[12] Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, “From Lydia Pinkham to Queen Levitra: direct-to-consumer advertising and medicalisation,” Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 30 No. 6 (2008).

[13] “Patent Medicine,” University of Toledo Libraries, Last updated 1/3/2012, accessed June 8 2014, http://www.utoledo.edu/library/canaday/exhibits/quackery/quack3c.html

[14] Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, “From Lydia Pinkham to Queen Levitra: direct-to-consumer advertising and medicalisation,” Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 30 No. 6 (2008).

[15] Chris Rutty, “Patent Medicines and Popular Health in Ontario: Medicine, Pharmacy and the Development of Government Legislation, 1890-1908,” (Dissertation: University of Western Ontario, 1990): 9.

[16] Chris Rutty, “Patent Medicines and Popular Health in Ontario: Medicine, Pharmacy and the Development of Government Legislation, 1890-1908,” (Dissertation: University of Western Ontario, 1990): 38.

[17] Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, “From Lydia Pinkham to Queen Levitra: direct-to-consumer advertising and medicalisation,” Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 30 No. 6 (2008).

[18] “Lydia Estes Pinkham,” Encyclopedia of World Biography: Second Edition  (Detroit: Gale Publications, 2004): 351-3.

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