Issue #10

Athens Women Rely on Lydia Pinkham

By Anne Adams


"Oh! Dear, I'm so tired!" So moaned the woman in the advertisement in the 1901 Athens Review as she reclined on her couch in a parlor.  Today, a woman who suffered from occasional fatigue might go to her doctor but around 1901 it wasn’t so easy. One reason is that because back then her doctor probably didn’t understand what we might call gynecology since medical science had largely neglected that area. The average GP then might understand and easily handle  a broken limb, or a mangling farm accident, but be largely ignorant about what was called “female problems” because to closely examine a woman patient might have been considered “immodest.”

Still, to women so afflicted, there was a remedy – of sorts. And this came through patent medicines bottled with no ingredients listed and sold without a prescription and sometimes protected by a trademark. These products were often purchased from a traveling salesman or even the local store. Some were purportedly based on old family recipes and while some were harmless, others not so much.  One such product, known as "bitters," was advertised as "harmless as water from a mountain spring" and was supposed to be good for dyspepsia, ague, dysentery, and especially for "women's problems." Common ingredients in these remedies were various herbs but there was usually alcohol - and lots of it. 

And one of the most popular remedies for “female problems” that was nationally advertized, and in the Athens Review, was Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound.

Lydia Estes Pinkham was a real person who lived in Massachusetts whose family remedy was nationally available. According to one source, it was described to be "an eclectic remedy for the aching back and other miseries associated with the recurring exigencies of female systems, soaking true unicorn root, black cohosh, life root plant, fenugreek seed, and so forth in alcohol 'solely as a preservative.'"  

Customers who wrote to the company for health advice received a letter signed, “Yours for health, Lydia E. Pinkham” and the advice usually encouraged taking the Pinkham tonic.

One of these letters was quoted in the Athens Review Ad where "Mrs. E.J. Gooden of Ackley, Iowa" described how she had suffered from kidney inflammation and hemorrhages, followed by "falling of the womb." She sought help from her doctor, he told her she could go back to work, yet within a week she was back in bed. Her only recourse apparently was the Pinkham remedy and "Before the first bottle was gone I felt the effects of it." Three more bottles and a "package of Sanative Wash did me more good than all the doctors' treatments and medicine." She gained weight and felt better "in every way." (Or maybe all the alcohol made her think she was better).

Other letters came from women who had problem pregnancies. One in the Athens paper read “How shall a mother who is weak and sick with some female trouble bear healthy children? Many women long for a child to bless their home, but because of some debility or displacement of the female organs, they are barren.” Lydia Pinkham to the rescue! The Compound treated the problem most successfully because it “ tone and strength to the parts, curing all displacements and inflammation.” Mrs. A.D. Jarret of Belmont, Ohio verified this: “Before taking your medicine I was unable to carry babe to maturity, having lost two – one at six months and one at seven” (presumably miscarriages). Her doctor told her that the next time she would die – but “thanks to Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound I did not die, but am the proud mother of a six months old girl baby.”

Many of these patent medicines disappeared after the passage of laws like the 1906 Food and Drug Act that not only required medicines to list the ingredients but also regulated their purity.  You can still get the Compound online, but the percentage of alcohol is now clearly listed on the label.     

Mrs. Pinkham died in 1883 but since she was such a revered figure to her customers, they found it hard to believe she was gone. Particularly when they still received answers to their questions signed by the great lady-  Obviously signed by a company staffer. Even when a national magazine pictured her grave marker in 1905 some still didn’t believe.

The ads at the time ran a woodcut drawing of Pinkham, and that proved useful in an unusual way. When Britain’s Queen Victoria died in 1901 some newspapers that couldn’t find a picture of the queen simply ran the Pinkham picture with the queen’s obituary. 

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