Lydia Pinkham

DESCRIPTION: As found in tradition, a bawdy and scatological testimonial in multiple stanzas for the restorative powers of Mrs. Pinkham's patent medicine for women, although there are clean Lydia Pinkham versions
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1927 (Sandburg-TheAmericanSongbag)
KEYWORDS: bawdy scatological sex drugs medicine
HISTORICAL REFERENCES:
May 17, 1883 - Death of Lydia Estes Pinkham. Her spirit -- or at least the image of her face -- would live on
FOUND IN: US(So) Canada
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Randolph/Legman-RollMeInYourArms I, p. 485-489, "Lydia Pinkham" (5 texts, 1 tune)
Hopkins-SongsFromTheFrontAndRear, pp. 176-177, "Lydia Pink" (1 text, 1 tune)
Sandburg-TheAmericanSongbag, p. 210, "Lydia Pinkham" (1 text, 1 tune, expurgated)
Shay-BarroomBallads/PiousFriendsDrunkenCompanions, pp. 46-47, "The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham" (2 texts, 1 tune)
DT, LYDIAPNK
ADDITIONAL: Sarah Stage, _Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine_, 1979 (I use the 1981 Norton paperback), p. 41, "(no title)" (1 excerpt)
Jean Burton, _Lydia Pinkham Is Her Name_, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, pp. 200-201, 278-279 "(no title)" (3 excerpts on pp. 200-201 plus a fairly substantial text on pp. 278-279)

Roud #8368
CROSS-REFERENCES:
cf. "I Will Sing of My Redeemer" (tune)
NOTES [4505 words]: This is sung to the Protestant hymn tune "I Will Sing of My Redeemer," Legman notes in his extensive annotations in Randolph/Legman-RollMeInYourArms I. - EC
It is likely that there are multiple Lydia Pinkham songs around, but I'm lumping them here because it's hard to separate what is a legitimate genetic difference from what is simply bowdlerization. The basic distinction I have seen is that is that one family of texts refer constantly to "that face" (the face of Lydia printed on every bottle of her product); the other doesn't mention it, at least not in every verse.
It's easy to make fun of Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883) now, for being responsible for a patent medicine that wasn't effective but sold very well. The medicine certainly deserved the scorn. But it's important to keep the context in mind. As Stage points out on p. 44, the doctors of Lydia's youth had been no better -- this was pre-Pasteur, pre-Semmelweis; Lydia herself would lose a child to early disease. In 1840, a case could be made that she knew better than doctors -- especially about women's health. By the time she died, that was starting to change, but not everyone realized it yet. And if her concoction was useless, she had social significance: "She became, as all the world soon knew, America's first successful businesswoman, and she introduced an entirely new kind of advertising which was at the time a satisfying form of self-expression. She wrote the first reliable facts-of-life treatise; distributed by the millions, its effect was incalculable. But her main contribution to public thought was a truly revolutionary concept: namely, that one could be healthy though female" (Burton, pp. 3-4). In fact, Burton argues (pp. 183-187) that for many years Lydia's treatise on female physiology was the only relatively accurate work available in America.
And Lydia at least made her concoction in relatively sanitary conditions, according to a fixed formula; the Pinkhams even let people visit the production facilities, at a time when doctors and apothecaries often mixed their drugs by guess or by taste, often in appallingly unsanitary ways (Burton, pp. 111-113).
Unlike most patent remedies found in the nineteenth century, Lydia Estes Pinkham's concoction was not originally designed simply to lure the public. Our knowledge of Lydia Pinkham's life is somewhat limited -- Stage, p. 17, says that our only writings from her hand are a few letters, a scrapbook, and some old, tired receipt books. DAB, Volume VII, p. 624, says that she was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she spent almost her entire life. She came from a large Quaker family, being the tenth of twelve children of William Estes and his wife Rebecca (so Stage, p. 18; DAB says she was one of ten children and that Rebecca Chase was William Estes's second wife; Burton, p. 9, adds that Chase was from another old Quaker family).
Rebecca Estes apparently went beyond Quakerism to Swedenborgianism, and Lydia picked up some of those spiritualist beliefs (Stage, pp. 18-19), even trying to contact her sons' spirits after they died (Burton, pp. 202-203).
Although the iconic image of Lydia is of a little old lady, little she was not -- five feet, ten inches tall! (Stage, p. 24). She was also very thin as a young woman; Stage says that she was not thought pretty because of her height, but in Stage's photo of her at age 25, she looks fairly attractive to me. Burton, p. 22, calls her a "composed and striking-looking young woman, erect, very tall (five feet ten or so), with reddish hair and fine dark eyes." (She was actually taller than her husband, who was short and a bit heavy; Burton, p. 31). She wasn't even all that old -- the photo that went on everything (which was the inspiration of her son Dan; Burton, pp. 104-105) was taken in 1879, according to Stage's photo section, which would make her 59 or 60; Burton, p. 103, implies she was 57.
Lydia, after graduating with honors from school (Burton, p. 14), became a schoolteacher (Stage, p. 24). She continues her involvement in liberal causes, notably in the fight against slavery (she had joined an anti-slavery group at 16; Stage, p. 21, and her family was so close to Frederick Douglass that one sister was kicked out of the Methodist church; Stage, pp. 21-22). She also favored women's rights (Stage, pp. 22-23; based on Burton, p. 5, this was something of a family tradition) and temperance -- as well as oddities such as Swedenborgianism, phrenology, and spiritualism. Odd, given that Burton, p. 125, says the whole family was inclined toward Unitarianism/Universalism and believed in Darwin. In addition to Douglass, she knew the Hutchinson Family; one of them sang at her funeral (Stage, p. 44).
All in all, a strange person to become the commercializer of a quack medicine. (And, indeed, Burton, p. 70, says she initially disliked the idea. But the children talked her around.) On the other hand, there are plenty of liberals with wacko ideas about non-scientific medicine, so it's no surprise she believed in her recipes....
She liked to exercise her mind. (That open-mindedness ran in the family. Her granddaughter was the first woman to cross the United States by plane; Stage, p. 206.) She was actively involved in a debating society that took on big philosophical questions. It was there that she met Isaac Pinkham (born 1815) (Burton, pp. 23-25), a widower with a young daughter, Frances Ellen (Burton, pp. 27-28). After a short courtship, Lydia married him in September 1843 (Burton, p. 25; Stage, p. 25) and settled down to bear four sons (one of whom died young) and a daughter while her husband ran his way through a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Despite intermittent poverty (e.g. Burton, p. 31), she managed to have her two younger surviving sons and her daughter get very good educations by the standards of the time there were a lot of school medals awarded to them (Stage, pp. 29-30). Lydia during this period was compiling a notebook of home remedies for various complaints which she titled "Medical Directions for Ailments" (Stage, p. 27).
Schwartz lists the compound's ingredients as licorice, chamomile. pleurisy root, Jamaica dogwood, life plant, dandelion root, and black cohosh. Plus, of course, alcohol. That may be a modified list; Stage, pp. 32, 89, gives the ingredients as Unicorn root, Life root, Black cohosh, Pleurisy root, and Fenugreek seed (if nothing else, it really did have lots of vegetable matter! Burton, p. 107, gives almost the same list, but splits the "Unicorn Root" into "True" and "False" varieties.) As Stage shows on p. 90, most of these were in fact known to herbal practitioners as remedies for "female complaints." Indeed, Burton, pp. 50-55, claims the formula was lifted from Dr. James King's The American Dispensary. The herbs were placed in the alcohol so as to mix and soften the ingredients -- and, most importantly, to preserve them; alcohol was one of the best preservatives then available.
Interestingly, there is some evidence that black cohosh actually can ease some of the symptoms associated with menopause. Indeed, in the 1940s, when finally clinical tests were done, the studies seemed to find -- to the researchers' surprise -- that the Vegetable Compound did seem to have a demonstrable effect on menopausal symptoms (Burton, pp. 275-276). But the main "active ingredient" was doubtless the booze. Which is ironic, because another of Lydia's liberal causes was temperance (Stage, p. 32). But, because the alcohol was a preservative, it was apparently considered all right.
Schwarcz, pp. 218-222, reports that Lydia was originally just a local woman who devised a vegetable brew to deal with "female complaints," which she shared and which apparently had gained a local reputation. She had no intention of selling it. Then came the Panic of 1873. Isaac Pinkham had always survived largely on credit, and now there was no more; he lost his money, and even the family home. (That seemed to leave him depressed for the rest of his life; Burton, pp. 66-67. On p. 74, Burton says that when the rest of the family was busily working on the business, they gave him the job of reading to them so that he could feel involved. Stage, p. 30, says his financial failures actually turned him into an invalid. Ironically, he outlived Lydia by six years, dying in 1889; Burton, pp. 207-208)
The Pinkham children were also losing their jobs and needed something to do. And, although they supported many of her liberal causes (e.g. temperance), the younger Pinkhams didn't have any objection to making a slightly shady dollar. They induced Lydia try to sell her glop, and in 1875 entered the patent medicine market (Burton, p. 69). (In a minor irony, although often called a patent medicine by analogy to similar nostrums, the compound was not actually patented, which would have allowed competitors to duplicate it after a few decades. Instead, they copyrighted the name and such, so people couldn't rip off the advertising, and kept the formula secret (Burton, p. 106).
It was Lydia's son Dan who really pushed them into business (Stage, p. 31), and who wore out his shoes, and the sidewalks of New York, selling it. He didn't really do very well -- he kept asking money from home -- but eventually he sold enough to get the business off the ground (Burton, pp. 87-95).
Although Lydia assembled her compound to deal with women's health problems, Dan Pinkham quickly started advertising it for kidney disease and men's problems (Stage, p. 92), and for a while they advertised its fertility benefits ("A Baby in Every Bottle"; Burton, p. 179); once it went on the market, the Pinkham company was clearly more interested in sales than in the compound's alleged health benefits.
DAB, Volume VII, p. 624, says that Lydia made "Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound" available to the people of Lynn in 1875. Her children set about hawking it -- one of them, Daniel, traveling as far as New York and picking up financial support from outsiders. Starting in 1876, the family advertised it in newspapers. Lydia did not actually own the company; her son Will was made sole proprietor because he and his sister Aroline were the only family members who had no business debts. (In 1881, after Dan Pinkham died, they reorganized as what was officially a partnership between the three surviving children -- Burton, p. 161 -- which in effect made Lydia an employee of her own children in a company named for her!) Lydia's job was to make the compound (Stage, p . 33); her sons sold the mixture -- with the ambitious Dan clearly being willing to use dishonest tactics to do it. (He also got in trouble with his advertising, because people wouldn't read things that were explicit about "female complaints" and used words like "uterus"; Stage, pp. 34-35). Strangely, Dan's near-rejection of Christianity (Stage, p. 38) did not prevent him from being elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1878 as a Greenback candidate, where he came to be known as the "Fish-Cake Representative" because of one of his odder suggestions for reducing the privileges of the legislators (Burton, p. 131). But he lost to the young Henry Cabot Lodge in the election issue because Dan, who was making a living selling what amounted to adulterated booze, supported a temperance bill; Stage, p. 40).
Dan would not long survive his defeat. Both Dan and brother Will came down with tuberculosis. But by then, Dan had had an idea that worked: In 1879, they finally put Lydia's photo on the bottles of Vegetable Compound, and suddenly they had a success on their hands (Stage, pp. 40-41; Burton, p. 115; DAB, Volume VII, p. 624) -- though they had a lot of trouble with their advertising agent, who pushed out a lot of ads but also took a very high commission (Stage, pp. 95-97; it appears, based on Burton, p. 198, that he also acquired a block of stock, although Burton's description is very unclear). Those ads were spectacular, with headlines involving, for instance, woman murdering her husband because of insanity caused by "female complaints" (Stage, p. 100). And those ads were designed to look like actual news stories.
After Dan's death, the company officially became "Lydia E. Pinkham's Sons and Company." As we already saw, Lydia had no ownership share (although her daughter Aroline did), but people naturally assumed Lydia was the leader of the organization (Stage, pp. 96-97). This was particularly true since the company encouraged people to write to Lydia with women's health questions, which she personally answered until shortly before she died (Stage, p. 105; Burton, p. 138, explains that, in the early days when sales were slow, Lydia always put thank you notes in the packages, and the correspondence became a habit for the organization). The letters also provided useful testimonials (Stage, pp. 105-106; Burton, p. 229, says that at one point they were getting 100,000 per year!). Stage points out the interesting fact that Pinkham's was willing to say that men sometimes caused the problems their women suffered (Stage, p. 108), a small bit of progress for women's equality. And if Lydia promoted a worthless remedy, she did at least encourage good hygiene, and a diet rich in whole grains and vegetables and low in refined foods, so in her early years, the Pinkham company may actually have done some good, health-wise (Burton, pp. 141-143).
The company actually was insolvent for a time in there (Burton, pp. 196-197), but Charles Pinkham convinced others to sign the papers needed to keep him afloat. It sounds as if the Pinkham children were as financially reckless as their father -- but they got lucky.
Once Lydia's photo started being used in advertising, it was seen everywhere, explaining the lines in the song, "Both day and night it follows me, That face," or "Oh, we'll sing of Lydia Pinkham, And her love for the human race.... And the papers they publish her face." Burton, p. 115, claims that within a short time, Lydia's face was the most recognized woman's face in all the world except for Queen Victoria and perhaps Eugénie the wife of the former French monarch Napoleon III.
By 1881, the Pinkhams were doing $200,000 of business a year (Stage, p. 42).
Dan and Will's fatal illnesses proved one thing: that Lydia actually believed in her medical skills, since she prepared large amounts of her various concoctions for her sons (Stage, pp. 42-43). But illness rarely responds to treatments by the self-deluded. Dan and Will both died in late 1881 (Stage, p. 43; Dan was just 32 and Will just 28; Burton, pp. 160, 163). Lydia, already something of a nut case, turned even more to spiritualism (Burton, pp. 163-164), and sought to contact her dead children. Her surviving children went along. They didn't have to play the game too long; Lydia suffered a stroke in late 1882 and died on May 17, 1883 (Stage, p. 43).
Pinkham's first attempt to open a branch in Canada fizzled; they couldn't ship the product across the border because of high tariffs, and the local they hired to set up the business turned out to be a little too sharp an operator (Burton, pp. 190-194. Eventually, though, they had branches in Canada, Mexico, Britain, Cuba, Spain, France, and the Netherlands, and marketing operations throughout Latin America; Burton, pp. 236-238; they even tried to set up in China, although translating into Chinese produced even more complications than translating into European languages; Burton, pp. 239-240. Eventually they reached 33 countries; Burton, p. 241).
Despite their various crazy ideas, the company was apparently quite good to its workers, paying fair wages and offering good working condiions (Burton, p. 212).
By the late 1880s, the company had toned down the advertising, and was spending less on it. It was trying to go respectable (Stage, pp. 109-110). Only to hire an advertising representative named James T. Wetherald in 1889; he would stay with the company for the remaining 36 years of his life (Burton, p. 214). The name on the label might say "Pinkham," but for a third of a century, it was Wetherald who provided most of the direction for the product (Stage, pp. 111-112) while preserving the legend that the Pinkhams were still actively involved -- Stage, p. 115, says that "the company built up its institutional posture by the conscious use of half-truths." So, for instance, people could still write to "Mrs. Pinkham," and they would get a handwritten answer, but this was simply copied from a company book of answers. Officially Lydia's daughter-in-law was in charge of correspondence, but it was all Wetherald's game (Stage, p. 114).
Wetherald didn't just go in for bolder advertising. He increased the list of complaints the product allegedly treated, adding psychological symptoms and promoting the product for beauty needs (Stage, pp. 117-118), He issued a large "Health Guide," digging up or inventing obscure maladies so that he could claim the compound cured them (Stage, pp. 118-119). The original Pinkham family believed in their medicine despite a lack of scientific evidence; Wetherald doesn't seem to have believed in much except increased receipts. He wrote pamphlets, spread more advertising, and kept bringing in testimonials The testimonials were voluntarily offered and not technically paid, but the women got free postage and large quantities of the compound (Stage, pp. 120-121). He also started marketing a "Sanative Wash," with a sort of whisper campaign that it could be used to induce abortions (Stage, p. 127). The manuscripts of the testimonials were eventually destroyed (Stage, p. 284, thinks this was in 1940 when the company shut down its correspondence department), but hundreds of thousands had been gathered by then.
The irony is that Lydia had at least been open about talking about female health, and Stage, p.131, suggests that that was the main reason the Vegetable Compound succeeded; Wetherald cloaked everything in Victorian misdirection, but told so many lies and half-truths that he still managed to boost sales.
According to Schwarcz, Lydia was successful enough to become the first millionairess in America, but that was getting a bit ahead of the story; the correct statement seems to be that her estate soon made that much money, but she didn't have that much in her lifetime. Burton, p. 209, says that the Pinkham company was grossing $300,000 a year at the time of her death -- but half of that was going for advertising. It was Wetherald who boosted the Pinkham company to annual sales of a million and a half dollars a year (Stage, p. 131), and eventually to a peak of more than three million dollars in 1925 (Stage, p. 225).
Around 1900, they started drawing more attention from the government. The state of Pennsylvania started persecuting them for publishing obscene materials (Stage, pp. 133-134), forcing them out of that state. And they also had to deal with counterfeiters who were making fake Compound (according to Stage, p. 135, the typical fake consisted of stale beer with a fake Pinkham label).
Worse, when Charles Pinkham (the last of Lydia's sons) died in 1900, while still in his fifties (Burton, p. 230), there was a battle between Charles's children and the family of Aroline Pinkham Gove, Lydia's last surviving child, over who would run the company (Stage, pp. 136-137; according to Burton, p. 166-167, the 112 shares of the company were divided 49 to Charles and family, 49 to Aroline and family, and 14 to the distant relatives of Will's deceased wife, though the family eventually got them back); until then, the Goves had been silent partners -- so silent that Charles sometimes complained about how little they contributed. The Goves seized control; the young Pinkhams fought back by threatening to start a competing line, and so forced their way into management (Stage, pp. 138-140). Perhaps just as well; Stage thinks William Gove was not a good manager. But the internal fights didn't stop.
And there was increasing pushback against patent medicines. Although the first regulatory attempts had largely failed, some publications were refusing their ads, and The Ladies' Home Journal -- hardly what we would consider a radical investigative source today! -- attacked the patent medicines openly and strongly (Stage, pp. 140, 160-162). These articles also made it clear that the original Lydia Pinkham, long dead, was not personally answering the letters sent to the company. Sales fell dramatically (Stage, p. 163). And then, in 1906, largely in response to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed (Stage, p. 169). This forced the Pinkham company to make a number of changes. For starters, it had to list the alcohol content. It didn't have to list all the other ingredients, but it couldn't make false claims (so were it to claim to contain, say, pleurisy root, e.g., it would hve to contain pleurisy root). The advertising briefly became a lot more realistic, though that didn't last: the law only said that the label had to be accurate, not the advertising! (Stage, pp. 169-173). Sales dropped, but by 1912 were back over a million dollars a year (Stage, p. 180). But to pull that off, Wetherald was spending between 44% and 58% of the company's annual revenue on advertising, depending on the year! (Stage, p. 181). Pinkham's wasn't really a medicine company; it was mostly an advertising machine.
And, in 1913, a scientific analysis found that the Vegetable Compound didn't have enough non-alcoholic material to qualify as a medicine even under the lax 1906 law. It was a medicated alcohol, by the rules of the time -- and so should be taxed as such. Rather than face the high taxes, the company moved to reformulate the product (Stage, p. 183). They added dandelion, chamomile, and licorice, and so made it pass government inspection -- but it also affected the taste, and made it harder to mix and maintain in suspension properly; sales again fell (Stage, pp. 184-185). And the company continued to face pressure over its expansive claims; in 1915, the company was charged in Massachusetts court with false claims (Stage, p. 187). The company pleaded no contest and accepted a token fine (Stage, p. 189), but they kept tinkering with the formula and cutting back on their claims. They didn't stop advertising, though, and by the 1920s, they were back to making half a million in profit a year (Stage, p. 190). There is good reason to think that people used the compound as a source of legal alcohol during Prohibition (Stage, p. 194).
In 1925, the government forced the company to stop advertising the compound specifically for "female complaints" and to make other changes to its labels and literature (Stage, pp. 197-198). Ongoing squabbles between the children of Charles Pinkham and Aroline Pinkham Gove caused further changes and led to another substantial decline in sales (Stage, pp. 204-205). The family squabbles were so bad that, in 1927, they rewrote the corporate rules to ensure that there was always an independent director to deal with the conflicts, but much damage had already been done (Stage, p. 231; Burton, p. 259-261) as a result of the two halves of the corporation -- in effect, the financial half and the advertising half -- refusing to cooperate. (According to Burton, p. 249, corporate bylaws were actually rewritten to refer to the "Pinkham stock" and the "Gove stock.") In 1932 the Pinkham side of the family sued to deprive Lydia Pinkham Gove of her control over the pursestrings. But between the depression and the many years in which no good advertising ran, demand was much reduced (Stage, p. 233). Stage, pp. 234-236, describes the management fight as a deliberate attempt by Lydia Pinkham Gove to destroy the finances of the company, so that her Pinkham cousins -- who were dependent on the company's profits, whereas Gove had money socked away -- would have to sell out to her. Instead, the case wound up in court again in the 1930s, with the two sides fighting over control (Stage, pp. 236-237). The matter was finally settled in 1941, the year after Aroline, the last of the original Pinkhams, died; the courts gave control to the Pinkhams, not Lydia PInkham Gove -- but by then a 1938 law was putting the company under scrutiny (Stage, pp. 238-239). And Pinkham's had been unable to do any research on the compound's chemical properties over the preceding decade because Lydia Gove wouldn't pay for it. So they had to hastily add some vitamins and try to argue with the government that the product should still be sold (Stage, pp. 240-241). The 1940s were difficult years; sales fell 10% in 1950 alone, to below two million dollars, and the outside directors increasingly wanted to get rid of both the Lydia graphic and the remaining Pinkham descendants (Stage, pp. 242-243). For a while they tried out an entirely fictional "Ann Pinkham" as a newer company symbol (Stage, p. 244). Stage, pp. 244-255, notes the irony that the company's attempts to hold their old market, fighting with the FDA all the time, meant that they couldn't pivot to the role of a tonic; Stage thinks that Pinkham's could have occupied the spot eventually dominated by Geritol (which also had alcohol as its most significant ingredient, eventually got hit by the FDA, and converted to a vitamin mix).
As late as 1968, the company was still independent and still in business, but sales were steadily declining. In that year, it sold itself to a company called Cooper Laboratories (Stage, pp. 245-246), which basically shut down the company, keeping only the name and the formula and moving the production facility to Puerto Rico.
Schwarcz notes that "Lydia Pinkham's" is actually still sold. But what they sell is the much-reformulated version, which is mostly a vitamin mix.
Hopkins-SongsFromTheFrontAndRear says that World War II air force units regarded this as sort of "semi-dirty"; it was used at the beginning of the night to, in effect, scare away those who couldn't handle the really disgusting stuff. The connection with dirty subjects makes a certain amount of sense; from the beginning, there was a tendency to discuss the Vegetable Compound only in secret, because of its connection with, well, sex (Stage, p.113).
The tendency to spoof the advertising campaigns started early, too. Burton, pp. 219-220, quotes this letter to the company (I don't doubt that there were others more extreme):
Dear Madam, I have nearly got myself in trouble on account of your good medicine. As I travel some I often find good opportunities to give your medicine a very good reckommend (sic.) so I saw a married lady some months ago that looked in very delicate health, so I reckommended the use of your Vegetable Compound and the result was a big healthy baby boy. Well you see how it is. I get the blame.... And I have just heard of a second case where the lady got too healthy and they are throwing out some very strong hints at me. Maybe you would advise me what to do?" - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 6.3
File: RL485

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2022 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.