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Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819–1883)

Lydia E. Pinkham and her Great Granddaughter, Health Hints, No. 136, 1926, Advertising records: Pinkham pamphlets, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.
Lydia E. Pinkham and her Great Granddaughter,
Health Hints, No. 136, 1926, Advertising records:
Pinkham pamphlets, Schlesinger Library,
Radcliffe Institute.

Born in 1818 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Lydia Estes was one of the most successful American businesswomen of the 19th century. As a young woman, she worked as a midwife, nurse, and schoolteacher and also became involved in the Female Anti-Slavery Society, the temperance movement, and the pseudoscience phrenology, which made character deductions about a person based on bone irregularities in the skull. In 1843, she married Isaac Pinkham, a wealthy real estate mogul.

In 1873, Pinkham founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in order to market an herbal medicine, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, that she had developed to treat the medical problems of her female friends and family members. Comprised of black cohosh, life root, unicorn root, pleurisy root, fenugreek seed, and a substantial amount of alcohol, Pinkham's Vegetable Compound claimed to bring relief to women during the menstrual cycle by alleviating menstrual cramps, and also during menopause by counteracting depression, hot flashes, and other symptoms. The timing of Pinkham's business venture could not have been better, for in 1875 Isaac Pinkham's real-estate fortune plunged due to the onset of an economic depression in 1873.

The Lydia Pinkham Company was immensely successful. By the time of Pinkham's death in 1883, her famous Vegetable Compound was grossing $300,000 annually, and in 1925 annual profits peaked at $3.8 million. The success of the Vegetable Compound was due to Pinkham's wise decision to protect her herbal remedy by filing a patent with the US Patent Office in 1876, which ensured Pinkham family control over the herbal remedy for the next 50 years.

Even more important to the company's success was Pinkham's savvy marketing skills. In order to market her product directly to women, she placed her own face on the label to persuade women consumers that she understood personally the maladies from which they suffered, and thus could help them with her Vegetable Compound. In addition, the company published letters from customers endorsing the medicine in the "Pinkham Pamphlets."

The Pinkham Pamphlets published Lydia Pinkham's "answers" to women's medical queries, which in reality were staff-written responses that continued for decades after Pinkham's death. Nevertheless, the Pinkham Pamphlets were a means for distributing important medical advice about menstruation to women in an era when the standard treatment for vaginal cramps was the removal of the ovaries—a dangerous procedure in the 19th century with a mortality rate of 40 percent—as well as a reflection of 19th-century women's desires to take care of their own health, rather than leaving it in the hands of male medical practitioners.

Although her company had humble origins in her own kitchen, by the time the FDA restrained the company's activities in the early 20th century (the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 forced the company to reveal that the compound contained up to 20% alcohol), the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company was a true multi-national corporation with production centers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. "Lydia Pinkham Herbal Compound" is still available for sale in pill and liquid form. In the process, Lydia Pinkham changed the lives of thousands of American women by drawing attention to serious female medical issues that were being neglected by mainstream medicine.

Digitized Archival Materials

Institutional Records: Pinkham Pamphlets, 1921–1934

Full Collection Citation

Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company Records, 1776–1968 (inclusive), 1859–1968 (bulk). Series II, Advertising records, 1873–1968; Pinkham pamphlets. MC 181, from folders 2441, 2450–2453, 2455–2457, 2460–2462, 2464, 2466–2467, 2469–2471, 2473, 2475–2477, 2479–2480, 2486–2488. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Electronic Finding Aid

Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company. Records, 1776–1968: A Finding Aid (MC 181). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

Other Resources

  • Digital Tradition Mirror. Ballad of Lydia Pinkham, lyrics and music to the drinking song modeled on the gospel hymn, "I Will Sing of My Redeemer."
The manuscript and archival materials selected for Women Working can be used for research, for the creation of class projects, or to illustrate secondary works. In some cases the items are drawn from larger collections at Harvard. Most of the digitized selections from collections contain a range of materials providing a broader context for understanding the subject.