Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883)
Lydia Estes Pinkham was an innovator in the health field and hers was the first female name to be nationally recognized because of a product.
Lydia Estes lived her whole life in Massachusetts while it was on the cutting edge of social reform. With her family, she was active as a teenage in the earliest societies to ban slavery. She worked as a teacher until she married Isaac Pinkham at age 24 and then she bore and raised several children.
By the 1870’s, the Pinkham family was close to poverty and in 1873, during the nation’s most serious depression to date, their finances collapsed. As was the case with a number of other women, the hard economic times gave Lydia Pinkham, then in her mid-fifties, societal permission to use the business acumen that she clearly possessed.
For years she had experimented with herbal mixtures designed to improve health. This was not unusual at the time because nursing was not yet professionalized and all women were considered to be in charge of family health. But Pinkham’s vegetable compound proved exceptionally popular among her friends. They credited it with easing the “female complaints” that they were embarrassed to explain to physicians.
When the family went bankrupt in 1875, Pinkham began to sell her compound. Turning her home into a factory, she ran production in the basement. Her daughter and her oldest son provided the capital for bottling materials, while her two other sons became the sales department. Her husband, traumatized after his arrest for debt, took to his sickbed had no part in the business.
Advertising greatly improved the business. In 1876, Pinkham discovered that newspaper advertising reached more people faster than door-to-door sales. Three years later, in 1879, Lydia Pinkham posed for a photograph to be used in advertisements, showing her to be the perfect picture of mature health. Adding her image to ads immediately made an astonishing difference in sales. Less than a year later, the Pinkhams turned down a $100,000 offer for their trademark.
The grandmotherly image also served to soften Pinkham’s uncommonly candid references to gynecological problems, and she became adept at writing ad copy. She soon added a “Department of Advice” and began responding to hundreds of poignant letters from women who were absolutely ignorant of how their bodies functioned. Beyond her medication, she also prescribed cleanliness, a balanced diet, rest, and other basics of modern health that were not necessarily followed in the nineteenth century. Her first principle was the ancient one of “first, do no harm” – a maxim widely ignored by most of the era’s physicians, who prescribed harsh chemicals, including poisonous mercury and lead, and performed rough surgery in septic surroundings. Her compound was based on five innocuous but relatively rare herbs and roots – which were preserved in a solution of 19% alcohol. Although stronger than wine or beer, when taken in the small doses prescribed, the formula was not nearly enough to cause drunkenness.
Pinkham’s notebooks were full of other pharmacological compounds to solve other problems, and she was beginning to think of launching an expanded line of products when two of her sons developed tuberculosis. The cause and cure of that disease would not be known for many decades, and with great anxiety, she watched them both weaken and die in 1881. The following year she suffered a paralyzing stroke and died the following spring, at age 64. Her surviving daughter and son continued to be successful with their mother’s famous product and the company reached a sales peak of $3 million in 1925.
In an era when female enterprise was rare, Lydia Pinkham not only created an innovative product and sold it with creative advertising, she also educated women on the fundamentals of physiology. Although scorned by organized medicine, her holistic philosophy predated by a century the “wellness” campaigns of our time.
Reprinted from NWHM Spring 2006 Newsletter
Author Doris Weatherford
- PHOTO: Linden, Doris B. "A Baby In Every Bottle?: The Story of Lydia Pinkham" Antique Bottle and Glass Collector Magazine, n.d., http://www.glswrk-auction.com/025.htm (May 2007).