She’s been hailed a “Lady Liberty” for saving women from menstrual and menopausal ailments and also accused of pure quackery in several twentieth century songs that called her “Lily of the Pink”.
But one thing is certain about Lydia Pinkham: she was a brilliant marketer who developed an incredibly successful business around home remedies in the post-civil war era.
As the tenth child in a Quaker family of twelve children, Lydia Estes was born in 1819 in Lynn, Massachusetts (MA). Living in New England and raised on puritanical values, Lydia capitalized on the opportunity to offer a product to improve women’s health. Health was not accessible or affordable for most women and it was not uncommon for women to mix their own herbal remedies to treat a variety of ailments.
Lydia’s marketing genius began after she married a widowed shoemaker named Isaac Pinkham and had four children of her own. Lydia started developing her herbal remedies using a popular book called John King’s American Dispensatory. The book was first published in 1854 and a later companion on women’s diseases followed four years later.
It’s likely Lydia depended on the well-worn pages of her book which also provided an extensive list of the medicinal uses of various herbs.
When Isaac’s business fell on hard times during the Financial Crisis and Panic of 1873, Lydia stepped up her marketing campaign and rolled out a new recipe for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Herbal Remedies that appealed to many women.
Her reputation grew and women starting writing to her asking for help. Lydia employed women to respond to these letters in a personal way that helped to promote her remedy’s appeal. By utilizing a mail-order marketing plan, Lydia expanded her market size.
By 1875, Lydia’s new recipe billed as a Vegetable Compound was advertised as a cure-all for everything from a prolapsed uterus to any number of female weaknesses including “painful menstruation, inflammation, and ulceration of the womb, irregularities, floodings, etc.”
The secret ingredients in Lydia’s compound contained
Unicorn root, life root, black cohosh, pleurisy root, and fenugreek seed, all preserved in 19 percent alcohol. The alcohol may not have been a key success factor in the late 1800’s, but it’s worth noting that the alcohol content increased to 40 proof well after the vegetable compound was a household name during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.
Despite other competing herbal remedies in the marketplace, Lydia’s woman-to-woman appeal was brilliant. Lydia capitalized on this by employing her sons to place newspaper ads and hang postcards, while also offering supportive materials including a series of “Guides for Women”.
She even offered free textbooks and supplementary medical information to help women learn more about the causes of their ailments and take greater control over their health.
Some critics have even suggested Lydia’s marketing success was tantamount to her being the “Victorian equivalent of a viral sensation.”
But the success of Lydia’s homemade herbal remedies was also tainted. She became the butt of many jokes in folklore songs of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to know whether or not the jokes about “Lily of the Pink” were grounded in her success as a woman with a global brand or something else. When you examine some of the song lyrics, the “pink” might be a reference to the shameful exaggeration of the healing claims for the Vegetable Compound. Conversely, the “Lily of the Pink” might be the description of a pink face from someone who has imbibed in too much alcohol.
Whatever the reason, the deriding “Lily of Pink” reference in sixties’ bands like the Irish Rovers or the British song by a UK band named the Scaffolds was unflattering. The Scaffolds band, which included a number of men who would go on to be unbelievable superstar entertainers (Elton John and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash), joked:
Have you heard of Lydia Pinkum,
And her love for the human race?
How she sells (she sells, she sells) her wonderful compound,
And the papers publish her face?
I don’t doubt that during the sixties it was easy to target a successful women at a time when they were clamouring for equal rights. Lydia’s remedies would obviously bother the medical profession in the same way that naturopath medicine did until recently. It’s therefore an easy step to attach Lydia’s crusade and medical remedies to women accused of witchery.
The concept of witches evolved in history around religion and medicine, two professions dominated by men and belief systems tied to moral persuasion. Women who were called witches were condemned in European societies in the sixteenth century and the fears surrounding them were transported to the missionary colonies of the New World in the seventeenth century.
Witches were women who spoke out against people or challenged ideas.
They were accused of performing incantations or using herbal potions for evil purposes. Too often they were condemned to prison or worse, death. Salem, the home of the Witches Trials in MA, is just five miles from Lydia’s hometown so it’s easy to imagine that women were still suspect when it came to offering medicinal services.
In this context, Lydia’s homemade remedies might have been questioned despite our modern-day knowledge that confirms the healing properties of many of her ingredients. For example, Lydia’s pleurisy root and black cohosh are still recommended homeopathic remedies for women suffering from ailments related to menstruation and menopause.
Today, you’ll still find Lydia E. Pinkham’s remedies in stores and for purchase online. There have been set backs and changes to the business, formula and labeling, but Lydia’s incredible success and trailblazing interaction with customers demonstrates her leadership success as a visionary.
Lydia helped educate women about their bodies and created a legacy that continues today with the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial clinic. It was established in 1922 in Lydia’s home and is still controlled by her fourth generation family.