Saturday, June 23, 2012

Good For What Ails You: Lydia E. Pinkham's Magical Compound and User Testimonials

My grandmother was a close friend of Lydia E. Pinkham.

Not an actual and personal friend, of course, since Mrs. Pinkham died in 1883, a full seven years before my grandmother was born, but a friend nonetheless. 

You see, Mrs. Pinkham had concocted a “medical elixir” on her kitchen stove in Lynn, Massachusetts many years earlier. For inventing and marketing this wonderful elixir, women all over the United States praised and sanctified her, even long after her death.

My grandmother thought Lydia Pinkham was a saint. She always had a bottle or two of her magic elixir around the house.  Usually there was one upstairs in the bathroom and one downstairs in the kitchen. Apparently she never could tell just where and when the “vapors” might overtake her.

Each of those bottles bore the visage of the grandmotherly Mrs. Pinkham, who was indeed a real person, unlike Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima. The elixir was called “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” and at the end of the 19th century, it was well-nigh impossible to pick up a newspaper in the United States and NOT find an advertisement for Mrs. Pinkham’s magic medicine that was guaranteed to cure (or at least improve) all manner of “female complaints.” 

Mrs. Pinkham advertised widely and often, usually writing her own advertising copy and requesting that satisfied users of her “Compound” write directly to her and tell how it had helped them.  In most of her ads, she selected a few of the letters she had received and excerpted the key parts. In effect, she let her satisfied customers write her ads.  It worked so well that the company continued to use this kind of advertising long after Mrs. Pinkham’s own demise.

The more she advertised, the more bottles of the compound she sold.  The more she sold, the more the women of America wrote to her, singing the praises of her elixir.  Mrs. Pinkham and her family did very, very well for themselves.

There was something special about this tonic that made women of all ages feel good.  It may have been the special mixture of herbs with exotic names like pleurisy root, unicorn root, black cohosh, life root and fenugreek.  Then again, it may have simply been the fact that the mixture contained 18% alcohol.

In other words, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was a nearly 40 proof alcohol, making it about half the alcoholic strength of rum or gin.  It was about the same strength as port or sherry and could produce a similar buzz, and because it was sold as a medical “vegetable compound”, it remained available during Prohibition, making Mrs. Pinkham’s descendants even more friends and money.

The ad below caught my eye as I was checking out an obituary elsewhere on the page of the April 26, 1899 edition of the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press.  Who knew that the wonderful Compound could tackle the “Sorrows of Sterility”?  I might have believed the “heartbreak of psoriasis”, but sterility?  That seemed a bit far-fetched, even though the ad promised that the “…medicine is so well calculated to regulate every function of the generative organs that its efficiency is vouched for by multitudes of women.

Anyway, here’s the ad:

Note the testimonials at the very end of the ad. Could these women be actual people? 

Let’s check it out.

The very last part of the ad is the testimonial of one Flora Cooper from Doyle, South Dakota.   After describing her symptoms and implying that they were the cause of her lack of children, she noted “… I wrote to you for advice and began taking Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. I had not finished the first bottle before I felt better.  I took four bottles, and have been strong and perfectly healthy ever since, and now have two of the nicest little girls.

Remember, the ad was run in April of 1899, a little more than a year before the 1900 federal census was taken.  Could Mrs. Cooper and her “nicest little girls” – partially produced through the positive effects of Mrs. Pinkham’s Compound - be located?

Turns out that little, tiny Doyle, South Dakota was in Meade County at this time.  (Meade County is also where Sturgis of motorcycle fame is located, but that’s neither here nor there.)

A quick check of the census shows that – yes, indeed – there is a Flora Cooper there.  In fact, she’s the only “Flora Cooper” in South Dakota.  She was married to John M. Cooper, lumberman, and they surely do have two little girls, although the census does not reveal anything at all about their “niceness.”

Here's the listing:

Little Inez M. Cooper, born in October of 1896, and her younger sister Cora A. Cooper, born a year later in October 1897, are no doubt the children referred to in Mrs. Cooper’s 1899 testimonial.

I’m a bit surprised that Flora didn’t name one or the other “Lydia”, aren’t you?

Think of it for a minute:  hundreds of women wrote to Lydia Pinkham – even long after her death – and their letters, often revealing the intimate details of their “female complaints”, ended up in the company ads in small-town newspapers all over the country.  Think about how much “local color” this sort of thing adds to a family history when you learn that your grandma may have been in some way the indirect result of your great-grandma's five bottles of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound! 

Now I’ll be on the lookout for letters from my own ancestral females in the Lydia Pinkham advertisements and you should, too.  It’s one of those “you just never know” things.

One more thought – I can’t remember whether or not my grandmother had a Lydia Pinkham’s over ice before dinner every evening, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised.