Lydia Pinkham was a 19th century woman who established a thriving business selling a patent medicine known as Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. Her savvy business and marketing skills turned the business into a multinational empire, and Lydia Pinkham products continue to be available on the market today, for people who want to try them for themselves. While the formula has changed substantially from its 19th century origins, Pinkham's tonic continues to be popular in some communities.
Pinkham was born into the Estes family in 1819. Her large Quaker family was famous for being fiercely abolitionist and anti-segregationist, and the young Lydia undoubtedly met a number of prominent abolitionist activists in her youth. Ultimately, the Estes family broke with the Quaker church, due to conflicting views about slavery. In 1843, she married Isaac Pinkham, and the two had several children.
During the 19th century, home made medicines and tonics were extremely common. The practice of medicine was largely unregulated, and many people preferred to turn to men and women they knew in their communities for medical treatment, rather than relying on doctors. Pinkham allegedly brewed an assortment of tonics in the early years of her marriage and distributed them to friends for free before deciding to monetize them in 1873.
Her timing proved to be propitious, as her husband lost a great deal of money shortly thereafter in one of the periodic financial panics of the 19th century. By then, Lydia Pinkham's tonic for “female complaints” had proved to be incredibly popular, and business grew wildly until her death in 1883. Lydia Pinkham's tonic is probably one of the more famous of the 19th century patent medicines, thanks to the fact it was frequently lampooned in songs and stories by skeptics who doubted its efficacy.
Pinkham's original remedy contained fenugreek, life root, black cohosh, pleurisy root, and unicorn root, along with a healthy slug of alcohol as a “preservative.” Several of the herbs in the original recipe have since been shown to be beneficial for menstrual cramps and the physical changes associated with menopause, but many of her customers undoubtedly enjoyed her medicine because of the high alcohol content. In an era when women weren't supposed to be seen drinking, Pinkham's tonic was a respectable way to have a tipple; during Prohibition in the 1920s, sales of the tonic skyrocketed.
Lydia Pinkham also understood the power of marketing. Each bottle of her tonic included a picture of her face, intended to persuade consumers that she felt their pain, and had formulated the tonic just for them. Her advertisements also included testimonials from happy customers, and an address, encouraging customers to write in with questions. Staff answered the questions, ensuring that everyone who wrote in to Lydia Pinkham received a response, even after her death.
Several modern formulations of the tonic are on sale today, with additional ingredients like dandelion root, gentian, licorice, and motherwort. Today, the drink is often labeled as an “Herbal Compound,” rather than a “Vegetable Compound,” to avoid confusion.