By Emily Beliveau, Digital Project Assistant
We recently rediscovered this “Sweets” pamphlet while researching cookbooks and recipes for our upcoming exhibit Delicious. At first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a small newsprint booklet of candy recipes. Looking closer, its true purpose becomes clear: it’s a promotional vehicle for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a herbal remedy marketed to cure all manner of womanly ailments.
Lydia E. Pinkham (1819-1883) became a successful businesswoman by commercializing a home remedy to treat a variety of female health complaints, such as irregular menstruation, symptoms of menopause, nervous disorders, and childlessness. She started making her concoction in her kitchen in Lynn, Massachusetts, and eventually expanded the business into an international manufacturing enterprise with production centres in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound came in tablet or liquid form and contained black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), life root (Senecia aureus), unicorn root (Aletris farinosa), pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa), and fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum). It’s effectiveness has never been medically proven. The liquid form contained 18% alcohol.
Pinkham’s remedies were aggressively marketed, making the Vegetable Compound the most popular among a multitude of other patent medicines. It’s direct woman-to-woman consumer marketing combined with published testimonials from users, led to its phenomenal success. In 1925, its most profitable year, sales of Vegetable Compound grossed $3.8 million.
By the time Pinkham died in 1883, she was a household name and one of the most recognizable women in America due to the ubiquity of her image in newspaper ads and on product packaging. After her death, her family ran the business until 1968, when it was sold to Cooper Laboratories of Connecticut. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound is still sold today as a herbal remedy.
Further reading and additional resources:
Biography and more Pinkham Pamphlets from Harvard University Library
Blog post about Lydia E. Pinkham from the Museum of Heath Care
Background information about patent medicine from the Smithsonian