In a time period wherein women were both excluded from the medical field and not taken seriously by their doctors, one woman helped to pioneer the field of women's health from her own kitchen.
The History of Lydia Pinkham and Her Vegetable Compound
Quaker and Swedenborgian Upbringing
Lydia Pinkham was born Lydia Estes in Massachusetts on February 9th, 1819 to spiritual Quaker parents. As a product of her spiritual upbringing, which focused heavily on the teachings of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg and the spiritualism movement of the mid-to-late 19th century, which dealt primarily with the afterlife and more specifically on how spirits moved through it. The movement was incredibly controversial, but also incredibly widespread, and many Americans "embraced spiritualism or flirted with seances and spirit boards."
Swedenborg's American followers in the 1840s adopted the wide-ranging causes of anti-slavery, temperance, spiritualism, homeopathy, and vegetarianism. Lydia Pinkham was never a formal member of the New Church, but her upbringing predisposed her to the causes of abolition, temperance, and spiritualism, causes that, though incredibly varied, she remained incredibly dedicated to throughout her life.
Dedication to Social Reform: Antiracism and Feminism
Pinkham's family were heavily involved in the social reform of their Boston-adjacent town. The Estes family were fast friends of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to the extent where Lydia's sister, Gulielma Maria, was asked to leave the Methodist church due to her friendship with him, as the church at the time was staunch in it's anti-black bigotry. One of Lydia's few surviving possessions is her Friendship Album, which cointains an entry written by Douglass in 1848. The entry begins "My dear Friend, How unspeakably pleasant it is to meet old and dear friends after a long separation." Lydia and her sister Gulielma worked with Douglass to found the Freeman's Institute. Douglass elected Pinkham as secretary, and the institute emphasized gender equality alongside racial equality. In the constitution of the Institute that was penned by Lydia, she stated that "No person shall be excluded from full participation in any of the operations of the Society on account of sex, complexion, or religious or political opinions."
The "woman's issue" was one that Lydia Pinkham was incredibly dedicated to throughout her lifetime. She consistently backed the causes of radical feminists and criticized anti-slavery organizations that still endorsed the barring of women from their organization. Her concern for women's causes extended into the medical ailments faced by the gender, as reflected in the original purpose of her famous vegetable compound to cure female complaints.
The Origins of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound
Legend states that after endorsing a note for a community machinist, the man gifted Lydia's husband, Isaac Pinkham, the formula for a medicine. The medicine promised to cure "female complaints," the umbrella term of the 19th century covering illnesses ranging from painful menstruation to infertility to a prolapsed uterus.
Lydia also kept a notebook for folk medicines, a common practice of women at the time, ranging from the common to the truly fantastical. She owned a well used copy of John King's American Dispensatory, a testament to her experience with medicinal botanicals and her experiments with them in creating her own remedies.
Her most popular remedy, her "female weakness cure," was brewed on the stove from high-proof alcohol and these pharmacuetical botanicals. As the popularity for the cure grew she soon began to keep bottles of the medicine on hand to give to women of her community.
In a time of financial hardship after the death of her husband, who carried many debts, Lydia and her sons began to market and sell her cure for female complaints. Lydia dubbed the medicine "Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound," and she and her son authored an advertising pamphlet for the product called "Guide for Women."
The original formula for the medicine contained Unicorn root, Life root, Black cohosh, Pleurisy root, and Fenugreek seed, with approximately 19% alcohol to act as a preserving agent. Additional alcohol was added in the final stages of brewing for further preservative purposes, making the true alcohol content about 40 proof. She bought her herbs from local suppliers and brewed the batches of the medicine on a stove in the family's cellar.
Though the Pinkham family were subscribers to the temperance movement, they saw no problem with using alcohol in their medicine. However, Lydia also developed pills and lozenges for women with cases that could be further aggravated by the ingestion of alcohol.
Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound still exists today, though with a modified ingredient list (a lower alcohol content) and less extravagent advertising claims.