The Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company (LEPMC), formally incorporated in 1876, began from Lydia Estes Pinkham’s home remedies for maladies associated primarily with women’s reproduction systems and ran as a family business for nearly 100 years. Lydia Estes Pinkham was lauded as “the saviour of her sex” for her Vegetable Compound, which claimed to “cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints.” Promoting itself as a company for women and run by a woman, the LEPMC eventually had manufacturing centers in Canada and Mexico and exported its products worldwide before it was sold in 1968. The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study houses nearly 100 boxes of LEPMC records including correspondence, financial records, family scrapbooks, company memorabilia, and thousands of pages of advertising records.
Advertising was at the core of the LEPMC’s success from its inception. Recognizing that the Vegetable Compound needed to stand out in a sea of other tonics, the company made history as the first to use a woman’s likeness in advertising when they began using a comely, grandmotherly picture of Lydia E. Pinkham on its packaging and in its ads. In addition to using Lydia’s picture in newspapers across the country, advertisements articulated “women’s weaknesses,” offered testimonials about the relief of symptoms, and claimed to restore women’s pep so that they might be better wives, mothers, and workers. Thousands of newspaper and magazine ads with headings like “These Hysterical Women,” “Men Love Peppy Girls,” “The Change of Life,” and “The Trials of Women,” along with more than 167 advice pamphlets with titles such as “Health Hints” and “Advice to Mothers,” situated Lydia Pinkham as an expert on women's health, “female complaints,” and the expectations of womanhood.
Selling the Vegetable Compound was the company’s primary goal, but embedded within their advertisements were also societal expectations for women’s behaviors and roles. Media and culture scholars recognize that the social world shapes people’s understanding and influences advertising messages. While much of Pinkham advertising was devoted to improving women’s health, it reflected and shaped prevailing notions of motherhood, particularly from the 1890s to the 1930s. Numerous ads—such as “Motherhood,” “My Mother Takes This Medicine,” “Mothers Know Its Worth,” and “For Busy Mothers”—reinforced the social and personal importance of motherhood, established the Vegetable Compound as a product for mothers, and reinforced the notion of women’s health as imperative for children’s success.
Drawing on typical social expectations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, LEPMC advertising explicitly states that women’s primary role in life, indeed their sole purpose, is mothering. According to the 1912 advice pamphlet Wisdom for Women, the very differences between men and women exist to prepare women for motherhood. The pamphlet states:
“Think over all the ways in which you are physically different from a man. Hardly one of them can be named which does not exist merely for this one purpose—to fit you, when the time shall come, to be a mother, it is for this that you are a woman. If you never become a mother it is in vain that you were born a woman.” (Vol. 384o)
The Pinkham Text-book also warned women that should they not
“become mothers, our country would disappear, and America fade into the past as have Greece and Rome.” (Vol. 401)
Ads and advice such as this established motherhood as women’s primary goal and responsibility in life. With messages like this, the LEPMC was advertising the importance of mothering as much as it was their Vegetable Compound.
Advertisements also established women’s health as an obligation and responsibility, not only for themselves, but also for their children and for the broader society. The 1896 advice pamphlet No Wealth Like Good Health tells women,
“To be healthy is a duty a woman owes to herself and to her coming children.” (Vol. 381o)
An ad from the 1930s titled “Give Them A Fair Chance” informed women:
“The finest gift any mother can give to her child is health. . . . A strong body, . . . A fair start in life. Healthy mothers have healthy babies. . . . For the sake of the children which are to be, "build up your general health." Take Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound . . . This sensible, woman’s medicine is a good general tonic for weak and rundown systems.” (Vol. 361o )
These messages of women’s duty to health also extended to their own happiness and emotional state. In a 1930s newspaper ad, Keep Young with Your Children, women were warned about their emotional responsibilities to their families:
“Don’t give them a cross, nagging mother to remember. A happy home depends upon you. If your work is a burden—if the children annoy you—do something about it today.” (Vol. 353o)
This ad makes it certain that everyone’s happiness is dependent on that of the mother. In Guide to Health and Etiquette, the Pinkham Company clearly outlines the Vegetable Compound’s benefits for ensuring the “Joys of Maternity.” They claimed that the Vegetable Compound:
“Possess[es] those health-giving properties so absolutely essential to both mother and child. By their use nature is aided in its work; the mother is enabled to nourish and care for her little one, and to transmit to it her vigorous health. She rejoices to see her offspring daily grow in strength and beauty, and the spirits of both mingle in one great burst of joy and gladness. The reverse is the oft-told story of the sickly mother and puny child.” (Vol. 380o)
While the direct message is to buy the Vegetable Compound, the text reminds women that being a mother is a joyous endeavor, one dependent on her own health. Ads such as these not only reinforced standards of mothering, they also point to the commercialization of women’s health. The Vegetable Compound was framed as the cure-all for any female complaints, a pill to take to meet expectations as a “peppy” partner and “healthy mother.”
The LEPMC offered a model of womanhood which required good health for capable mothering and viewed motherhood as a source of women’s happiness and social power. Using headings such as “Motherhood,” “A Baby in the Home,” and “Healthy Mothers Have Healthy Babies,” coupled with images of young, happy women or healthy, robust children, the company equated successful mothering with the health-giving properties of the Vegetable Compound. Taken together, these few representative examples, from literally thousands of Pinkham advertisements, create an image of women needing to improve their health and well-being to meet the demands of mothering and reproduce healthy, happy children. Through its vast advertising, the LEPMC became a cultural producer of women’s health standards, advising women's understandings of their bodies and social responsibilities. As a purveyor of direct-to-consumer advertising as well as medicinal products, the company was in the unique position as both media and medical authority, enhancing their potential as a purveyor of gender expectations. While we often think of advertisements as background noise—things we can ignore or from which we are immune—exploring the advertisements of the LEPMC allows us to question the relationship between the messages presented in ads and the expectations we have for people in the real world.
Tori Barnes-Brus is an associate professor of sociology at Cornell College. She teaches courses on culture, women’s reproduction, social inequality, and deviance and social control. The recipient of a 2014 Schlesinger Library Research Support Grant, Barnes-Brus is researching “Saviour of Her Sex”: The Lydia E. Pinkham Patent Medicine Company and the Construction of Female Health. She will be a Faculty Fellow for the ACM Newberry Seminar in the Humanities, “Novel Action: Literature, Society, and the Public Good” in the fall of 2016.