FEMALE COMPLAINTS: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine by Sarah Stage

FEMALE COMPLAINTS: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine

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The original 1875 recipe called for unicorn root, life root, blach cohosh, pleurisy root, and fenugreek seed, but alcohol (18-20 percent) gave it a longer shelf life, and shrewd advertising assured its staying power. Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound capitalized on two prevalent 19th-century attitudes: distrust of doctors and genteel notions about women's ailments. The company--a family venture from the start--used the real Lydia's picture to attract customers, and continued to peddle her ultra-respectable image for years after she died. The Pinkham/Gove clan, aided by a prototypically slick advertising agent, adjusted and readjusted the essentially useless formula to changing times, toning down the exaggerated claims and adding ingredients to prevent its classification as an alcoholic beverage. But they failed to modernize its appeal sufficiently in the 1950s, and the company went under. Author Stage, who has taught American history at Williams, solidly charts the company's changing fortunes--responding to historical trends and periodic exposures--and she demonstrates that litigious family members undermined its financial health even more than tougher government regulations and rising consumer consciousness. More significantly, she firmly places Lydia Pinkham's durable formula within a larger context: as a patent compound, within the domestic medicine tradition, it made extravagant promises yet did less harm than current medical treatment--surgery or long bedrest. Quack medicine? One hundred percent. And presented in a fine blend of medical, biographical, and advertising history.

Pub Date: March 26th, 1979
Publisher: Norton