Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Sunlit Road

Lydia E. (Estes) Pinkham was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1819. She had a background as a political activist who wrote pamphlets condemning slavery and supporting women’s rights, which came in handy later in her life. Her ability to write successful sales pitches would project her to later fame and wealth as the most successful female business women of her time. She had been of a Quaker background and her father was a profitable shoe maker, so she received a good education for her time. She married a shoe maker who became a real estate mogul, and started a family. Her husband eventually suffered a financial ruin in 1875 and was left unable to care for his famly.

At this time, Lydia, who had always been plagued by “female ailments” that today would be treatable with Midol, began selling a herbal concoction that she had invented herself. It was meant as an all-in-one women’s remedy containing black cohosh, life root, unicorn root, pleurisy root, fenugreek seed and a large quantity of alcohol. Lydia was smart to take a measure of protection by filing a patent on her remedy, and successfully kept the business as a family-run operation. It was a hugely successful company, too – by the time she died in 1883 her mainstay Vegetable Compound was selling $300,000 a year, and by 1925 her profits reached $3.8 million. Quite an accomplishment for a woman of her time!

Part of what made her company so successful was the publication of her “Pinkham Pamphlets” which touted the benefits of her concoctions, along with recipes and answers to medical questions that her compound was supposed to help.

One interesting fact about her vegetable compound is that it contained about 20% alcohol, which (in spite of her involvement with the temperance movement) she claimed was used as a solvent and preservative. Not surprisingly, the product experienced a surge of popularity during the 1920s when alcohol was prohibited in the United States!

The pictures shown above are the front and back cover of a Pinkham Pamphlet that I bought not too long ago. I had no idea what it was initially. The inside of the book features a lot of recipes that are suitable for picnics, as well as testimonials about the effectiveness of the Pinkham Vegetable Compound against virtually every ailment. It’s amusing to read.

I think Lydia would be proud of the legacy she left, and prouder still that a variation of her original product still exists on the market!

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