piscidia erythrina

Lydia Pinkham


Lydia Estes Pinkham (February 9, 1819May 17, 1883) was an iconic concocter and shrewd marketer of a commercially successful herbal-alcoholic "women's tonic" meant to relieve menstrual and menopausal pains.


Lydia Pinkham was born in the manufacturing city of Lynn, Massachusetts, the tenth of the twelve children of William and Rebecca Estes. The Estes were an old Quaker family tracing their ancestry to one William Estes, a Quaker who migrated to America in 1676, and through him to the thirteenth century Italian house of Este. William Estes was originally a shoemaker, but by the time Lydia was born in 1819 he had become wealthy through dealing in real estate and had risen to the status of "gentleman farmer" Lydia was educated at Lynn Academy and worked as a schoolteacher before her marriage in September 1843.

The Estes were a strongly abolitionist and anti-segregation family. The fugitive slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was a neighbour and a family friend. The Estes household was a gathering place for local and visiting abolitionist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison. The Estes broke from the Quakers over the slavery issue in the 1830s. Lydia joined the Lynn Female Anti-slavery Society when she was sixteen; in the controversies which divided the abolitionist movement during the 1840s Lydia would support the feminist and moral suasion positions of Nathaniel P. Rogers. Her children would continue in the anti-slavery tradition.

Isaac Pinkham was a 29 year old shoe manufacturer when he married Lydia in 1843, he would try various business without much success. Lydia gave birth to her first child Charles Hacker Pinkham in 1844, lost her second child to gastroenteritis, and gave birth to her second surviving child Daniel Rogers Pinkham in 1848. A third son, William Pinkham, was born in 1852 and a daughter Aroline Chase Pinkham in 1857. (All the Pinkham children would eventually be involved in the Pinkham medicine business.)

Like many women of her time Lydia Pinkham brewed home remedies, which she continually collected. Her remedy for "female complaints" became very popular among her neighbours to whom she gave it away. One story is that her husband was given the recipe as part payment for a debt, whatever truth may be in this the ingredients of her remedy were generally consistent with the herbal knowledge available to her through such sources as John King's American Dispensary which she is known to have owned and used. In Lydia Pinkham's time and place the reputation of the medical profession was low. Medical fees were too expensive for most Americans to afford except in emergencies, in which case the remedies were more likely to kill than cure. For example a common "medicine" was calomel, in fact not a medicine but a deadly mercurial toxin, and this fact was even at the time sufficiently well known among the sceptical to be the subject of a popular comic song. In these circumstances there is no mystery why many preferred to trust unlicensed "root and herb" practitioners, and to trust women prepared to share their domestic remedies such as Lydia Pinkham.

Isaac Pinkham was financially ruined in the Panic of 1873, he narrowly escaped arrest for debt and his health was permanently broken by the associated stress. The fortunes of the Pinkham family had long been patchy but they now entered on hard times. Lydia sometimes accepted payment for her popular remedy for female complaints. It is reputed to have been her son Daniel who came up with the idea, in 1875 of making a family business of the remedy. Lydia initially made the remedy on her stove before its success enabled production to be transferred to a factory, she answered letters from customers and probably wrote most of the advertising copy. Mass marketed from 1876 on, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound became one of the best known patent medicines of the 19th century. Descendants of this product are still available today. Lydia's skill was in marketing her product directly to women and her company continued her shrewd marketing tactics after her death. Her own face was on the label and her company was particularly keen on the use of testimonials from grateful women.

Advertising copy urged women to write to Mrs. Pinkham. They did, and they received answers. They continued to write and receive answers for decades after Lydia Pinkham's death. These staff-written answers combined forthright talk about women's medical issues, advice, and, of course, recommendations for her product. In 1905 the Ladies' Home Journal published a photograph of Lydia Pinkham's tombstone and exposed the ruse. The Pinkham company insisted that it had never meant to imply that the letters were being answered by Lydia Pinkham, but by her daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham.

Although Pinkham's motives were partly self-serving, many modern-day feminists admire her for distributing information on menstruation and the "facts of life" and consider her to be a crusader for women's health issues in a day when women were poorly served by the medical establishment.

In 1922, Lydia's daughter Aroline Chase Pinkham Gove founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, Massachusetts. The clinic, still in operation as of 2004, provides health services to young mothers and their children. It is designated Site 9 of the Salem Women's Heritage Trail.

Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound

Of the five herbs in Lydia Pinkham's original formula:

Of the newer additions, motherwort is a nervine, emmenagogue, anti-spasmodic, hepatic, cardiac tonic, and hypotensive. Piscidia erythrina (Jamaican dogwood) is an eclectic remedy that has been found effective for painful spasms, pelvic pain, dysmenorrhea and ovarian pain. Licorice is anti-inflammatory, anti-hepatotoxic, anti-spasmodic and a mild laxative. Gentian is a bitter, sialagogue, hepatic, cholagogue, anthelmintic, and emmenagogue. Dandelion is a potassium-sparing diuretic, hepatic, cholagogue, anti-rheumatic, laxative, tonic, and a bitter.

(It is often suggested by the alternative medicine community that black cohosh (and a purified version, Remifemin) really do provide relief from symptoms of menopause. A report by the Natural Standard, which performs evidence-based reviews of alternative therapeutics, says:

Black cohosh is a popular alternative to prescription hormonal therapy for treatment of menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, mood problems, perspiration, heart palpitations, and vaginal dryness. Initial human research suggests that black cohosh may improve some of these symptoms for up to six months. However, most studies are not well designed and results are not conclusive.
The report gives the evidence a "B" rating, "good scientific evidence for this use."

In a day when the mainstream treatment of these conditions was sometimes surgical removal of ovaries—with a mortality rate of 40%—it can be argued that at the very least Pinkham's remedy followed the sound medical principle of "first, do no harm."

However many of the ingredients have been traditionally used by a number of unrelated Indian tribes, in Chinese medicine and in western medicine, which gives credence to at least some relief being actively given even if double blind tests have not been done to confirm their usefulness. The persistence of Mrs. Pinkham's compound long after her death is testament to its acceptance by women who sought relief from menstrual and menopausal symptoms. The company continued under family control until the 1930s. Although Lydia Pinkham's company continued increasing profit margins fifty years after her death, eventually the advent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) caused changes in the formula. The compound is now produced by a pharmaceutical company.

The original product and its modern descendants

The original formula for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was:

As of 2004, Numark Laboratories of Edison, New Jersey markets a similar product named "Lydia Pinkham Herbal Compound". The product is carried by the Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid. drugstore chains. Ingredients listed in this product are:

Time of Your Life Nutraceuticals of St. Petersburg, Florida produces a product named Lydia's Secret for Said to be "based on" the original formula, it has these listed ingredients

Drinking songs

Drinking songs that consist of numerous verses describing the humorous and ribald invigorating effects of some food or medicine form almost a small genre in themselves. Lydia and her "medicinal compound" are memorialized in the folk songs "The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham," and "Lily the Pink". A sanitized version of Lily the Pink was a number one hit for The Scaffold in the United Kingdom in 1968/69. It should not pass without mention that the reason a humble women's tonic was the subject of such and sundry ribald drinking ballads and an increasing success in the twenties and early thirties was its availability, as a 40-proof patent eye-opener, during Prohibition. As folk songs, they have no definitive versions. Some representative samples will convey their flavor:

The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham

Let us sing of Lydia Pinkham
The benefactress of the human race.
She invented a vegetable compound,
And now all papers print her face.

Mrs. Jones she had no children,
And she loved them very dear.
So she took three bottles of Pinkham's
Now she has twins every year.

Peter Whelan, he was sad
Because he only had one nut
Till he took some of Lydia's compound
Now they grow in clusters 'round his butt.

Lily the Pink

So we'll drink a drink a drink
To Lily the pink the pink the pink
The savior of the human race.
She invented a medicinal compound
Most efficacious in every case.



The L.E.Pinkham Medicine Company had its factory and offices on the corner of 267-271 Western Avenue and Cleveland St. See the 1897 Atlas of Lynn, Massachusetts, plate 6 Lower Right side. Click on map for a very large and clear image.

Also see:Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkahm and the Business of Women's Medicine by Sarah Stage. 1979 W. W. Norton and Co, ISBN 0-393-00033-8

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