Patent Medicine Collection
The Name that Launched a Million Bottles
One of the most interesting patent medicines--one that is still on the market--is Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound.
First marketed in 1875, the "female complaint" nostrum was widely advertised in the backs of newspapers and women's magazines. The ads often played on themes of the pain and suffering of being a woman, and featured glowing testimonials from women who claimed to have been healed from all manner of dysfunction and disease by the compound.
Such testimonials were encouraged by ad copy such as "Any woman...is responsible for her own suffering who will not take the trouble to write to Mrs. Pinkham for advice." The fact that Lydia Pinkham had died in 1883 didn't deter the company from continuing to play on her name and image.
The "write to Mrs. Pinkham" ruse was first given wide public exposure in 1905 when the muckraking Ladies' Home Journal published a photograph of Lydia Pinkham's tombstone, and speculated on the quality of medical advice being dispensed by a woman who had been dead for 22 years.
The red-faced company asserted that it hadn't meant to imply that Lydia Pinkham could be written to--it was her daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham, who answered the letters.
This explanation was soon exposed as a lie by journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams, who reported in Collier's Weekly that the Pinkham company employed a battery of typists who answered women's health inquiries with form letters, which usually encouraged the use of more of the Vegetable Compound.
The next year saw the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which among other things, forced makers of patent medicines to disclose on the label the nostrum's alcohol content.
For the first time, users of the compound--many of whom were adamant non-drinkers, and some of whom were WCTU members--discovered that the Pinkham's was 15 percent alcohol. In fact, just before labeling was required, the formula had been changed; The old, undisclosed formula was even higher octane--closer to 20 percent alcohol.
The new law also forced manufacturers to scale back the claim for cures on the labels. No longer would purchasers of the compound be treated to claims such as: "A sure cure for PROLAPSUS UTERI, or falling of the womb and all FEMALE WEAKNESSES including leucorrhoea, irregular and painful menstruation, inflammation and ulceration of the womb, flooding,...for all weaknesses of the generative organs of either sex, it is second to no remedy that has ever been before the public, and for all diseases of the kidneys it is the GREATEST REMEDY IN THE WORLD."
The family-owned business sold out to Cooper Laboratories in 1968; pills and a liquid bearing the name of Lydia Pinkham are still for sale, albeit at a dwindling number of drug stores.