Book Review 399: Female Complaints
FEMALE COMPLAINTS: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine. 304 pages, illustrated. Norton.
You can still buy Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, although it is now called
“Herbal Compound” and its ingredients are not the same as in the 1875 product that launched billions of flyers.
Perhaps they never were. A government analysis of the 1913 elixir found less than half a percent of the unicorn root, life root, black cohosh and pleurisy root that Lydia Pinkham found in a standard compendium of cures. The original formula also had fenugreek, which perhaps Pinkham added on her own.
It seems probable to me that up to 1882, when Mrs. Pinkham died, there really were roots and “yarbs” in the bottle. Her nostrum was worthless, but she believed in it.
She was a passionate believer in all sorts of things. As a young housewife in the lively 1840s — the Age of Reform, especially in Massachusetts — she adopted the good, the bad and the ugly. She was a friend of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, a temperance advocate, a spiritualist, a Grahamist (whence Graham crackers) and many other things.
In Sarah Stage’s dated but still readable “Female Complaints,” we gain a god sense of the ironies not only of Lydia Pinkham’s life but of the times.
The Vegetable Compoudn may have been worthless medically — its only active ingredient was 18% alcohol– but taking it did no harm, which is more than the doctors of the time could say of their nostrums an operations.
It was a scary time to be a woman, a subject Stage explores thoroughly. Many of the female complaints were the result of gonorrhea, a disease not understood at the time; along with all the dangers of pregnancy in those times, plus overwork, corsets etc.
With her booze, Pinkham also gave out free advice, and it was mostly good: eat a good diet, avoid constricting clothing, exercise and breathe fresh air.
Among the ironies were that the movement for women to take control of their well-being from doctors, quack and otherwise, should have depended on such simple-minded advice. (This irony retains its force.)
That Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound still sells suggests that ordinary folks really are not the best judges of their own health care. (Amusingly, the current packaging has a banner that reads “Now with Black Cohosh.” It always had that. The licorice, Jamaican dogwood bark, dandelion, motherwort, gentian, vitamins C and E, BHA, salicylic acid etc. are novelties.)
Millions of women wrote “Mrs. Pinkham,” even after she was long dead, about their problems, and they were often frank and open. A few of the letters survive, but Stage laments that this valuable archive was destroyed in 1940 when the correspondence department was closed.
Although Lydia Pinkham was zealous, sincere and ignorant, her heirs were just frauds.
I suspect (though Stage does not) that the 1913 formula was the result of chicanery — just enough of the roots to give the expected bitter taste while saving on production costs.
The firm was owned equally by the descendants of Pinkham’s surviving son and daughter (two other sons worked themselves to death getting the slow-starting business going).
The son had sons and the daughter had a daughter, and the two sides fought bitterly for control for half a century. This battle of the sexes and over money neatly mirrors the struggle of women and patent medicine makers vs. male doctors for supremacy over women’s health care.
The men won, sort of.
“Female Complaints” was published in 1979, a combination of popular and academic history that reads well and holds up well today. The style, like Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, is dated but there is still a market for it.