Seven Badass Women of Salem: Lydia Pinkham
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
By Kristin Harris
…So we’ll sing of Lydia Pinkham,
Savior of the human race,
She sells her Vegetable Compound,
And the papers publish her face.
So, we all know that Lydia Pinkham isn’t from Salem. So why mention her here? Well, I am sure many who have visited Salem have seen the building for the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic on the corner of Derby St. and Hawthorne Blvd. This clinic was started by the daughter of Lydia Pinkham, Aroline Chase Pinkham Gove in 1922, to provide services to young mothers and their children. For years, the clinic served women in Salem and the surrounding area who could not get proper medical care otherwise, which added to the Pinkham family legacy. More notable still is Aroline’s daughter, and Lydia’s granddaughter, Lydia Pinkham Gove, who became the first woman to fly a plane across the United States in 1926. While the legacy of the clinic owes its credit to Aroline, and it was Aroline’s daughter who completed the historic 1926 flight, it was Lydia E. Pinkham’s work in medicinal concoctions that started the family track to greatness. In fact, when Lydia Pinkham Gove flew her plane over the United States, it was emblazoned with a giant advertisement for her grandmother’s famous Vegetable Compound on the side.
Lydia Estes Pinkham herself was born in Lynn, Massachusetts on February 9, 1819, which as the author of her biography (written in 1915) Elbert Hubbard boasts, is the same year as Queen Victoria. Though, Lydia has a few months on the Queen. But, as Hubbard states,
“Lydia E. Pinkham occupied no throne. She was not born into purple. As a matter of fact she tasted the dregs of poverty and knew the bitterness of bereavement.”
The daughter of a Quaker farmer named William Estes, Lydia spent many days of her childhood around her family farm, doing chores, and hunting for herbs. She became quite adept at the usage of these herbs in the household, which would come to serve her well in her later business. Lydia was known to be a very bright, and progressive child, and eventually chose teaching as her profession as she grew into adulthood. She became very interested in the economic and social problems of the time, and thus became an ardent Abolitionist. She eventually came to be the secretary of the Freeman’s Society, during which time she became friends with many well known New England activists.
On September 8, 1843, she married Isaac Pinkham from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and over the next 14 years, Isaac and Lydia had 5 children. The family lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, and Isaac became a real-estate dealer. Due to his ambition getting the better of him at a time when it was not smart to buy up too much land, the Pinkham family eventually became land poor. Despite this, Lydia encouraged the education of her children and taught them the value of money, and enterprise. The children helped the family get by, by doing odd chores for neighbors. Because of her ability with herbal remedies, Lydia became known throughout her neighborhood as the woman who the sick and the poor would call on in times of great need.
Mrs. Pinkham was known for her special concoction; “a botanic remedy for the diseases of women.”
During the Panic of 1873, Mr. Pinkham lost all of his credit, and all of his properties were dissolved, leaving the family destitute. Coupled with this loss, Isaac became despondent, depressed, and did little to help the family. It was during this moment that one of Lydia’s sons suggested marketing her vegetable compound, which had become so widely known by 1873, that people from Salem, even as far as Boston, would come calling for it for ailments. So, the Pinkham family set to work, and by 1875, advertised the vegetable compound as “A Sure Cure for Prolapsus Uteri or falling of the Womb, and all Female Weaknesses, including Leucorrhea, Painful Menstruation, Inflammation, and Ulceration of the Womb, Irregularities, Floodings, etc.” and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, made from a mixture of unicorn root, life root, black cohosh, pleurisy root, and fenugreek seed, preserved in 19 percent alcohol, became an overnight success.
But, Lydia at this point was still cooking up this remedy on her kitchen stove, and as production started to increase, the family needed a means to keep up with the demand. By 1876, the Lydia Pinkham Medicine Company started advertising the Vegetable Compound in newspapers and magazines all over the US, which made Lydia Pinkham a household name. Patent medicines had become big after the Civil War, “as they not only promised relief from just about everything that ailed [someone], but typically did so with a dose of alcohol large enough to ease aches and mask symptoms in the short term.” Even though we know now that most of these remedies cannot be used to treat serious conditions, in Lydia’s time, people flocked to these treatments as a quick, and cheap, solution. This was especially true of women, who found it difficult to get a real diagnosis to female problems from male practitioners.
Pinkham, being a savvy businesswoman, understood the woman-to-woman appeal of her products, and used it to her advantage. With the help of her sons Dan and Will, she wrote the company’s first piece of advertising, a four-page pamphlet called “Guide for Women,” which featured her face. Hers was the first woman’s likeness to be used in advertising, and before long, with the help of agents hired by her sons to secure newspaper advertisements, the face of Lydia E. Pinkham “went as close to viral as possible within the Victorian media landscape.”
The company saw a devastating blow in 1881 when Lydia’s son Dan died on October 12 of tuberculosis. This was followed shortly after by her other son Will, who died in December that same year. The grief was too much for Lydia to bear, and she passed away on May 17, 1883 from suffering a stroke a month before. The business was left to her son Charles, and her daughter Aroline, which resulted in a bitter family feud over rights to the business.
Though the FDA Act of 1906 quelled some of the symptoms the Vegetable Compound was allowed to say it healed, the Lydia Pinkham Medicine Company lived on, until finally it was purchased by Cooper Laboratories in 1968, for $1 Million. You can still purchase Lydia Pinkham’s medicines to this day, and Lydia herself, quack or not, will go down in history as one of the pioneers of women’s medical practice.
Kristin Harris is a Historian, with an M.A. in American Studies from UMASS Boston, focusing on Death in Popular culture. She has been a public historian in Salem for many years, interpreting at both the Witch House and Pioneer Village for 3 years from 2013-2016. She later went on to work as a public tour guide for Salem Black Cat Tours beginning in 2014, and served on the board of the Salem Historical Society from 2015-2017, until starting full-time work as a Tour Guide/Reenactor at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum in 2017. She now continues to work for the BTPSM as a Lead Actor in the Creative Department at the Museum, and to educate as a first-person historical interpreter with many organizations including Newport Living History Spaces and Revolutionary Spaces. While researching for her Master’s thesis, Kristin met and joined with the Mass Ghost Hunters Paranormal Society as an investigator in training, and served as an investigator with the team from 2015-2017. Her time with MGHPS informed much of her continued research into the paranormal, and paranormal history. Beginning in 2019, Kristin started work with Intramersive Media LLC as a consulting historian and dramaturge for their third installment of Daemonologie, their yearly October production, which was entitled Smoke and Mirrors, and was sponsored by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Creative Collective. Kristin has since joined Intramersive as a permanent member of the production team.
She is also the host of Life After Midnight: Strange History, Salem Style, a podcast dedicated to exploring dark and macabre history, and its impact on popular culture and thought. All episodes are available on iTunes.https://lifeaftermidnightsalem.com/
1. Hubbard, Elbert. Lydia E. Pinkham. The Roycrofters. East Aurora, N.Y. 1915. Pg 16.
2. Hubbard. Pg. 22.
4. Barry. Ibid.