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North of Boston Historical Figures – Lily the Pink

December 6, 2013

Let us sing (let us sing) of Lydia Pinkham,
The benefactress of the human race.
She invented a vegetable compound,

And now all the papers print her face.

lydiaLynn’s Lydia Pinkham was one of the most successful businesswomen of the 1800’s.  She managed to succeed not only in a time when a woman working outside of the home was unheard of, but also within a field which remains male-dominated to this day: health and medicine (and she managed to do it without any sort of degree or medical experience what-so-ever).

In the 19th century, medical care was…well, “iffy” to say the least.  It was very expensive and even if you could afford it, it would probably kill you.  Literally. Mind you, this was a time when heroin popped up in cough syrup. leeching was just peachy keen, and toxins containing mercury (non-threateningly referred to as “calomel”) were given to patients.  Thus, cheaper (and safer) herbal medicines and home remedies were very popular.  We’d opt for the placebo over mercury any day.

One of the most popular remedies was Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.  Lydia Pinkham was a Lynn woman who, like many people of the time, developed her own home remedies.  The Vegetable Compound became very popular and she founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in 1873.

The Vegetable Compound was a smash success with women – it was a cure-all for “women’s complaints.”  Female “matters” were pretty much a taboo subject in the 19th century, so, in writing this, we assume that there wasn’t a Victorian equivalent of Midol.  So, the frankness and widespread availability of Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was probably welcomed with open arms by women suffering from cramps and other assorted menstrual problems.


Queen Victoria (above) and Lillie Langtry (right). Both also known to look just like Lydia Pinkham to some 19th newspaper readers.

download (1)Lydia Pinkham was a savvy marketer and put her image on the bottles and in her advertisements.  This gave women a friendly, almost motherly image they could trust with such a delicate matter.  There was a small drawback, though.  Photos were relatively new and hard to come by in the late 1800’s.  According to legend, some newspapers would lift Pinkham’s picture from her ads and use it for articles on Queen Victoria or other celebrities of the day.

A celebrity in her own right, Lydia Pinkham was the subject of the bawdy drinking song “Lily the Pink” or “The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham.”  It contained the verse “Let us sing (let us sing) of Lydia Pinkham,/The benefactress of the human race./She invented a vegetable compound,/And now all the papers print her face.” and singers would add their own verses.  A few examples:


LydiaPinkham-Delineator1896AUncle Paul, he was awful small, he
Was the shortest man in town.
Rubbed himself with Medicinal Compound,
Now he’s six foot-but underground.

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.

The Pinkham Medicine Company also issued the Pinkham Pamphlet, which contained a sort of “Dear Abby”-esque column.  Women were encouraged to send in questions to embarrassing to be asked aloud and “Lydia” would answer them.  Lydia continued to answer questions well after she had died…and it was revealed that the advice-giver was actually a staff of writers.


Pinkham’s Lynn home

Lydia Pinkham died of a stroke in 1883.  The Pinkham Medicine Company grew to gross nearly $4 million dollars in the 1920’s and some of its products (or modern variations) are still available today.  Pinkham’s Lynn home is on the list National Register of Historic Places.

So, here’s to Lynn’s Lydia Pinkham
A woman who succeeded among medical quack-ses
Who earned fame not by informing deer
Or scalping her captors with sharp axes. 

We’re not-so-much with the good lyric-writing.  Did we mention that the Compound contained 20% alcohol?  That probably had something to do with its popularity.


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