Guest Post: Lydia Pinkham’s Compound–Reverse the Curse!

A guest post from Judith Gray:

Barbara invited me to blog about Lydia Pinkham, since I have a personal connection (my aunt married a Pinkham descendant), and I have always been interested in her story. I was probably the only junior high school student to write a report on her, based on the  book Lydia Pinkham Is Her Name (c.1949)  and original source material from the company president.

Now there is another book about her, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (c. 1979),  and lots of information  on the web, ranging from scholarly articles  to  drinking songs spoofing the alcohol content of her “vegetable compound” (You can listen to one at

During the nineteenth century the standard treatment for menstrual cramps was the removal of ovaries, which had a 40% mortality rate.  The most popular drug of the day was calomel, a mercurial toxin.

Medical care was expensive and many women couldn’t afford it.  Lydia appealed to women’s desires to take care of their own health instead of leaving it to male practitioners, who charged big fees and usually did more harm than good.

Lydia suffered from the curse of menstrual cramps and brewed up a mixture in her kitchen to ease the pain.  It consisted of black cohosh, life root, unicorn root, pleurisy root, fenugreek seed, and a substantial amount of alcohol.   She gave it away for free, and it was quite popular with her neighbors.

Of the ingredients, black cohosh, is suggested by the alternative medical community as providing  relief from menopausal symptoms due to its  natural oestrogens. Perhaps that, combined with the alcohol and power of suggestion, made the compound effective.

In the Panic of 1873, Lydia’s husband, Isaac, was financially ruined and narrowly escaped prison for debt; his health was destroyed by the stress.  Lydia, at the age of 55,  urged on by her son,  decided to make a family business of her product,  expanding from stove-top to  factory production.

She excelled at mass marketing, and was the first woman to have her photograph appear on a product label.  She published the “Pinkham Pamphlets” providing answers to women’s medical questions and using testimonials from grateful women.

The company was extremely successful, peaking in 1925 with annual profits of $3.8 million.

While she was ultimately motivated by financial need, Lydia Pinkham deserves  credit for drawing attention to women’s health issues and reaching out to women who were not being served by the  medical community.

Her daughter created the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, MA in 1922 to provide health services to young mothers and their children, and it is still operational today.

I recently discovered that Lydia lived for a short period of time in a house a couple of miles from mine in Bedford, MA and dispensed her compound from there.

Her family bought property on a small secluded lake in New England and built five grand houses to share, known as the Pinkham Family Compound.  My uncle grew up in one of these, and my dad built a small cottage on the same lake, where I have been enjoying summers since childhood.

Once we found an old Lydia Pinkham medicine bottle on the bottom of the lake.  Thanks Lydia, and thanks Dad!

Judith Gray has worked as a librarian in public and university libraries for 32 years, most recently as Head of Reference at the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library.  She retired from full-time work a year ago and is easing the transition by working part-time, while she reinvents her life.  She lives in Bedford, Mass. with her husband of 32 years, and shares a beloved lake cottage with her brother and sister.  She enjoys cooking, reading, traveling, all forms of exercise, and visiting her children in Connecticut and New York.

Bottle Photo:  Lydia Pinkham  bottle, circa 1880-1890, found by Judith’s scuba diving brother-in-law, off the shore of the Pinkham Family Compound.

Lydia’s Photo is from the cover of Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine

Photo below:  Judith Gray!  Judith and I worked together years ago at the Dedham Public Library in Massachusetts.

And finally…

Judith thought this picture worked well on a post about the female curse, but it really refers to another curse. Here’s her explanation:”Reverse the curse'”was a rallying cry of my local Boston Red Sox fans.  The “Curse of the Bambino” referred to the dramatic downturn of the Red Sox and the upturn of the New York Yankees after Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees in 1919.  The Red Sox went 84 years before winning the championship again in 2004, coming back from down 0-3 in the playoffs against the Yankees in a memorable series and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.  This sign on Storrow Drive in Boston was a local landmark until it was replaced after 2004.