In the early part of the 20th century, Lydia Pinkham’s likeness was familiar to most American women. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts to a Quaker family, Lydia was well-educated when she married shoemaker Isaac Pinkham.
Poor Isaac, however, was not able to succeed in any of the several businesses he tried. He lost what little money he had been able to accumulate in the Panic of 1873, leaving the Pinkham family in serious financial straits.
For some time, Lydia, like most women of her day, had been brewing medicinal compounds. Most folks looked askance at the medical profession during this time. It was expensive to visit a doctor, and quite often the remedies they prescribed were more poison than medicine. There is a legend that Isaac Pinkham had received the recipe that would become Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for female complaints as payment from one of his customers. However the Pinkhams received it, Lydia had been brewing it and distributing it free to her neighbors.
When the family found itself in serious financial straits, their son, Daniel, suggested marketing the elixir as a patent medicine. Lydia concocted it on her stove at home until 1876 when the volume of sales necessitated moving operations to a factory. By 1925, it had gross sales of $3.8 million, probably helped along by Prohibition. News stories in the 1920s noted that Lydia Pinkham’s “signature” often appeared on bogus prescriptions for “medicinal alcohol.” The plant continued operation until her great-grandchildren sold the formula to another company in 1973.
Lydia was also the inspiration for a number of popular folk songs. “Lily the Pink,” popularized by the Irish Rovers in the latter part of the 20th century was a sanitized version of one of these songs.
Lydia died in 1883, the same week as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.