As every single person on the Internet knows, women who dare to enter the public eye are regularly pilloried. Message boards are rife with misogyny. Trolls lurk under every tweet. “Don’t read the comments” has become a necessary mantra.
But as 19th century apothecary Lydia E. Pinkham might attest, none of this is particularly modern. In the late 1800s, Pinkham’s face became among the most recognizable in the world—and this brought consequences. Until she came along, the only woman whose image showed up regularly in public was Queen Victoria.
When Pinkham first put herself on a bottle of her bestselling Vegetable Concoction, men sent her hate mail, harping on her haircut and her “cast-iron smile.” Journalists mixed her up with other famous women. College choirs made fun of her in song. All because she dared to put her portrait on a label.
Before becoming a well-known medicine maven, Pinkham had led a relatively quiet life. She was a schoolteacher, mother, and dedicated abolitionist in her hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts. She got into preparing medicines at the age of 56, through knack and necessity: The economy was tanking, her family needed money, and she happened to have a great recipe for a much-needed drug.
Nineteenth-century pharmacies were full of patent medicines—mixtures that, though dodgy by modern standards, helped citizens through illnesses and complaints, often by slyly dosing them with cocaine or opium. Pinkham had spent years concocting a menstrual cramp-soothing mixture that all the neighborhood women swore by. In 1875, hoping local appeal would translate, she brewed up the first commercial batch of her “Vegetable Compound”—some roots, some seeds, and a generous amount of alcohol, all stirred together on the stove.
The bitter brown sludge didn’t look or taste like much, but it hit the spot for a number of women with nowhere else to turn. As Sarah Stage explains in Female Complaints, science during that time had all sorts of hysterical ideas about the female reproductive system, and doctors “frequently overtreated and maltreated the uterus,” sometimes going so far as to pre-emptively remove a woman’s ovaries to save her from the ravages of menstruation. Fearing such drastic measures, patients were often reluctant to discuss even basic aches and pains with their doctors.
In this climate, Pinkham’s medicine, made by and for women and billed as “a Sure Cure… without the knife,” flew off the shelves. To help it along, Pinkham offered up her services as a kind of medically-minded Dear Abby, inviting customers to write in describing their ailments—for which she would prescribe, of course, more Vegetable Compound. They would then write back with effusive thanks.
Meanwhile, her sons Will and Dan turned themselves into a two-man marketing team, converting Lydia’s advice and customers’ testimonials into flyers, pamphlets, and newspaper ads. A few years into the venture, hoping to expand the business’s reach even more, Dan decided to add something new to the Vegetable Compound bottle—a picture of Lydia. Her wise, kind face would help make her product even more relatable, the Pinkham family thought. In 1879, they commissioned a portrait and rolled out a new campaign with Lydia front and center.
This wasn’t just new for the company—it was new for the world. “In the 19th century, a woman offering her image for circulation in the public sphere was almost unheard of,” writes Elizabeth Lowry in “Eponymous Elixirs.” While entrepreneurial men used their own faces to advertise cough drops and Wild West shows, women shown in ads were usually generic consumers, shown smoking cigarettes or reducing their chins. “Mrs. Pinkham’s use of her own image for circulation was considered extremely unladylike,” Lowry writes.
Nevertheless, the Pinkhams leaned hard on their new tactic, shipping giant lithographs of Lydia to drugstore owners and printing small ones on collectible cards, which they attached to advertisements. Soon, their founder’s face was gazing out from jar labels, newspapers, and the windows of well-trafficked streets. According to Sammy R. Danna’s Lydia Pinkham: The Face That Launched a Thousand Ads, the picture was painted on walls and posterboarded on fences, and even infiltrated people’s homes.
One newspaper reported that the company sent “large, mounted portraits of Mrs. Pinkham” to “various lady correspondents.” “Soon, many household walls were adorned by the familiar, motherly face of the Massachusetts woman who had done so much for all women,” the article read.
The response was immediate and double-edged. “The portrait took on a life of its own,” writes Danna. Some confused newspapers began using Mrs. Pinkham’s face to stand in for other famous women, including Susan B. Anthony and “a few presidents’ wives.” One legend holds that, late one night, the Boston Herald’s layout guy got drunk and pasted a picture of Lydia on top of every single column in the paper.
Other responses were overtly hostile. Men took advantage of the Pinkhams’ request for testimonials to send letters telling Lydia to change her hair or to stop smiling so much. This note, sent in 1880, sums up the most common complaints:
If it is necessary that you should parade your portrait in every country paper in the United States can’t you in mercy to the nation have a new one taken once in a while? Do your hair a little differently say – have a different turn to your head & look solemn. Anything to get rid of that cast iron smile! You ought to feel solemn any way that your face pervades the mind of the nation like a nightmare & that you have become a bug bear to innocent children. Also that portrait is destroying the circulation of the newspapers. I have stopped my county paper to get rid of it & I know of several flourishing papers that have been absolutely killed by it. I think my words express the heartfelt desire of a long suffering people & that I am sustained in this request by the strongest public sentiment ever brought to bear on any subject!
By the mid-1880s, there was a popular college choir song making fun of Lydia: “There’s a face that haunts me ever, there are eyes mine always meet / as I read the morning paper, as I walk the crowded street,” it began. “Sing, oh! Sing of Lydia Pinkham, and her love for the human race / how she sells her vegetable compound and the papers publish her face.”
Despite this rash of critical men, actual Vegetable Compound sales went through the roof. By the end of the 19th century, Pinkham was “the best-known woman in America,” LIFE magazine wrote decades later. After Lydia’s death, in 1883, her relatives kept her portrait on company materials, and customers continued to write her for advice. The Pinkhams, who couldn’t afford to lose Lydia’s promotional power, hired other old, wise women to answer the letters.
In 1904, as part of an expose titled “How the Private Confidences of Women are Laughed At,” the Ladies’ Home Journal published an updated Pinkham portrait—a photo of her 20-year-old tombstone. But even this didn’t really affect sales. In 1949, the company was selling 3 million bottles a year. The original Lydia Pinkham Medicine Company Factory, in Lynn, didn’t close shop until 1973.
These days, thanks to some trademark transfers, you can still buy Pinkham-branded compounds and supplements. Lydia’s portrait, slightly simplified over the decades, continues to gaze calmly out of the packaging. Were Lydia herself around to answer letters, she might have to reconsider her medicinal formula. But she would also have at least one well-earned, timeless piece of advice to offer: Never mind the haters.
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