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Lily the Pink’s compound a cure for ‘female complaints’

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Phil Egan

While researching a story recently about a 1914 sawmill fire in Sarnia I came across an item both strange and fascinating.

“Two Nervous Women,” was the heading of the single-column story in the Sarnia Observer.

It told the tale of two women who had been cured of “palpitation of the heart, constipation, and stomach cramps” by consuming Lydia E Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.

Reading it made one of my favourite Irish Rovers songs leap to mind. It’s called, “Lily the Pink,” and the chorus goes like this:

“We’ll drink a drink a drink                                                                                     To Lily the pink the pink the pink 
The saviour of the human race. 
She invented medicinal compounds. 
Most efficacious in every case. “

A little investigating soon determined that the Rovers song was, indeed, written about Lydia Estes Pinkham. She was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1819 to a large Quaker family and became an early feminist and abolitionist. In fact, the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas was a neighbour and family friend.

Her “Vegetable Compounds” were a mixture of herbal concoctions and drinking alcohol. Despite the delicate wording, women of the Gilded Age and early 20th century understood that the mixture was designed as a relief for menstrual cramps, although, as some of the Rovers’ lyrics make clear, many viewed the medicinal compounds as quackery.

“Uncle Paul, he 
Was very small, he 
Was the shortest man in town. 
Rubbed his body 
With medicinal compounds. 
Now he weighs only half a pound.” 

The article demonstrated that Lydia did indeed have her share of fans. A woman named Mary Johnston wrote that, after hearing tales of Vegetable Compounds having cured symptoms similar to her own, “I threw away the medicines the doctors left me and began taking the Compound. Before I had taken half a bottle I was able to sit up and in a short time I was able to do all my work.”

She went on to describe how she had become a crusader for the product, “recommending it in every household I have visited.”

Such testimonials helped make Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound one of the most popular patent medicines of the 19th century.

Mass-marketed as a family business with her son from 1875 onwards, many women felt the concoction worked, and versions of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound remain on the market to this very day.


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