Ann W. Robinson
Columbia University, New York, New York, United States
At face value, the 1930s advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound (to the right) elicits mild laughter and dismay. It can easily be interpreted as a sexist, scientifically unsound piece of medical propaganda laced with conformist social ideals, indicative of the era in which it was produced. But as medical sociologist Arthur Frank articulates, “illness stories mix and weave different narrative threads” (Frank 76), and this ad actually contains a number of messages folded into a multiplicity of texts. Though the image, headline, and first paragraphs are overtly sexist, the second part of the text speaks to the product’s radical origins and challenges the modernist medical establishment’s authority. This advertisement, and the evolution of the Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound advertising campaigns, illustrates fascinating tensions between modern and postmodern conceptualizations of women’s health, medicine, and bodies.
Advertisements inherently ask one to be a “mirroring body” which “tells itself in image, and this image comes from elsewhere” (Frank 45). As author, filmmmaker, and cultural critic Jean Kilbourne puts it in Killing Us Softly (3): “Advertising tells us who we are and who we should be.” In this ad, the title, the illustration, and the first two paragraphs of the text establish an ideal appearance, demeanor, and conduct to which a woman was expected to subscribe. “Peppy Girls” are what men love, society mandates, and medicine considers healthy. The extolled perks of being a “peppy girl” offer guidelines which struggling women can use to enact a version of “the culturally preferred narrative” (Frank 83), and thus meet cultural expectations.
The prominent illustration, which takes up half of the entire piece, visually depicts the narrative of the first two paragraphs. Front and center a voluptuous, fashionable young woman models the beauty ideals of the time; her hair perfectly curled, her face glamorously made-up, her scanty top accentuating her large breasts. This visual representation provides the model to which a woman should compare herself. But this image is promoting more than a beauty ideal, it is presenting a personality ideal deemed a marker of health.
If a woman looking at this sexy, lively image cannot see herself in it, she has failed to meet society’s expectations, and in doing so is deemed unwell: “cross and lifeless and always tired out…’quiet’.” Her body language suggests that to be “peppy” one must perform, center stage, to capture a man’s interest and entertain him. Her demonstrative arms, the tilt back of her torso, and her turned head make her appear to be dancing at the “dances and parties” to which peppy girls are invited. The lightness of her figure in contrast to the shadowy male "audience member" watching her from the corner resembles a spotlight’s illumination. The glint in her eye indicates the hold she has on him, the position of their heads suggests they are leaning in for a kiss, but her right arm keeps him at an appropriate distance in line with social propriety. By being a “mirroring body” which “grooms itself in conformity to an internalized set of ideal images” (Frank 44), a woman will attain social and physical wellbeing.
Transitioning from the social prescription for “peppy” self-presentation, the advertisement finally introduces its product, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. In the late 19th century, Pinkham began concocting the herbal remedy in her home in Lynn, Massachusetts, to treat menstrual cramps, headaches, "female weakness" and nervousness associated with the menstrual cycle, hot flashes, depression, and other symptoms associated with menopause. Although the aforementioned "female maladies" may not be considered illnesses per se, equating “functional disorders” and “three ordeals of life” with illness corresponds with and facilitates analysis using Frank’s ideas on illness/embodiment. The ad implies that women need a remedy to cope with conditions associated with their sex, which they are biologically destined to face at the start of three stages: “womanhood”, “motherhood”, and “middle age”. These stages, deemed “ordeals”, resemble how “illness means living with perpetual interruption” (Frank 56). The compound can ease but not necessarily entirely eradicate or cure said ‘maladies’, and in this way the “functional disorders” are like “irrevocable identit(ies)” (Frank 9).
When it proved a great success among Pinkham’s family and friends, the Pinkham family decided to patent the product and established the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in 1875. Driven by a profit motive and steered by self-seeking ad men, the company nonetheless respected and promoted Pinkham’s concern with “popular dissatisfaction with the medical profession and its treatment of women’s diseases” (Stage 10). Pinkham’s conviction that “women suffered needlessly at the hands of doctors” (Stage 44) reflects the postmodern attitude that a “moral person would risk neither himself (herself) nor anyone in his (her) care for such an idea as ‘the profession of medicine’” (Frank 94). Although not postmodern in historical context, the compound was intended as a means of rebelling against the “medical colonization” (Frank 10) launched at the brink of modern medicine’s takeover in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Touting the compound as “more effective and less dangerous than the treatments of the medical profession” (Stage 44), the product offered a trustworthy, natural alternative made by a woman (initially, at least), for women.
The company’s early advertising vision – a wise, empathetic grandmotherly figure offering relief from the "female maladies" to which all women can relate – proved a tremendous success, and not just economically. Women found the compound effective and the kindly figure of Pinkham reassuring in a time when medicine, particularly for women’s health, was unreliable. Pinkham received scores of “testimonial letters” from around the world, from which the savvy ad men of the company drew endorsing quotations for advertisements. They also developed “testimonial advertising” in the form of “Pinkham Pamphlets” that provided information and advice about women’s health matters. While Pinkham herself originally responded to the letters and scribed the educational literature, upon her death in 1883, less than 10 years after the company was formed, her mostly male heirs took over the revered and widely trusted Pinkham persona.
The company was an international success, though sales peaked at $3 million in 1925. In the subsequent decades the family venture was fraught with inner feuds among family members, public battles with the government over product regulation, and constant challenges to retain credibility and appeal in the midst of dramatic medical and advertising cultural evolution. Finally forced to fold as a family business, the Pinkhams sold the company to a pharmaceutical company in 1968.
With the rise of FDA jurisdiction over the drug industry in the 20th century, the Pinkham Medicine Company hit many hurdles in how they advertised their product. In the 1920s, the government deemed the company’s iconic testimonials unsubstantiated claims. Until the 1930s, the company refused to conduct clinical studies or pharmacological testing, while other patented medicines were seeking substantiation by hiring scientists and physicians to “vouch for the effectiveness of their medicines” (Stage 241). In 1938, the Pinkhams were required to obtain medical backing when the government issued a citation against them stating: “the advertising representations…are objectionable in their entirety” (Stage 241). Even after hiring repudiated doctors to support the compound, the FDA and FTC continued to “wage a ‘cold war’ against the company” (Stage 242). The accelerating professionalization and domination of medicine in the early 20th century forced the Pinkham Medicine Company to alter its original mission, campaigns, and messages.
Confronting massive shifts in the medical field, conceptions of health, and societal values, the compound strained to keep up and stay relevant. When the government began seeking in the 1920s and 1930s to “discredit patent medicines in the eyes of consumers” (Stage 252), the Pinkhams' ads in the 1930s cut out specific promotion of the compound’s curative effects on medical issues like menstrual pain and menopause, instead offering a product “to calm jittery nerves and restore pep and vitality” (Stage 233). They shifted the focus to curing social “disorders” and complaints, presumably derived from the biological condition of femaleness. At the same time, they began to downplay – though, significantly, did not abandon – the earlier emphatic depiction of the compound as “Nature’s Gift to Women” (Fig. 1). Tracking the cultural evolution in medicine and gendered expectations through the company’s advertisements reveals the body-self’s “perpetual vulnerability to interruption” (Frank 57).
“For three generations one woman has told another how to go ‘smiling through’ with Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.” The messages in this sentence are profound. The implied intergenerational sisterhood of women can be read as the Pinkham version of Frank’s “remission society” (Frank 8). By choosing Pinkham’s natural remedy, women choose to be dyadic bodies positioned in a community defying the medical establishment’s push for monadic bodies. They are “actualizing the ideal of the community of pain” (Frank 37). Storytelling (“one woman has told another”) served as a central source of product promotion for the Pinkhams' enterprise. The stories told by Lydia E. Pinkham were carried forth by every woman who used the compound, wrote testimonial letters attesting to its efficacy, and recommended it to her female family members and friends. These acts suggest the women accepted the product’s presumption that all women experienced female maladies, and thus they accepted “suffering as an intractable part of the human (female) condition” (Frank 146).
Stating that the compound “helps Nature tone up the system” suggests a partnership between the compound and "Nature". Despite the massive cultural shifts from when the Pinkham compound was launched in the 1870s to the climate in which the “Peppy” campaign was developed in the 1930s, the company still incorporated the product’s original premise that herbal remedies from “Nature” were more trusted than professional medicine. The very term “Vegetable Compound” distinguishes it from “professional” medicine, suggesting the latter uses foreign, unnatural, and subsequently potentially hazardous chemical substances. The ad also personifies “Nature” by capitalizing it and implicitly contrasts it to the disparaged doctor figure.
The compound’s mission is not to eradicate the disorders, which are deemed “functional”, but to improve the body, construed here as a system instead of individual broken pieces. As such, the ad does not present the restitution narrative’s premise that“the body has to be a kind of machine” and dependency on “a mechanistic view” (Frank 89). Certainly all advertisements, from whatever source, testimonial included, contain elements of the restitution narrative insofar as they “provide a model for how stories about sickness are told” (Frank 80). But the Pinkham ads insinuate their consumers “accept some level of illness as the permanent background and intermittent foreground of their lives” (Frank 83).
The implication that the compound restores balance and harmony to women who should be able to “Enjoy life as Nature intended” sounds well and good, but it entails a conflict. While Nature may have “intended” women to lead happy, enjoyable lives, biology seems to be held responsible for the “three ordeals” inherent to being a woman. The ultimate purpose of the compound is “lessening discomfort” so a woman can “endure” the difficulties life entails, not to directly facilitate becoming the “peppy girl” that the ad nonetheless promotes. Being “happy and peppy and full of fun” seems, rather, the compound’s alleged secondary effect: the personality ideal is achieved as a result of increased energy and soothed irritability that the compound effects. The “peppy girl” premise establishes an external motivation for seeking a remedy of the inner ills she will face whether she aspires to become that “peppy girl” or not.The assertion that “women must endure” the three ordeals integrates the communicative body which “accepts its contingency” (Frank 49) into the multi-faceted woman constructed in the ad.
The Pinkham Medicine Company stands as a surprisingly early rendition of postmodern illness culture in its perpetually complicated clash with mainstream modernist medical establishments. The contradictions and paradoxes in this single ad speak to the competing narratives in medicine, culture, and bodies which are inextricably linked and ever “a shifting foreground and background of types” (Frank 51). The “Peppy Girls” ad illustrates that “to trace Pinkham advertising is to view in microcosm changing attitudes toward women and medicine” (Stage 10). Evaluating the ad’s explicitly sexist appeal for pep offers partial insight into the cultural perspectives on women’s health, but one must also consider the ad’s distinctive historical context within the Pinkham enterprise’s evolution. Lydia E. Pinkham founded the company on radical, postmodern perspectives that resounded even in the alterations commensurate with inevitable cultural changes.
- “Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business.” National Exhibition Website. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 2002. http://www.radcliffe.edu/schles/exhibits/enterprisingwomen/builder/pinkham.html
- Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
- “Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company: Biography.” Records, 1776-1968. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Processed June 1974. http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/deepLink?_collection=oasis&uniqueId=sch00017
- Stage, Sarah. Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.
ANN W. ROBINSON is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Her long-standing interest in and commitment to women’s reproductive health, feminist theory, and embodiment has driven her work in academic, activist, and advocacy fields. Her areas of concentration also include integrative health practices, gender and cultural studies, yoga, Eastern contemplative traditions, mental health reform, and writing. She currently works as full-spectrum doula, providing compassionate care for women across the spectrum of pregnancy, including experiences of abortion, miscarriage, perinatal loss, and adoption.