Couture Planet happily makes our home in the Gateway City of Lynn, MA in the Lydia Pinkham Building (her former laboratory). The building is full of terrific small businesses, including many artists, an artisanal restaurant/market, and a yoga studio. There is a great sense of community in the building. If you have never heard of Lydia Pinkham, you’ll find that it seems a story made for this moment.
Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883) was an American inventor and manufacturer of herbal-alcoholic “women’s tonics.” Lydia was born in Lynn, MA, the 10th of 12 children of William and Rebecca Estes, who were radical Quakers. Her father was a shoe-maker but also accumulated a small fortune from the saltworks during the War of 1812. Lydia was a good student at Lynn Academy and her family encouraged their children to be freethinkers. They were active abolitionists and an anti-segregation family. Lydia joined the “Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society” at age 16. The Pinkham home was a meeting place for local and visiting abolitionist leaders. Frederick Douglass was a neighbor for a time and a lifelong friend.
In 1843, Lydia married Isaac Pinkham, a 29 year old shoe manufacturer and they went onto have four children. Lydia had been experimenting with combining herbs (and alcohol) to address women’s health issues. When the financial panic of 1873 had the family facing financial ruin, the idea of family “medical” business was born. Lydia originally made the recipe on her stove--then moved down the street to the factory where Couture Planet is housed today. “Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” addressed problems women encountered at both ends of their lives. Though medical experts dismissed it as a “quack remedy,” women often turned to home remedies or unlicensed “root and herb” practitioners during this time as many believed mainstream medicine was not safe. Pinkham’s concoction was made of five herbs and drinking alcohol. One of the herbs used was Black Cohosh, which is still used medicinally today. Advent of the FDA necessitated a change in her formula, but the product is still on sale in a modified form today. Lydia’s main motivation was economic, but she was also considered a feminist as a women’s health advocate and crusader.
Lydia was indeed a pioneer—and also a forerunner in the area of guerilla marketing. The company did pamphlet marketing with photos of Lydia appearing like a monarch. Lydia supposedly wrote to and personally answered letters from customers. After her son ran a full-page ad in the Boston Herald on a whim, sales soared. Lydia wrote her own advertising copy and had a way with the sensational. The personal touch of the founder and inventor proved key in the company’s success. At the time of her death in 1883, sales were $300K. Son Charles continued the business and sales peaked in 1925 at $3.8M. The family soon sold the business to Numark Laboratories and production was moved to Puerto Rico.
In 1922, Lydia’s daughter Aroline Pinkham Chase Gove, founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, Massachusetts to provide health services to young mothers and their children. The clinic continues in operation today. Lydia’s papers are held at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. As a cultural icon, Lydia, who made her elixir with alcohol, was even parodied in drinking songs of the day (see below). Lydia Pinkham may have been circumspect and satirized but on many fronts, Lydia Pinkham was the real deal – a renegade and a woman for this moment.
Now here's a story, A little bit gory, A little bit happy A little bit sa-hah-had Bout Lydia Pink and Her medicinal compound and how it drove her to the bad. . . " "Lydia died and went up to heaven, All the church bells they did ri-hing-hing She took with her Medicinal Compound Hark! The herald angels sing! So-oh drink a, drink a, drink To Lydia Pink a, Pink a, Pink The savior of the human ra-hay-hayce She invented a medicinal compound Whose effects God can only replace." Drinking song circa 1890's
Hubbart, Elbert, Being a Sketch of Her Life and Times.”The Roycrofters, East Aurora, 1915.
*The painting of Frederick Douglass is by local artist (and friend & neighbor of CP) Michael Agahowa. Douglass's blue suite was inspired by Django Unchained. You can see a sampling of his amazing work and follow him on Instagram @_agahowa.