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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.

Frederick Douglass Painting
Painting of Frederick Douglass by local artist, Michael Aghahowa

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 Lydia originally made the recipe on her stove--then moved down the street to the factory where Couture Planet is housed today.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.

Etching of Lydia Pinkham
Lydia Pinkham, a woman ahead of her time.

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.





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  • Kathy | Couture Planet

Welcome (almost) back to the world!  We hope that you and yours are well.  We have been sewing/donating masks and sewing/shipping bags -- proceeding with caution but, probably like you, are raring to go!  A lot has gone on, and that’s putting it mildly.  Michelle and I have done a lot of watching, listening, thinking, and talking.  Where do we go from here?

All of our discussions keep coming back to the idea of community.  Since the beginning, Couture Planet has had a laser focus on community.  We have our community of customers, retail partners, neighbors in the building, and citizens in our city.  We have our community of woman-owned businesses, and businesses that, like us, strive to be impact-driven.  


When we first took a small space at the Lydia Pinkham Building, it was an old building with great bones but lots of dust.   The building had an interesting and important history as the laboratory of Lydia Pinkham, a pioneering female scientist and entrepreneur who ran a very successful mail order tonic business in the mid 1800’s.  It was half-full and occupied by budding artists and earnest entrepreneurs.  The location has exploded, is fully occupied and includes a restaurant/food shop, a pierogi maker, a clay studio, a fitness studio, a yoga studio, an enamel artist, an artisan upholsterer, and a printing/embroidery business.  The growth, however, has been thoughtful and organic.  The restaurant is farm-focused and woman-owned.  The clay studio, fitness studio, and pierogi maker are also woman-owned.  The yoga studio and printing/ embroidery business are owned by young African American women.  Our building forms a strong community with a supportive and nurturing environment where we share resources and look out for one another. I don’t know if I can aptly convey how important it is to us.

Our community extends beyond our building to the City of Lynn.  We have employed and mentored students through the city summer jobs program and the local career center.  We became cherished friends with some of them through college and graduate school, and into their first and second jobs.  They have supported us as much as we have supported them. We will commit to upping the ante on our participation.

We have tried to extend our support to our larger community by volunteering our time.  Michelle is a long-term member and Second Vice President of the Board of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society.  As an art and cultural mecca for the city, the museum devotes a majority of its resources toward engaging and educating students about the history of their city I just finished my second year participating in the College Mentoring Program at Girls Inc. of Lynn.  I have worked with amazing young women with so much drive and promise.  Many of them have recently immigrated to the US and are learning to become, “strong, smart, and bold!”  I’m committing for the long haul.

We now know that this is not enough. We are assessing our actions and attitudes and reflecting on “where do we go from here?” Black, LGBTQ, and civil rights are tied to a share history.  We know that to be silent is to be complicit. If we shied away from controversy in the past, we will no longer standby silently.  We will voice and show our support.   We will carve out more time to watch, really listen, think, and discuss issues with our neighbors– and double down on our mission of being relevant by becoming better allies to our community, especially the marginalized and those most in need.  

These are some of the businesses mentioned that form our community:

digsenamels.com

inboundinkonline.com

jajupierogi.com

limitlessfitness.com

soulcityom.com

theclaystudio.org

uncommonfeasts.com

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  • Kathy | Couture Planet

Couture Planet has joined countless other manufacturers and home sewers across our nation with the effort to provide much-needed supplies to our medical workers. 

The Coronavirus first affected us at Couture Planet directly when the New England Made wholesale show being held in Portland, Maine, was cancelled the day prior to setup.  (This was March 12).  Soon thereafter, other shows in Richmond Virginia and Houston, Texas on our schedule for mid-April were also cancelled.  It felt like we had all just started thinking about "social distancing" -- a new term the whole country had recently learned.  We considered that this would slow our business down.  We were, of course, taken aback, but soon began to make plans for how we would use this break in the action to catch up.  First, we wanted to catch our breath after a fast-paced holiday season, followed by a surprisingly busy January and February (typically a slower time of the year for retail sales).   Then, we wanted to get our creative juices flowing by experimenting with new styles and shapes.  It is difficult to manipulate the newspaper and takes a lot of trial and error accompanied by patience.  

Then, very quickly, we all began to understand the scope of the problem.  Businesses began closing and the Governor of Massachusetts shut down all but essential businesses.  We learned about the immediate and overwhelming shortage of protective medical masks.  Through social media, we saw groups were organizing to do whatever possible.  We knew we had to be part of that effort.


My business partner, Michelle, was determined and didn’t waste a moment!  We quickly got up to speed on how to actually make the mask -- thanks to a number of online how-to videos and conversations with friends in the medical professions. We sought donations of fabric and elastic.  Quarter-inch elastic is scarce at the moment.  We reached out to a partner business who makes labels for our bags—ClothingLabels4U – who dug out a big roll of elastic and shipped it off to us.  A community member in the Lydia Pinkham Building (Joselito's Upholstery) found another large roll and again, happily donated to the cause.  We continue to reach out for donations within our local community (see information regarding donations at the end of the blog). We are able to continue to employ our full-time sewer and feel incredibly privileged to be helping with this effort.

Completed protective masks are going out daily. We are working to help supply the Massachusetts DCF (Department of Children and Families) via an effort coordinated by Lauren Baker, our neighbor and wife of Charlie Baker, Governor of MA – who is leading these efforts.  Some masks are also going directly to local medical personnel in need.  We will continue our efforts, while maintaining a safe work environment and practicing social distancing.

None of us know what tomorrow will bring but we know we have to support those in the trenches while the rest of us do our part to flatten this curve.  On a good day (and there will be more of those in the future for all of us- promise!) we understand the value of community.  In times like this, we embrace that community because without it, we are nothing.

NOTE:  We are seeking donations of cotton fabric, ¼ inch elastic, and pipe cleaners.  If you have anything to contribute, please email us at info@coutureplanet.com




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