Exercise 3: Patent Medicines, Femininity, and Reform

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 21, 1902, p. 7.

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was among the most well-known and popular patent medicines of the nineteenth century. Pinkham and her sons began selling the remedy, which contained 20 percent alcohol by volume, in the mid-1870s. Yet sales remained slow until later that decade when the Lydia E. Pinkham Company began marketing directly to women.

Examine the following selection of Pinkham Company advertisements from 1882 to 1904.

  1. Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, May 30, 1882, p. 6.
  2. Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 1892, p. 7.
  3. Chicago Tribune, Oct. 21, 1902, p. 7.
  4. Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1904, p. 36.

Questions

  • How did the company craft its appeal? Who was the target audience?
  • Why do you think women drank Pinkham products? Were these the same reasons that women drank alcohol in downtown restaurants and tearooms?
  • Do you observe any changes in the marketing of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound over time? If so, why might the company’s tactics have evolved?

In 1904 Edward Bok, the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, published a series of articles condemning patent medicines, including Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. His writings exposed the alcohol content of leading nostrums and called for the reform of American ladies’ “patent-medicine habit.”

After reading Bok’s “The ‘Patent-Medicine’ Curse,” consider the following questions.

Questions

  • Who was Bok criticizing in this editorial and why?
  • How did Bok’s concerns about women’s alcohol consumption compare to those of Frederick Hopkins and William Leach? Do these men appear to have been troubled by the same issues? Why or why not?

Sources

  1. Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, May 30, 1882, p. 6.
  2. Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 1892, p. 7.
  3. Chicago Tribune, Oct. 21, 1902, p. 7.
  4. Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1904, p. 36.
  5. Edward Bok, “The ‘Patent-Medicine’ Curse,” Ladies’ Home Journal, 21 (May 1904), 18.