Special to The Ellsworth American
The 1800s were golden years for the manufacture of patent medicines. These untested proprietary products were sold over the counter. Before the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, American entrepreneurs sold hundreds of dubious preparations as medicine with no legal requirement to list their ingredients or to prove efficacy or safety. Many of these medicines had no actual medicinal value. Some contained dangerous ingredients like opiates, mercury compounds or cocaine. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for colicky babies contained alcohol and a lethal amount of morphine.
Some patent medicines were rebranded and survived eventual oversight by the FDA. Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, 7-Up, Moxie and Hires Root Beer all started as patent medicines that were supposed to be energizing, invigorating or therapeutic. Angostura bitters, which is an ingredient in some cocktails, was originally a remedy for seasickness. The patent medicines that were most successful were heavily advertised and had memorable brand images.
By far the most famous image in American advertising in the late 1800s belonged to a New England homemaker who became a successful entrepreneur and a pioneer in providing candid information to women about their anatomy and physiology. The innovative company that she started became a model for marketing pharmaceuticals and self-care products.
Lydia Estes (1819-1883) grew up in a reform-minded Quaker family in Lynn, Mass. She was an educated schoolteacher when she married Isaac Pinkham, a shoe manufacturer and land speculator. In 1873, her husband’s real estate investments had failed, and her family persuaded her to market an herbal medicine for “female complaints” that she often brewed at home. Turning her kitchen and basement into a small factory, Pinkham launched the Lydia E. Pinkham Co., which soon became a thriving family business. Her sons aggressively advertised the herbal nostrum, and the company built a factory in Lynn in 1886.
Lydia’s marketing genius was to appeal directly to women. She offered free health advice to women who wrote to her and promised no men would ever read their correspondence. She published testimonials offered by grateful women. The Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co. innovated by publishing and distributing free pamphlets with information on health and nutrition, first aid, household economizing and home sewing, as well as cookbooks. Women found Lydia Pinkham’s grandmotherly image on product packaging reassuring. Hers may have been the first image of a real woman used to advertise an American product.
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound contained from 13 to 19 percent alcohol. The herbal formula varied somewhat over time, but unicorn root, life root, pleurisy root, fenugreek, chasteberry, sassafras, echinacea, chamomile, licorice, yellow dock, princess pine and black cohosh were ingredients at various times. Lydia Pinkham owned a copy of John King’s 1854 American Dispensatory, which was probably her source of information about roots and herbs used in traditional medicine.
Was her herbal medicine effective? No rigorously controlled studies of her product’s effectiveness were made until recently. Because some of the herbs contained plant estrogens, her formula may have been effective for some women. Many testimonials claimed her products eased menopausal symptoms and promoted fertility. A popular ditty spoofing the product proclaimed, “There’s a baby in every bottle, so the question ran, but the Federal Trade Commission still insists you’ll need a man.”
The little cookbook, “Practical Cooking Recipes,” published by the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., contains an intriguing recipe for prune pie. Dried fruits, such as raisins, dried apples or prunes, were often used in the Victorian era for winter pies when fresh fruits were unavailable. Following is my version adapted for the modern kitchen.
Lydia Pinkham’s Prune Pie
2 pie crusts for 9-inch pie
2 lbs. pitted prunes (about 5 cups)
About 5 cups cold water for cooking prunes
2 Tbsps. flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. cloves
2 Tbsps. lemon juice
3 Tbsps. reserved prune cooking water
1½ Tbsps. butter, cut into small pieces
Put the prunes in a saucepan in water to barely cover; bring rapidly to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until prunes are plump and soft. Allow to cool; then drain the prunes, reserving 3 tablespoons of the prune cooking water. Cut each prune in quarters and place in large bowl. Mix flour, sugar, cinnamon and cloves in a small bowl and stir into prunes. Add the lemon juice and the 3 tablespoons of prune water.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Roll out one pie crust ¼-inch thick and line the pie pan. Spread the prune mixture evenly in the pan. Roll out the top crust, position over the pie, trim and crimp the edges. Bake 50 minutes.