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“ABABY IN EVERY BOTTLE?” The Story of Lydia Pinkham

ebay by Doris B. Linden nasa

Gathering Lydia E. Pinkham memorabilia probably doesn'trank very high on most collector wish lists. Nevertheless, Lydia(1819-1883) the 10th child of Rebecca and William Estes of Salem,Massachusetts was without a doubt the dominant woman of hertimes. Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B.Anthony, Frederick Douglas and many others were not strangers tothe Pinkham household. Her name, picture and medicine becameworld famous and they allowed her brothers, sons, andgrandchildren to successfully market her vegetable compound via a14 1/2 oz. bottle well into the 20th century. And their effortsleft a challenging trail of bottles for me to collect.

I grew up within a few miles of the red brickLydia Pinkham bottling plant at 305 Western Avenue in Lynn,Massachusetts. It's still there even though the original companyis long gone. The house where Lydia first brewed her potion onthe kitchen stove is just up the street at number 271. It'sneglected, dilapidated and a small sign is all that identifiesthe home of the famous lady who once lived there.

For years my Thanksgiving dinner would hardlyhave been complete without a Lydia Pinkham yarn spelled out byUncle John who worked at the Factory. He knew all the neat insidejokes about the magical cures claimed in the Pinkham literature.I mostly listened and laughed when the others did.

The ingredients in Lydia's compound were nevera secret: licorice, chamomile, pleurisy root, Jamaica dogwood,black cohosh, life plant, fenugreek seed and dandelion root.Little wonder that no one ever copied or tried to imitate it. Mymother said it wasn't half bad which, of course, gave me pause tocontemplate my own beginnings.

Anyway, over the years I've lovingly acquired agoodly ration of Lydia's past advice, booklets, promotionalitems, and 77 absolutely plain looking, mostly all different,specimens of her famous 8” X 3 1/4” oval medicinebottles. I've got bottles with English, French and Spanishlabels...with many more languages to go I'm told. Several of mybottles are still full and in the original boxes with nicelabels. I've never had a sample, not even a sip. Not yet, anyway.

I was almost 12 years old when my curiosityallowed me the courage to peek in the hall medicine closet to seewhat was on one of Lydia's informative labels. After reading it,I was scared silly and prayed to God every night thereafter thatI would never have “Prolapses uteri.” I wasn'taltogether sure what a womb was back then, but I knew that Ididn't want mine to fall so that I'd have to depend on Lydia'sdreadful brown medicine to fix it.

And of course, nobody really believed thatthere was “a baby in every bottle” as thesaying went, but Uncle John, hardly a teetotaler himself, wouldgladly attest to the fact that there was up to 18% alcohol insome of those 14 1/2 ounce bottles.... sometimes more, sometimeless; but “only as a solvent,” the Pinkhampeople explained to the Government and the Women's ChristianTemperance League.

 

From left to right: Labels in French

(Canadian Market), English,

and Spanish (New York Market).

In Canada under the

"Proprietary or Patent Medicine Act"

Lydia's brew

was registered as No. 4155,

and only allowed as an

"appetite stimulant" and "general tonic."

Inside this box containing the

Vegetable Compound bottles was a pamphlet

offering a free sewing kit with

the purchase of Sanative

Wash and Constipation Pills.

All shown. c. 1930.

I'll get to my Lydia bottles in a bit, but atAmherst College where my son went to school, I understand theyonce sang a ballad about Lydia. One of the verses went somethinglike this:

“There's a baby inevery bottle, -- So the old quotation ran.

But the Federal TradeCommission -- Still insists you'll need a man.”

So, Icollect Lydia E. Pinkham bottles. Its not all that easy sincePinkham, the woman, together with her famous medicines, obviouslyovershadows the fact that all of her herbal brews were deliveredto the public in bottles which since the beginning, looked prettymuch the same. Or so one might think. If their shapes are fairlyconstant, I've collected some good evidence that a generalappearance is about as far as standardization goes. I'm apt toget picky when it come to bottles.

None of the Pinkhamfortune was apparently ever

invested in preservingLydia's first home in Lynn.

Many different bottle makers served thePinkhams from 1873 up through the 1950's Owens, Owen-Illinois,Whitall-Tatum, Holt, Cumberland, Cunningham and Kensington allleft their base markings, but many others didn't. One year thePinkham sales exceeded five million bottles so my guess is thatmore than one bottle supplier was always involved. When oneconsiders various tints and colors of glass the subtle changes inthe oval shape, neck and lip varieties, together with manydifferences in base and face embossing, it's little wonder that Ihad no trouble collecting 66 Lydia E. Pinkham bottles before Iran into anything close to a duplicate.

I admit that my Lydias are what many bottlecollectors would definitely call cheap. However, I prefer callingthem inexpensive sparklers because its kinder and I've spent afew hours cleaning them up. If they were ever in an auction,surely the catalog would call them pristine. Certain unusual orrare specimens evidence a little dump dings but having been dugthey are always more exciting to talk about.

 

I'm not a digger and don't intend to go downthat road after two knee replacement, but for quite a while nowthe good news has been that many bottle dealers at the showsoften keep Lydia Pinkham bottles under the table or at least “backhome.” I understand why they don't have them displayedamong their expensive bitters and flasks but once in a while whenthey are characterized as “throw always,” Imake an extra effort to get myself into position for a catch. Ihave my own secret resurrection formula called “SparklePlenty.”

My husband, Bob, manages to drift a few pacesaway from me whenever I ask a dealer: “Do you have anyLydia Pinkham bottles?” He needn't be so embarrassedsince I found that dealers are quite civil, patient and verypleasant no matter what the potential of a low yield sale. Infact, I made some good friends from the query and had a lot offun chasing down Lydias which they sold me for a song. Somedealers would bring them to the next show for me. Some weregifts. So there, Bob.

For a few dollars one Lydia is just like anyother. Right? Not so fast. Think what you will, but when I canget an uncommon 1880's BIMAL “Blood Purifier”a la Lydia E. Pinkham for less than a five dollar bill, that's anantique bottle bargain on anyone's ledgers. To the point, a whole year went bybefore I was forced to pay $28.00 for my second Blood Purifier.(Now that the cat's out of the bag, I would have paid morebecause it was the rare green tint variety.)

The author with somePinkham memorabilia.

Sorting out the major types of Lydia Pinkhambottles may not seem all that difficult. However, the challengeliterally balloons when significant difference among the bottlescome into consideration. Its a load, but all collectors know thatsmall differences can indicate a bottles scarcity andconsequently its relative “value” to another.It only begins to scratch the surface, but for what it's worth,the following is a general breakdown of Lydias from my owncollection and some very basic distinctions:

To begin with, all bottles starts with alengthwise embossing, the first line of which reads inapproximately 1/2” capital letters: “LYDIAE. PINKHAM'S.” The second lines, also in caps,are different and read”

1. “BLOOD PURIFIER”Heavy, medium, and delicate 1/2” print varieties exist intints and embossing positioning, and /or...

2. “BLOOD MEDICINE” Anindented border perhaps done with a slug plate surrounds theembossing in 1/2” letters. “14 1/2 OZS.” in5/16” numerals and letters appears laterally on the shoulderof the bottle above the other embossing, and /or.....

 

3. “MEDICINE”Just the one word, but the embossing is in 7/16” letters.Also, “14 1/2OZS” (With no period) is/ embossedlaterally on the shoulders in 3/8” letters and numerals. Thebottle is still oval but only 3 1/4” wide. Many variationsin the positioning of the word “Medicine” exist as wellas in the boldness and spacing between the letters, and/or...

Theauthor by the old loading platform of the original red brickPinkham Factory in Lynn, Mass.

4. “VEGETABLECOMPOUND” without “14 1/2OZS.”Again, varieties of embossing exist. It is BIMAL and/orfamily....

5. “VEGETABLECOMPOUND” with "14 1/2OZS” onthe shoulder. Again, many varieties of embossing exist. Some areBIMAL, some ABM.

All of the foregoing described LP bottles werecork stoppered, but from those five general categories, 74 of mycurrent 77 LP bottles are clearly, in some identifiable way,different from one another. I hunch that there must be more than150 different LPs. Later in the 1950s both metal and plasticscrew caps were introduced to the MEDICINE and VEGETABLECOMPOUND bottles. And, finally, a variety where thewords “Lydia E. Pinkham,” in facsimile of herown script, were embossed across one shoulder was introduced.There are other LPs which I haven't yet found but I'm working onit and I'm in the book for friendly contracts.

What's the story on the “141/2oz” shoulder embossing on many of the Medicine andVegetable Compound bottles? I'm sorry to report that so far it'smostly only a story. The Pinkham Company was attacked in 1921 bythe American Medical Association for promoting cures that itcouldn't prove. Later in 1925, it was the target of the FederalFood and Drug Administration, along with other over-the-countermedicines, to tone down its claims. One 1920s editorial in aBoston newspaper questioning company advertising claimed hermedicine was nothing more than “Sweet Extract ofHokum.”

 
This was one of the last embossings

on a Lydia bottle. (c. 1930s)

The reminder was positioned

where the Vegetable

Compound used to be.

  The differing sizes of letter, their positioning creates

many variations of the plain

"Vegetable Compound" bottle. (c.1880-1920).

The early ones were BIMAL,

but later, less numerous

ABM bottles were made.

The same diverse embossing variety holds true for the

"Vegetable Compound - 14 1/2 oz." bottle (c.1920)

These were all ABM products made by the

millions as hoped by Lydia's heirs.

Many bottle makers were involved,

most of whom left no mark

of their own on the bases.

 
At least some of Lydia's uncommon

"Blood Purifier" bottles

(c.1890) were made by

Cunningham's of Pittsburgh.

Here are two types of embossings.

While the bottles may

have contained the earliest

of Lydia's brews, there is nothing

to suggest that the ingredients

were any different from the later

Vegetable Compound mixture.

  Most of the "Medicines" were ABMs made

by Owen and Whitall-Tatum

(c.1915-1925) They all had

"14 1/2oz." on the shoulder.

Embossing variations and different

letter positionings creates

many varieties in clear,

aqua, and a rare greenish tint.

The Medicines were said to be

"springs tonics to be along

with the Vegetable Compound."

Also less common, the plain bases of the "Blood Medicines" leave no clue as to who made them.

The "14 1/2oz." shoulder embossing together with a complete

mold line through the lip, suggests a machine manufacture of the early

1920s. Lydia's "Revised Edition Private Text Book", published many years after her demise,

doesn't mention the components of the blood medicine, but its herbs were touted as

"good for biliousness, the humors, and eruptions resulting from poor blood." (And no one wanted those things - Ed.)

Part of the yarn goes on to relate that duringthe many Pinkham controversies someone pointed out that otherpatent and non-patent medicines were sold by the pint, in 16 oz.bottles and that the Pinkham bottle was structured to look like apint but was actually an ounce and one half shy. Whether fact orfiction, government pressure, voluntary or not, the flap did notchange the familiar bottle appearance. Lydia's bottles simplywent on to proudly and prominently display the 14 1/2 oz. liquidmeasure content on their shoulders. Their sales apparently nevermissed a beat.

When the Pinkham Company got into the pillbusiness in the mid-twenties, Anchor-Hocking Glass appears to bethe sole provider of small 2 1/2” and 3 1/4” amberbottles that held 24 and 72 “pink pills for palepeople,” respectively. The medicine bottles come neatlypacked in pink boxes with both English and Spanish directions.The pills were touted as “change of life aids”containing Jamaica dogwood, pleurisy root, licorice and FerrousSulfate (Iron) “also good for anemia.” Later,65 pills to “relieve constipation” were packedin the smaller sized bottle as well as in wooden matchbox-likecontainers.

Even though Lydia died in 1883, no Pinkhamproduct was ever marketed thereafter without her famous face onthe wrapper, label or box. Besides bottles I've collectedsanitative washes, pile suppositories constipation pills, liverpills, herb medicines, mouth washes and indigestion pills allwith her picture on the container and I expect to see that samepleasant visage on her Phenrin, Liniment and Pectoral Balsamproducts when I find them. Over the years, it is estimated thatthe Pinkham company spent more than 35 million dollars onadvertising her products...but always along with her face.

Astonishingly, except for the bookletliterature put out by the Pinkham Company, I could only discoverone book about my featured lady. “Lydia Pinkham Is HerName,” a biography by Jean Burton published in 1949 isan excellent piece of research on the stately life and trails ofa truly great dame. Fortunately for Lydia, she died before thedisintegration of her family. According to Burton, they foughtbitterly for control over the huge medicine fortune. And sadlyfor the bottle collector, throughout the 279 pages of Burton'sbook not once in there any mention of her diverse glasscontainers in which her products was delivered. There is a smallcollection of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles at the Lynn HistoricalSociety Museum, but again, no mention of them in four inches ofthe Society's Pinkham file material. So, dear Lydia, allow me tomention them here...just for the record....

An Epilogue

I went to the Hadley Junior High School inSwampscott, Massachusetts with Lydia's great grandson Daniel E.Pinkham, Jr. He was chauffeur driven to school with his brotherCharles in a black limousine. We never spoke, but even as a youngman, I remember that he was an unusually accomplished musicianwho entertained us at assemblies. Today at 75 years old he is apopular world famous music teacher, organist and composer. He isthe Director of Music and Choir at historic Kings Chapel inBoston....about 8 miles from his great grandmother's first home.So to quote the last words of that musical ballad as alleged byJean Burton”

“OH-H-H we'llsing of Lydia Pinkham,

And her love for theHuman Race.

How she sells herVegetable Compound,

And the papers, thepapers publish her FACE.”

Doris Linden is a retired librarian and anantique bottle and glass collector. She is presently engaged ingenealogical and historical research concerning items and eventsin her native Essex County, Massachusetts. She is active in theDanvers (Salem Village) Historical Society and a member of theDanvers Preservation Committee.


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