ANOTHER "GREAT FEATURE ARTICLE" FROM THE PAGES OF
ANTIQUE BOTTLE AND GLASS COLLECTOR MAGAZINE
THE MAGAZINE OF THE ANTIQUE BOTTLE COLLECTING HOBBY
A BABY IN EVERY BOTTLE? The Story of Lydia Pinkham
ebay by Doris B. Linden nasa
Gathering Lydia E. Pinkham memorabilia probably doesn't rank 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 her times. Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas and many others were not strangers to the Pinkham household. Her name, picture and medicine became world famous and they allowed her brothers, sons, and grandchildren to successfully market her vegetable compound via a 14 1/2 oz. bottle well into the 20th century. And their efforts left a challenging trail of bottles for me to collect.
I grew up within a few miles of the red brick Lydia Pinkham bottling plant at 305 Western Avenue in Lynn, Massachusetts. It's still there even though the original company is long gone. The house where Lydia first brewed her potion on the kitchen stove is just up the street at number 271. It's neglected, dilapidated and a small sign is all that identifies the home of the famous lady who once lived there.
For years my Thanksgiving dinner would hardly have been complete without a Lydia Pinkham yarn spelled out by Uncle John who worked at the Factory. He knew all the neat inside jokes 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 never a 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. My mother said it wasn't half bad which, of course, gave me pause to contemplate my own beginnings.
Anyway, over the years I've lovingly acquired a goodly ration of Lydia's past advice, booklets, promotional items, and 77 absolutely plain looking, mostly all different, specimens of her famous 8 X 3 1/4 oval medicine bottles. I've got bottles with English, French and Spanish labels...with many more languages to go I'm told. Several of my bottles are still full and in the original boxes with nice labels. I've never had a sample, not even a sip. Not yet, anyway.
I was almost 12 years old when my curiosity allowed me the courage to peek in the hall medicine closet to see what was on one of Lydia's informative labels. After reading it, I was scared silly and prayed to God every night thereafter that I would never have Prolapses uteri. I wasn't altogether sure what a womb was back then, but I knew that I didn't want mine to fall so that I'd have to depend on Lydia's dreadful brown medicine to fix it.
And of course, nobody really believed that there was a baby in every bottle as the saying went, but Uncle John, hardly a teetotaler himself, would gladly attest to the fact that there was up to 18% alcohol in some of those 14 1/2 ounce bottles.... sometimes more, sometime less; but only as a solvent, the Pinkham people explained to the Government and the Women's Christian Temperance 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"
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 at Amherst College where my son went to school, I understand they once sang a ballad about Lydia. One of the verses went something like this:
There's a baby in every bottle, -- So the old quotation ran.
But the Federal Trade Commission -- Still insists you'll need a man.
So, I collect Lydia E. Pinkham bottles. Its not all that easy since Pinkham, the woman, together with her famous medicines, obviously overshadows the fact that all of her herbal brews were delivered to the public in bottles which since the beginning, looked pretty much the same. Or so one might think. If their shapes are fairly constant, I've collected some good evidence that a general appearance is about as far as standardization goes. I'm apt to get picky when it come to bottles.
None of the Pinkham fortune was apparently ever
invested in preserving Lydia's first home in Lynn.
Many different bottle makers served the Pinkhams from 1873 up through the 1950's Owens, Owen-Illinois, Whitall-Tatum, Holt, Cumberland, Cunningham and Kensington all left their base markings, but many others didn't. One year the Pinkham sales exceeded five million bottles so my guess is that more than one bottle supplier was always involved. When one considers various tints and colors of glass the subtle changes in the oval shape, neck and lip varieties, together with many differences in base and face embossing, it's little wonder that I had no trouble collecting 66 Lydia E. Pinkham bottles before I ran into anything close to a duplicate.
I admit that my Lydias are what many bottle collectors would definitely call cheap. However, I prefer calling them inexpensive sparklers because its kinder and I've spent a few hours cleaning them up. If they were ever in an auction, surely the catalog would call them pristine. Certain unusual or rare specimens evidence a little dump dings but having been dug they are always more exciting to talk about.
I'm not a digger and don't intend to go down that road after two knee replacement, but for quite a while now the good news has been that many bottle dealers at the shows often keep Lydia Pinkham bottles under the table or at least back home. I understand why they don't have them displayed among their expensive bitters and flasks but once in a while when they are characterized as throw always, I make an extra effort to get myself into position for a catch. I have my own secret resurrection formula called Sparkle Plenty.
My husband, Bob, manages to drift a few paces away from me whenever I ask a dealer: Do you have any Lydia Pinkham bottles? He needn't be so embarrassed since I found that dealers are quite civil, patient and very pleasant no matter what the potential of a low yield sale. In fact, I made some good friends from the query and had a lot of fun chasing down Lydias which they sold me for a song. Some dealers would bring them to the next show for me. Some were gifts. So there, Bob.
For a few dollars one Lydia is just like any other. Right? Not so fast. Think what you will, but when I can get an uncommon 1880's BIMAL Blood Purifier a la Lydia E. Pinkham for less than a five dollar bill, that's an antique bottle bargain on anyone's ledgers. To the point, a whole year went by before 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 more because it was the rare green tint variety.)
The author with some Pinkham memorabilia.
Sorting out the major types of Lydia Pinkham bottles may not seem all that difficult. However, the challenge literally balloons when significant difference among the bottles come into consideration. Its a load, but all collectors know that small differences can indicate a bottles scarcity and consequently 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 own collection and some very basic distinctions:
To begin with, all bottles starts with a lengthwise embossing, the first line of which reads in approximately 1/2 capital letters: LYDIA E. PINKHAM'S. The second lines, also in caps, are different and read
1. BLOOD PURIFIER Heavy, medium, and delicate 1/2 print varieties exist in tints and embossing positioning, and /or...
2. BLOOD MEDICINE An indented border perhaps done with a slug plate surrounds the embossing in 1/2 letters. 14 1/2 OZS. in 5/16 numerals and letters appears laterally on the shoulder of 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/ embossed laterally on the shoulders in 3/8 letters and numerals. The bottle is still oval but only 3 1/4 wide. Many variations in the positioning of the word Medicine exist as well as in the boldness and spacing between the letters, and/or...
The author by the old loading platform of the original red brick Pinkham Factory in Lynn, Mass.
4. VEGETABLE COMPOUND without 14 1/2OZS. Again, varieties of embossing exist. It is BIMAL and/or family....
5. VEGETABLE COMPOUND with "14 1/2OZS on the shoulder. Again, many varieties of embossing exist. Some are BIMAL, some ABM.
All of the foregoing described LP bottles were cork stoppered, but from those five general categories, 74 of my current 77 LP bottles are clearly, in some identifiable way, different from one another. I hunch that there must be more than 150 different LPs. Later in the 1950s both metal and plastic screw caps were introduced to the MEDICINE and VEGETABLE COMPOUND bottles. And, finally, a variety where the words Lydia E. Pinkham, in facsimile of her own script, were embossed across one shoulder was introduced. There are other LPs which I haven't yet found but I'm working on it and I'm in the book for friendly contracts.
What's the story on the 14 1/2oz shoulder embossing on many of the Medicine and Vegetable Compound bottles? I'm sorry to report that so far it's mostly only a story. The Pinkham Company was attacked in 1921 by the American Medical Association for promoting cures that it couldn't prove. Later in 1925, it was the target of the Federal Food and Drug Administration, along with other over-the-counter medicines, to tone down its claims. One 1920s editorial in a Boston newspaper questioning company advertising claimed her medicine was nothing more than Sweet Extract of Hokum.
|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
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
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 during the many Pinkham controversies someone pointed out that other patent and non-patent medicines were sold by the pint, in 16 oz. bottles and that the Pinkham bottle was structured to look like a pint but was actually an ounce and one half shy. Whether fact or fiction, government pressure, voluntary or not, the flap did not change the familiar bottle appearance. Lydia's bottles simply went on to proudly and prominently display the 14 1/2 oz. liquid measure content on their shoulders. Their sales apparently never missed a beat.
When the Pinkham Company got into the pill business in the mid-twenties, Anchor-Hocking Glass appears to be the sole provider of small 2 1/2 and 3 1/4 amber bottles that held 24 and 72 pink pills for pale people, respectively. The medicine bottles come neatly packed 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 Ferrous Sulfate (Iron) also good for anemia. Later, 65 pills to relieve constipation were packed in the smaller sized bottle as well as in wooden matchbox-like containers.
Even though Lydia died in 1883, no Pinkham product was ever marketed thereafter without her famous face on the wrapper, label or box. Besides bottles I've collected sanitative washes, pile suppositories constipation pills, liver pills, herb medicines, mouth washes and indigestion pills all with her picture on the container and I expect to see that same pleasant visage on her Phenrin, Liniment and Pectoral Balsam products when I find them. Over the years, it is estimated that the Pinkham company spent more than 35 million dollars on advertising her products...but always along with her face.
Astonishingly, except for the booklet literature put out by the Pinkham Company, I could only discover one book about my featured lady. Lydia Pinkham Is Her Name, a biography by Jean Burton published in 1949 is an excellent piece of research on the stately life and trails of a truly great dame. Fortunately for Lydia, she died before the disintegration of her family. According to Burton, they fought bitterly for control over the huge medicine fortune. And sadly for the bottle collector, throughout the 279 pages of Burton's book not once in there any mention of her diverse glass containers in which her products was delivered. There is a small collection of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles at the Lynn Historical Society Museum, but again, no mention of them in four inches of the Society's Pinkham file material. So, dear Lydia, allow me to mention them here...just for the record....
I went to the Hadley Junior High School in Swampscott, Massachusetts with Lydia's great grandson Daniel E. Pinkham, Jr. He was chauffeur driven to school with his brother Charles in a black limousine. We never spoke, but even as a young man, I remember that he was an unusually accomplished musician who entertained us at assemblies. Today at 75 years old he is a popular world famous music teacher, organist and composer. He is the Director of Music and Choir at historic Kings Chapel in Boston....about 8 miles from his great grandmother's first home. So to quote the last words of that musical ballad as alleged by Jean Burton
OH-H-H we'll sing of Lydia Pinkham,
And her love for the Human Race.
How she sells her Vegetable Compound,
And the papers, the papers publish her FACE.
Doris Linden is a retired librarian and an antique bottle and glass collector. She is presently engaged in genealogical and historical research concerning items and events in her native Essex County, Massachusetts. She is active in the Danvers (Salem Village) Historical Society and a member of the Danvers Preservation Committee.
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