Lydia is in town! No one really knows for sure when Lydia arrived in Govert, South Dakota. She didn't arrive by buckboard or on horseback with any of the original homesteaders, back when the roads were little more than trails. One of those early homesteaders was a widower and the other men were bachelors. Lydia must have cut a striking figure, even though she was the mother of grown children. She was tall and slim, had reddish hair. She was a suffragist, anti-slavery, and pro-temperance. You'd think Lydia's arrival would have created a stir, if not for her appearance, at least for her unapologetic politics. How could anyone have missed her entrance in Govert, South Dakota?
No parade. No banners. No staring men. No fanfare at all. Lydia's introduction to Govert, South Dakota, was modest. Not even a hawdooyawdoo. Lydia probably arrived in 1911, about the same time the earliest homesteading bachelors grew tired of their own cooking and took wives. Or maybe Lydia arrived in 1913, riding in the wagon with Lora Giese and Lora's married sister, Clara Hafner. The women traveled to Govert from Presho, South Dakota, accompanied by Clara's husband, Pete Hafner, and his brother, Bill, the Hafner children, and a herd of horses and another herd of cattle. Lora was to marry Bill and become the Govert midwife and the town's primary medical practitioner. Both Lora and red-headed Lydia were concerned about women's health.
Just who was this Lydia? Lydia became a friend to the women who would settle in Govert. Lydia Pinkham arrived in Govert, South Dakota, as a picture on the cardboard box containing a bottle of patent medicine. This was the one medicine bottle you might find in every homestead shack in the neighborhood of Govert, South Dakota. At least every homestead shack tended by a woman.
Perhaps the reason for the modesty of Lydia's arrival was the private ... perhaps even mysterious ... nature of the conditions she treated. Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound most assuredly cured every female ailment relating to m-e-n-s-t-r-u-a-t-i-o-n at the beginning of womanhood to the complete absence thereof at the further end of life. Lydia Pinkham was in the medicine basket of millions of women in America. One tablespoon every four hours in the privacy of your own home.
The recipe for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound is not a secret.
8 ounces unicorn root (Aletris farinosa L.)
6 ounces life root (Senecio aureus L.)
6 ounces black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa L. Nutt.)
6 ounces pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa L.)
12 ounces fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.)
18% alcohol for 100 pints
What was Lydia Pinkham thinking? Eighteen percent alcohol? Lydia was a Quaker, for Pete's sake, and she supported temperance. Get over it, as Lydia was thinking quite clearly. The goal of temperance was to remove alcohol as an agitator of violence in families, not to eliminate medicinal use. Alcohol was used, and is still used, as a preservative and to hold in suspension ingredients that would not normally mix. A tablespoon of Lydia's compound had less of a wallop than some of our favorite cough syrups of recent years past.
Any issue of alcohol content fades when you consider the surprisingly accurate choice of herbs. Lydia really was on to something when it came to the herbs she was using. The herbs had an anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory effect, and black cohosh remains a respected and commonly relied upon herbal remedy today.
Whether Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound worked or not, and evidence suggests it did, the early advertising claims (here from 1880) would not have passed the scrutiny of the US Food and Drug Administration today:
Lydia Pinkham had benevolent intentions when she started manufacturing her vegetable compound. No one but women much cared about women's problems, certainly not the male medical establishment. So women chose to self-medicate, mixing their own herbal remedies. Lydia's remedy worked and, with the encouragement of the friends Lydia supplied with her remedy, Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound reached the mass market in 1875. The practice of medicine would improve in the 35 years before Govert, South Dakota, was founded, but the women of Govert would still have cause to self-medicate as no doctor set up an office in that community.
The claims may have been puffery, the alcohol content may have raised eyebrows, but what Lydia sold gave women relief, equally when formulated as pills. Although Lydia Pinkham's is not stocked by my corner drugstore, NuMark laboratories sells both tablets and the liquid formulation on-line ... making this a respectable 138 year run. Lydia Pinkham's formulation has changed somewhat, but the pleurisy root and black cohosh are still there ... so is the picture on the box of the woman with reddish hair. Maybe it's worth a try.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Written with gratitude to Harding County History Book (2013) Hafner Family submissions]