Thursday, September 12, 2013

!! Lydia Arrives in Govert, South Dakota !!

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:
The advertising vocabulary changed as the years passed, only to cast a wider net to include women who were tired and overworked, an apparent epidemic condition that marked the times and, by definition, included every woman who lived on the prairie. A fatigue epidemic may only have increased demand for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound in Govert Van der Boom's store in Govert, South Dakota.

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]


  1. Sweetheart,

    Again this week you've given us a fascinating, informative, entertaining, and well-written blog entry. Thanks, dear. Your blog articles are a pleasure to read, and are certainly worth looking forward to from week-to-week.

    I'd never heard of Lydia Pinkham until fairly recently when I read a short item in the local newspaper about Lydia's tonic being a cure-all for "female derangement." The many varied conditions mentioned in the 1880 advertisement you included in your article...ulceration, floodings, displacements, spinal weakness, nervous prostration, general debility...surely could lead someone to be "deranged"! In fact, although I doubt any man ever considered taking Lydia's tonic, it would seem to have been helpful for men too...bloating, headaches, indigestion, flatulency, sleeplessness, depression, backache...a laundry list for "male derangement"?!

    Again this week you've taught us something interesting, and given us a glimpse of life in Govert and about some of its residents. You are doing an exceptional job of following through with your basic intent and purpose for which you began your Govert blog site.

  2. Being from far overseas I might even have a better excuse than Russ has in never even having heard about Lydia Pinkham. And that he recently read about her and her amazing tonic is some coincidence!
    I can picture it very well from your narrative and you had me there in the beginning, I have to admit. I thought you were speaking of a real person. Which was, of course, exactly how you meant to write this little gem :-)
    Picture it very well, but still... People say, a picture paints a thousands words, so I went to our trusted companion who seems to know so much about Govert SD: Mister Google and 'googled' Lydia.
    Now I don't know it this (photolink below) will work but there are pictures of the lady herself and of her products. Very entertaining, like this week's blog. Thanks for this interesting enlightenment, Kate.

    1. Hans, you found a lovely picture of Lydia. Thank you for posting a link for the picture here. I like this picture much better than the drawing on the box of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. What a woman! This is a woman I would have liked to meet.

  3. Everyone has been very kind in their comments since I started this blog about Govert, South Dakota. I am grateful for your encouragement. In return, I encourage even more interaction among those who are following the stories of Govert. What medicines do you remember being in the medicine cabinet? If you are among the very lucky, and still have your grandparents, ask them.

  4. Ooooh, we'll drink-a drink-a drink to Lyddie the Pink the Pink the Pink....
    Now I've got that song going through my head all day, thanks to you!

    As far as other medicines - yes there were a few odd ones, it would seem that way now. There was glycerine to get things moving, it was also good to put on your hands. There was camphor for your chest cold,(not as good as a mustard plaster, mind you) Carter's Little Liver Pills, witch hazel,
    and boric acid which has many uses. My mother made a solution of it and used it to rinse Grandpa George's eyes when they were irritated. It's a real all around antiseptic, see for more. Milk of Magnesia in the blue bottle was a staple too. Castoria and cod liver oil for the kids. I may think of more later!


    1. Elaine, I was able to banish the song ... until I saw your comment. The early versions of the Ballad to Lydia Pinkham were pretty ribald. If anyone would like to hear a more polite, more contemporary version try this: (BUT WARNING: the song will be running through your head all day long.)

      Your Mom had a wonderful medicine cabinet, Elaine. My Mom tells me that her mother stuck with cod liver oil. Mom was a good little girl, swallowing it down even when rancid.

    2. Hmm, cod liver oil. "Levertraan" in Dutch. Brrr. The best for every kid and indispensable to your children's health. Sure, and I'm also sure every kid positively hated it. I remember we used to get it on a spoon, straight from the bottle with all its horrible taste. Later some kind soul somewhere invented capsules and you could swallow it without the horrible taste. But, if you ever had the real stuff, you -- of course -- kept tasting it despite the fact it was now in a 'tasteless' capsule :-)

  5. Oh, and a few drops of coal oil on a spoonful of sugar for a cough. It didn't taste bad at all and it worked.




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