Fruits, Candies, and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound
Some time ago, when I was poking around in the dusty archives looking for candy cookbooks with recipes for vegetable candy, I came across a curious item: Fruits and Candies, a recipe booklet from the early 1900s. It was published as a promotion for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a popular women’s “medicinal tonic” in the early 1900s consisting of various herbs and alcohol (18-20 percent, stronger than a big California Cabernet but about half as strong as Bacardi white rum).
This booklet features two sorts of entries: recipes for candies and sweet fruit desserts, and testimonials from ladies whose “female complaints” have been cured by a regular dosing with the Vegetable Compound. So one page offers a recipe for Maple Fondant, followed by a testimonial on the sorrows of childlessness and their alleviation with Lydia Pinkham’s. Another page gives instructions for Buttercups and Molasses Candy, and then a discursus on Painful Monthly Periods and the use of Vegetable Compound to alleviate them.
What struck me when I first saw this booklet was the complete strangeness of this juxtaposition. I filed this away under “hmmm.” Surely this odd combination must mean something, but what it meant I couldn’t yet fathom.
Now I think I have a much better idea. I have been reading about the “pure food” reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and particularly the women’s groups that organized against alcohol, drug abuse, and tainted food. These are the grass roots activists whose efforts brought us both Prohibition (something of a catastrophe) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (the FDA–not perfect, but one of the better consumer protection success stories of our time).
One big worry of many reformers in that era was the “patent” medicines: tonics and concoctions made of who-knows-what, peddled in carts and storefronts and by mail, and often containing narcotics (morphine, laudenum, cocaine, alcohol) that led the unsuspecting user who was just looking for a little “pick-me-up” down the merry path of addiction and ruin. The abuse of what the reformers called “habit-forming poisons” was not the intentional and direct narcotic abuse of opium dens or seamy city streets. Customers for the patent formulas were fancy ladies looking for a boost after a night on the town, exhausted mothers just trying to cope, women considered “nervous” or “weak” who saw in the tonics a cure for the mysterious ailments of femininity.
So one thing the Fruits and Candies booklet tells us is that the “target market” for Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was just those middle class women with the leisure and inclination to dabble in home confections. Somehow, these same women were the ones with numerous and sundry female complaints. And this is the interesting part, to me at least: the connection between middle class leisure, feminine complaint, and confectionery.
The reformers looked at Lidia Pinkham and the rest and saw addictive potions that would only make things worse. What these women needed was fresh air, good food, and exercise, not 20 percent alcohol “tonics.” One reformer in particular stands out: Ella Kellogg (1853-1920). Ella was the wife of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (he who brought us corn flakes breakfast cereal), and like her husband she took a strong interest in the importance of good nutrition. Ella believed that it was just those dainty confections that were causing all that nervous female illness. For Ella Kellogg, it was poor nutrition that led to the complaints that caused women to seek relief in the tonics.
Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound and candy-making: to Ella Kellogg, the connection would have been quite clear. All that candy eating was making women sick, and sick women were turning to Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. To the innocent eye, Fruits and Candies is just advertising packaged to appeal to women by including women’s recipes. To Ella Kellogg and her sisters-in-arms, Fruits and Candies was everything that was wrong with American women.
More: You can browse a full digitized version of Fruits and Candies at Duke University Special Collections. For more on Ella Kellogg’s views of the relation between nutrition and the “patent” medicines so popular in the late nineteenth century, see Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (1999) (Sorry, this one is a paper book only, no link. Aren’t you glad we still have actual libraries? I am).
Image source: Vanderbilt Medical Center, via Wikipedia.