Lydia Pinkham, Cobourg’s Forgotten Entrepreneur

Photo courtesy of Cobourg Library

The Lydia Pinkham business manufactured palliatives for various ills, especially female complaints. The business started when Massachusetts born Lydia Estes Pinkham, with her sons in 1875 began selling her home brewed patent medicine known as Lydia Estes Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Born in Lynn Massachusetts, she was the 10th of 12 children of William and Rebecca Estes. Born in 1819, she worked as a school teacher after gaining her education at the Lynn Academy and joined the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society at the early age of 16. In 1843 she married twenty-nine year old Isaac Pinkham, a shoe manufacturer.

Their first child was Charles Hacker Pinkham, followed by Daniel Rogers Pinkham, William Chase Pinkham and a daughter Araline Chase Pinkham. All of the children eventually became involved in the family business. Lydia’s daughter Araline Pinkham Chase Grove went on to found the Lydia Estes Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem Massachusetts, to provide health services to young women and children. Lydia was well known as a recipe collector, mostly for ‘female complaints’ and gave them away to friends and neighbors. Her husband Isaac was financially ruined in the depression of the early 1870’s. Now destitute, the idea of a family business was formed. Lydia made the remedy in her basement stove and was so successful production was soon moved to a factory in Lynn. Mass marketed from 1876, the Lydia Estes Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound eventually went to become one of the best known patent medicines of the century.

Lydia Pinkham’s famous compound was known to me made up of the unicorn root, life root, black cohash, pleurisy root and fenugreeks, suspended in 18% alcohol. These ingredients changed over the years, but it as said the alcohol content remained constant as a preservative for the vegetable mixture. While there are skeptics who considered the Lydia Pinkham vegetable compound as a ‘quack’ medicine that’s not the case, in fact some of these ingredients are still used today by alternative, naturopathic and traditional Chinese medicines to treat health problems today.

The Pinkham Company was so successful in the United States, the family opened a Canadian Branch in Cobourg Ontario in 1917. The Pinkham’s purchased a red brick building that once was owned by the County of Northumberland Model School located on University Avenue, just north-east of Spring Street, a former training school for teachers. It was here that the Lydia Pinkham Company manufactured their products for almost fifty years. Around 1962 with sales on the decline the parent company in Massachusetts decided to close the Canadian branch in Cobourg Ontario.

Surprisingly another Cobourg company, Bird Archer purchased the Lydia Pinkham rights and continued to manufacture the products for the Canadian market. This was a most unusual partner for Pinkham products as the Bird Archer plant’s primary business was the manufacture of water treatment chemicals but production continued until 1977. At about this time the Lydia Estes Pinkham Company closed in the U.S. and Cooper Laboratories of Pleasantville California obtained the rights and continued producing the Pinkham products into the first decade of the 21 century. Pills and liquids based on the original Pinkham recipe were available in pharmacies without alcohol.

For the next thirty years a number of tenants occupied the Cobourg Pinkham building, the Ranger well remembers the Triangle Plumbing and the Nyberg Plumbing Companies operating there. In 1998 the handsome brick building covered in ivies was demolished for the expansion of the long-time Cobourg Thomas Motor’s auto dealership on University Avenue.

Regards, Ranger

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