by Sarah Stage
W. W. Norton
Illustrations, 304 pages, $10.95
This entertaining history of the Lydia Pinkham company is much more than simply an account of that ubiquitous lady and her Vegetable Compound. It is also an expert review of the sorry state of nineteenth-century medicine; a story of Lydia’s unloving descendants squabbling for control of the company she had founded; and a description, based on exhaustive company archives (the first such records ever made public by a patent medicine company), of the unctuous and devious methods developed to sell the stuff. The pitch may have been dubious, but Sarah Stage says that women before 1900 were probably well advised to “let doctors alone,” as Lydia Pinkham cautioned, and to rely instead on her mildly alcoholic, but otherwise innocuous, brew.