Contraception or Bust: Marketing Around the Comstock Laws

Blog by Diana Suciu, student at Case Western Reserve University
Essay winner, USNA 287Q Gothic Science, SAGES 2015
Instructor: Dr. Brandy Schillace

ComstockCaricature
Comic depicting Comstock: woman gave birth to a naked infant!

From the late 1800’s until the 1960’s, the distribution and acquisition of contraceptives was banned in many American States. It was a popular belief, upheld by the enactment of the Comstock Law, that contraception would lead to promiscuous behavior. Passed in 1873, the Comstock Law enforced a heavy ban on all paraphernalia or literature associated with the topics of pornography, erotica, and contraception (Sex in the City, 1840’s, Dittrick Museum). The law was named after Anthony Comstock, a man who crusaded against the ‘obscene’ and ‘immoral behaviors’ that were rampant in the streets of large American cities (People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity). Comstock embraced Victorian ideals, believing that contraception would cause men and women to act indecently and would erode the standards of morality that prevailed during the turn of the 19th century (Sex in the City, 1840’s). He was instrumental in enforcing a law in which men and women were denied legal access to contraceptives. The United States of America became the only western nation in this time period to convict citizens for the advertisement, distribution, or use of birth control (People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws).

In 1875 a woman named Lydia Pinkham made it possible to obtain abortive agents despite the ever-present contraceptives ban. Under very careful advertising, she marketed a vegetable compound for ‘the worst female complaints’ (Lydia Pinkham Vegetable Compound). Her home brewed herbal elixir was a nationwide success; women bought her product to prevent ‘uterine tumors’ or the ‘changes of life’ from causing pain to their spine or abdomen.’ Lydia Pinkham put her picture on every bottle of her product; her motherly face became a household emblem for women all across the country. She became a marketing pioneer who was widely successful in established her product, and made her name as recognizable as Coke or Heinz (Schulman, 24). Many women came to think of Lydia as a confidant who would answer their letters and would provide personal and sexual advice. Even after her death, staff members from her company would answer letters from her faithful customers (Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy).

Lydia Pinkham's Tablets
Lydia Pinkham’s Tablets

Her advertisements claimed “it will dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus in an early stage of development. The tendency to cancerous humors there is checked very speedily by its use. It removes faintness, flatulency, destroys all cravings for stimulants, and relieves weakness of the stomach” (Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.). To a modern casual observer this type of advertisement seems to be directed towards women whom experienced menstrual discomforts and similar ailments. To the Victorian reader the advertisement reads differently: the vegetable compound would cure nausea, strange cravings, and flatulence plausibly caused by unwanted growths in the uterus, and it worked particularly well if the ‘growths’ were in the early stages of development (Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.”). It was an open, but cryptic advertisement for contraceptives aimed directly at the user and was prescribed to be taken daily as a drink or a pill to give strength to a ‘woman’s system’.

Pinkham’s over the counter contraceptive made it possible for women to receive abortive agents without getting prosecuted by the Comstock Law. This made the vegetable compound a common item to be found on many women’s nightstand. Ambiguous advertising of contraceptive products became common place throughout the enforcement of the Comstock Law (Chesler, 70). Because she was hailed as a public icon, no product sold as well as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. The company still exists under a different ownership, still branded under “Lydia Pinkham” and the compound’s main ingredients have not been altered from the traditional formula. Currently, the vegetable compound is marketed towards post-menopausal women, and “Lydia Pinkham” does not acknowledge the historical usages of the herbal elixir (Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause). The company advertises that Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was formerly used for treatment of PMS and other hormone imbalances, which could be probable, considering the vague wording of the early advertisements, yet given the true historical comprehension of the advertisement, unlikely (Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause). Looking at the historical usages of the herbs versus their modern medical uses, we understand why the formula is now being used for post-menopausal symptoms and not for treating PMS. There are five main ingredients of the vegetable compound that are still the active ingredients in the current formula: Pleurisy root, Life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, and black cohosh (Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause).

FullSizeRender(3)
Another of the ‘female pills’ on display at Dittrick Museum–Dr. Bronson, for “obstruction”

Pleurisy root, also known as common milkweed, was historically used in the Americas as an oral contraceptive, as well as an anti-inflammatory agent. Modern medicine regards the herb as a mild anti-inflammatory, a reliever of coughs and mucus build up, and an estrogenic (Pleurisy Root – Herbal Encyclopedia). This root should not be consumed by pregnant women as it is dangerous for the health of a developing fetus and taken in high enough and repeated dosages can induce miscarriage. Still, the estrogenic and anti-inflammatory properties of the root make it appropriate for women going through the stresses of menopause (Pleurisy Root – Herbal Encyclopedia). Here we notice that while the compound’s main ingredients have been preserved, “Lydia Pinkham” is targeting a different market segment effectively avoiding direct competition with the latest contraceptive products. Life root, commonly known as yellow ragweed, has many medical uses. The roots have been used as an anti-inflammatory as well as a blood stimulant to help regulate the menstruation cycle and decrease menstrual pain in women. Life root root is known as an emmenagogues, a plant that stimulates blood flow to the uterus, which can stimulate menstruation or prevent pregnancy (Ragwort – Herbal Encyclopedia). Fenugreek, Unicorn Root, and Black cohosh are all forms of emmenagogues that are currently not recommended to be consumed by pregnant women, and have historically been used as abortive agents. Emmenagogues also have strong estrogenic properties and can be used as an alternative for women who cannot take hormone replacement therapy for menopause (Black Cohosh). Just like Coke & Heinz, Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound survived the passage of time and successfully redefined itself to a new consumer group without exposing its weakness by competing head-to-head with a modernly engineered contraceptive drug. The compound was the right medicine for the time when the Comstock Law blocked legal access to contraceptives.

Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was sold by all druggists and apothecaries throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.”). Her product sold millions of bottles, and Mrs. Pinkham became a strong public figure. She was able to give advice to women on sexuality and personal care. Also, she drew attention to serious female medical issues that were being ignored by standard medical practice. Without the Comstock Law men would have had access to condoms and women to diaphragms, and her medicine may have not been so successful. In an ironic manor, what should have stopped her, created a need in the market. As much as a progressive woman like Lydia Pinkham had to despair at the Comstock Law, it also created new possibilities for women to find social progress despite political oppression.

Works Cited

“Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.” Ad from 1881 for Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. Web. 4 Feb. 2015. <http://www.mum.org/mrspink3.htm&gt;.

“Black Cohosh.” University of Maryland Medical Center. Web. 7 Feb. 2015. <http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/black-cohosh&gt;.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. 70-75. Print.

“Dietary Supplements and Pharmaceutical Products for Birth Control, PMS and Menopause.” LydiaPinkahm.org. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <http://www.lydiapinkham.com/&gt;.

Dittrick Museum. “Lydia Pinkham Vegetable Compound”. Case Western Reserve university: Dittrick Museum,2015. Placard

Dittrick Museum. “Sex in the City, 1840’s”. Case Western Reserve university: Dittrick Museum,2015. Placard

“Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy.” Museum of Health Care Blog. 19 June 2014. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <https://museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/lydia-e-pinkham-life-and-legacy/&gt;.

“People & Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws.” PBS. PBS. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/e_comstock.html&gt;.

“Pleurisy Root – Herbal Encyclopedia.” Herbal Encyclopedia. 28 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://www.cloverleaffarmherbs.com/pleurisy-root/&gt;.

“Ragwort – Herbal Encyclopedia.” Herbal Encyclopedia. 28 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://www.cloverleaffarmherbs.com/ragwort/&gt;.

Schulman, Bruce J. Making the American Century: Essays on the Political Culture of Twentieth Century America. Oxford: Oxford UP, USA, 2014.20-24 Print.

Published by

Brandy Schillace

Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

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