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By Lori Copeland
Steeple Hill Copyright © 2007 Lori Copeland
All right reserved.
Dignity, Texas August 1876
“Ladies, ladies! Please! May I have your attention! There’s no need to shove! There’s plenty to go around for all!”
As Lydia Pinkham shouted to gain order, April stood behind a long table piled high with bottles of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, eager to sell to those brave enough to try the revolutionary new cure-all for female complaints.
“Sickness is as unnecessary as crime,” Lydia declared as the women pressed closer, trying to get a better look at the small brown bottles. “And if I may be so bold, no woman should be condemned to suffer when there is a curative readily available!”
Eyes widening, the women drew back as if a snake had bitten them.
“Ladies, ladies! Don’t be alarmed. The Pinkham Compound is a special formula of nature’s own elements,” Lydia explained.
Having accepted April’s offer, Mrs. Pinkham and her entourage had arrived late yesterday afternoon. The women of Dignity were about to be catapulted into the modern age. Lydia was clearly skilled in marketing. Offering her product directly to women seemed to be a shrewd sales tactic.
Ladies were hesitant to talk about such things, but the group who’d come today to hear Mrs. Pinkham’s theories onwomen’s health issues seemed eager to learn what the product would do. April was excited by the response and delighted to be part of the Pinkham team.
Lydia brewed her compound on a stove in the cellar of her home. The rows of brown bottles lined up on the table in front of April had labels detailing all the ailments the tonic could cure.
Lydia was usually too busy making the compound and writing advertising copy to conduct a rally herself, but she’d decided to take the campaign on the road to the Houston area.
April considered today a plus. Since Grandpa was unaware of her involvement, she was relieved when the small Pinkham entourage—Lydia; two of her sons, Dan and Will; Henry Trampas Long and April herself— had left Dignity to conduct sales in a small town closer to Houston.
So far, Dignity residents chose to overlook her involvement with Mrs. Pinkham in order to keep word of her activities from an aging Riley. The town mortician and cofounder was narrow-minded on the subject of Pinkham’s Compound.
“The perfect woman,” Lydia continued, “should experience no pain, but that individual would be rare indeed.”
Lydia Pinkham’s sad but compelling eyes met the gaze of every woman in attendance as she walked the length of the table, holding aloft a bottle of her vegetable compound high for all to see. Tall placards held by Dan and Will displayed copies of advertisements that had run in newspapers in Houston. The headlines decried the major complaints of women of the day. I Am Not Well Enough to Work, one stated, followed by the photo of a contrite woman standing before an angry husband who had no dinner waiting on the table and no clean shirts in the wardrobe. In the descriptive, Lydia E. Pinkham offered her “sympathy and aid,” but reminded readers that there was a ready remedy. Lydia E. Pink-ham’s Vegetable Compound would, the ad stated, “restore to vigorous health the lives of those previously sorely distressed.”
Another claim boldly stated Operations Avoided; another, I’m Simply All Worn-out, followed by the picture of a woman who had collapsed from fatigue.
Yet another touted Social Tragedy—Women Who Brave Death for Social Honors, detailing how one very socially prominent woman suddenly leaped from her chair with a scream of agony, then fell insensible to the floor. The doctor told the victim’s husband that she was suffering from an acute case of nervous prostration, and hinted that an operation would be necessary.
Fortunately, a friend suggested Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.
Surgery was avoided.
The din was growing louder, and Lydia raised her voice to be heard above it. April shifted from one foot to the other, wishing she’d worn more comfortable shoes.
The pandemonium only verified how badly women needed the Pinkham cure.
More than once during the brief time she’d been working for Lydia, April had wanted to sink right into the ground when pandemonium broke out. Sometimes containers were knocked over and broken as women clamored for a little brown bottle that would change their lives. Selling to customers who pushed, shoved and made it impossible to conduct business in an orderly fashion unnerved April.
But she believed in what Mrs. Pinkham was doing, so she wouldn’t think of giving up her job. She not only took pride in her work, but was earning her own money for the first time in her life. It gave her a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
As Lydia continued to lecture, Will Pinkham passed out the “Guide for Women” leaflets to ladies who were not as convinced as Mrs. Pinkham that their ailments should be openly discussed in a public forum, even among other females.
The babble was getting louder, and a couple of the attendees were red-faced.
Lydia continued, “I wish every woman who feels dissatisfied with her lot would realize that she is sick, and take steps to cure herself. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound will make you cheerful, happy, eager to meet your husband’s wishes. Ladies! Once more you will realize the joys of your home!You will have found your true vocation—to be a devoted wife and loving mother!”
“It’s hard to believe that a compound could do all that!” a tall, raw-boned woman called from the back of the crowd.
Lydia, thin lips pursed, her face pale except for the two coins of high color on her cheekbones, leveled a look at the individual who would dare to question her claims. “Have you tried the product, dear lady?”
The woman shrank back. “Not yet.”
April readied copies of the four-page “Helps for Women” pamphlet that Lydia and her sons had printed to encourage sales.
Glancing up, April took an involuntary step backward when three women in the crowd voiced their skepticism about the claims, declaring them nonsense.
“It just doesn’t seem proper to talk about female complaints so boldly in the newspaper for everyone to read,” a deep voice interjected.
April mentally groaned when she saw Gray Fuller join the crowd. Having stationed himself conspicuously to her right, he stood, arms folded, a scowl on his handsome features as he listened to the sales pitch.
Dr. Fuller had made quite a stir when he’d moved to Dignity a month ago. Speculation ran rampant about him, and about why he’d chosen a small coastal town to establish a practice.
Then there were his looks.
No kind, comfortable country doctor, this man. Tall and lean, he wore his “city clothes” like one of those men in the catalog in Pearl Mason’s mercantile. Even Beulah said that the rich, dark brown hair that the young doctor wore just a shade too long was outrageously attractive. From what she’d heard, every single woman in a twenty-mile radius was making a fool of herself over Dr. Gray Fuller.
What is he doing here? April thought resentfully, squirming at the expectation that he might recognize her as the woman he’d seen at a distance at the mortuary. He and Grandpa had struck up an instant friendship, and for the past week visited nightly on the mortuary side porch. She purposely steered clear of them during the doctor’s nocturnal visits, preferring to keep a safe distance between her and any doctor. But still, he could have gotten enough of a look at her to associate her with Riley….
Slouching behind the table covered with bottles of compound, April prayed he wouldn’t recognize her.
Standing back from the crowd, Gray listened with growing skepticism as Lydia Pinkham make her sales pitch.
The majority of the women present this morning were older, he observed.
His eyes narrowed as he studied the young woman with honey-brown hair crouched down behind the table stacked with bottles of elixir. Her captivating eyes were the color of bluebonnets growing wild along the roadside, he decided. Studying her for a moment, he tried to place her.
He’d seen her before.
But where? She looked a lot like the elusive woman he’d seen in the shadows when he visited Riley at the mortuary.
Since coming to Dignity a month earlier, Gray had seen a sea of new faces. But this one…yes, he was sure he’d noticed her somewhere before.
Focusing on the speaker, he listened to Pinkham’s outrageous claims. He was relieved that druggists were reluctant to display the Pinkham posters or sell the compound. He was told many women refused to read the pamphlets because the explicit language embarrassed them.
It was a good thing. Women in pain, who had seen family members and friends debilitated by health problems, were vulnerable. Open to all kinds of shysters who promised relief.
It was ridiculous how someone could cook up a batch of weeds on the stove, bottle it and peddle it as a “cure.” More often than not such concoctions worked against normal bodily function.
Still, snake-oil salesmen were often successful. Public trust in the medical profession had dropped so low that women were beginning to abandon doctors in favor of charlatans such as Lydia who promised a non-surgical option.
He regarded Mrs. Pinkham and her kind as overzealous, pure and simple. She, and others like her, was a great part of the reason he’d decided to practice in a rural area rather than Houston.
If he could convince people to trust well-schooled physicians, then he could save lives. That wasn’t always possible, but he was dedicated to eliminating needless death.
Gray suspected that Mrs. Pinkham’s effort to sell her medicine was not born of a need to help the sick. The Pinkhams were victims of the financial panic of September 1873. After the banking house of Jay Cooke failed, credit had frozen, factories shut down, businesses folded and wage workers had faced a winter of starvation. Isaac Pinkham, Lydia’s husband, was one of the thousands who’d seen their speculative ventures fold. When the banking industry fell on hard times, Cooke’s had foreclosed and threatened to arrest those unable to pay their overdue bills.
Isaac Pinkham had collapsed under the threat of losing everything he’d spent his life accumulating. When the bank’s attorney, who turned out to be a distant relative of the Pinkhams, arrived to serve notice of foreclosure, the family had persuaded him to spare Isaac the embarrassment of arrest and jail because of his illness.
Isaac had not improved; Dan, one of the sons, had lost his grocery store and went into bankruptcy; son Will had given up his plans to attend Harvard and was working as a wool-puller.
Charlie, another Pinkham son, was working as a conductor on the horse cars, along with helping the family endeavor. Daughter Aroline, who had just graduated from high school, helped support the family by teaching.
The Pinkhams had given up their grand house in Glenmere and moved to a smaller home on Western Avenue in Lynn, and recently, with what little resources they possessed, begun their vegetable compound effort. Marketing the elixir was now a family venture. Everyone contributed to the enterprise. Dan and Will provided the brains and sinew. Lydia made the medicine. Charles and Aroline turned over their wages to help pay for herbs. And together, Will and Lydia had worked up advertising copy and put out relevant pamphlets. Even Isaac contributed. Sitting in his rocker, he folded and bundled the pamphlets for Dan to hand out.
Gray was told that at first Lydia had made the compound for friends. Before long women were coming from far away to purchase it. Now the family had expanded the manufacture of the elixir, and Gray was worried. Pinkham’s business was growing. More and more women were forsaking a visit to the doctor in favor of self-medicating with the Pinkham compound.
The newspapers were full of ads for remedies like Wright’s Indian Vegetable Pills, Oman’s Boneset Pills, Vegetine and Hale’s Honey of Horehound and Tar.
Excerpted from Bluebonnet Belle by Lori Copeland Copyright © 2007 by Lori Copeland. Excerpted by permission.
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