In 1968, a song about a quack medicine became a No. 1 hit in the U.K. nearly a century after Lydia E. Pinkham began mass-marketing the stuff in Massachusetts.
For years, Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, made of alcohol and herbs, was one of the best known patent medicines of the 19th century.
But because it was aimed at curing female complaints, it became the subject of ribald drinking songs. Then in 1968, a British comedy trio called The Scaffold updated the song into a commercial hit, Lily the Pink.
Lydia E. Pinkham
Patent medicines flourished in the 1890s, before the government finally cracked down and regulated them. Often they included alcohol, opiates and a little something to create a bitter, medicinal flavor.
Of all the 19th century patent medicines, Lydia E. Pinkham’s alcohol-and-herb Vegetable Compound was perhaps the best known.
Supposedly the Vegetable Compound relieved menstrual and menopausal symptoms, but its success was due as much to the shrewd marketing of Lydia E. Pinkham as it was to its effectiveness. Her kindly face peered out from every package, and she printed booklets of advice for women. She used advertising slogans such as, “A wife can blame herself if she loses love by getting “middle age” skin!” and “Are YOU just a plaything of nature?”
Lydia E. Pinkham was born in Lynn, Mass., on Feb. 9, 1819, to a well-to-do family. She married Isaac Pinkham, a shoe manufacturer, in 1843, but the Panic of 1873 destroyed his business. Lydia E. Pinkham began selling her homemade remedy to survive, inviting customers to write to her and ask questions about the facts of life. Today, historians credit Lydia E. Pinkham for discussing women’s troubles more forthrightly than just about anyone else in her day.
Rude, Crude, Funny
But those forthright discussions made her a target for rugby players, who pride themselves on being rude, crude and funny. They often sang a version of the Ballad of Lydia Pinkham while changing after matches. One version includes these lyrics:
Let us sing (let us sing) of Lydia Pinkham
The benefactress of the human race.
She invented a vegetable compound,
And now all papers print her face…
Oh Mrs. Murphy (Oh Mrs. Murphy)
Was perturbed because she couldn’t seem to pee
Till she took some of Lydia’s compound
And now they run a pipeline to the sea!
Its popularity as a drinking song also stems from its sale as a 40 proof beverage during Prohibition. During World War II The Ballad of Lydia, Pinkham was the unofficial regimental song of the Royal Tank Corps during World War II.
By 1968, The Scaffold sanitized the song, calling it Lily the Pink. They recorded it in Abbey Road studios, using Ringo Starr’s drum. They included a line about ‘Jennifer Eccles and her terrible freckles’ as an homage to a hit by Graham Nash’s former band, the Hollies, which had a hit called Jennifer Eccles.
Tim Rice, lyricist for Evita, joined Nash and Elton John, then known as Reginald Dwight, on backup vocals.
After the song topped the charts, the Irish Rovers recorded a version of Lily the Pink, which reached the Top 30 in the United States.
Lydia E. Pinkham wasn’t just mocked by rugby players and British songsters. The medical profession criticized her too. In 1915, the Pennsylvania Medical Journal praised The Village Record, a Westchester newspaper, for refusing to carry patent medicine advertisements. “We wish we could say the same of all the papers published in the county,” wrote the Journal. “The unattractive portrait of Lydia Pinkham continues to disfigure their pages and the nauseating accounts of the symptoms for the relief of which her medicine is advised make very poor reading for young and old.”
Lydia E. Pinkham by then was gone, having died on May 17, 1883 at the age of 64. Her house in Lynn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Her daughter founded the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, Mass. to provide health services to young mothers and their children. Designated Site 9 of the Salem Women’s Heritage Trail, it is still in operation.
Image of Elton John By Ernst Vikne – originally posted to Flickr as Elton John in Norway, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7113376. This story was updated in 2021.