The Real Lily the Pink

Back in 1968 a comedy band called The Scaffold, which included Paul McCartney’s brother Pete and poet Roger McGough had a number 1 hit with “Lily the Pink”.

We’ll drink a drink, a drink

To Lily the Pink, the Pink, the pink

The saviour of the human race

For she invented medicinal compound

Most efficacious in every case

What may on the surface appear to be a novelty drinking song is in fact based on a real person and her real product.

Lily the Pink is based on the American businesswoman Lydia Pinkham (1819-83) who produced her own vegetable compound from 1875. This was said to contain black cohosh, unicorn root, life root, pleurisy root and fenugreek, preserved with 19% alcohol. This was originally marketed as a “woman’s tonic” for menstrual and menopausal symptoms.

This vegetable compound became very successful with her local community, then further afield. Branding played a major part in the compound’s success and Lydia Pinkham’s face was used in all the branding. Indeed she is the first woman whose likeness was used in her brand.

Over time the list of complaints Pinkham’s vegetable compound claimed to be able to cure grew. It was even marketed as an aid to fertility and marketed under the strapline “there is a baby in every bottle”. Lydia Pinkham was one of very few people at the time who was speaking openly about women’s reproductive health, then a taboo subject. She even published pamphlets about menstrual and menopausal health and also encouraged women to write to her to ask questions they were too embarrassed to ask a doctor.

However, doctors and the medical establishment did not approve of Lydia Pinkham and dismissed her as a quack, which might be considered understandable given that her compound was claimed, among other things to prevent faintness, flatulence, insomnia, depression, the cure of kidney complaints and even ovarian cancer. In 1922, it was described as a “valueless preparation kept on the market for about fifty years by means of lying advertisements and worthless testimonials.”

After Pinkham died in 1883 her family took over the business and continued to promote her image. During prohibition, the alcohol content rose to about 40% and people turned to Pinkham’s medicinal compound in order to get intoxicated.

As far back as the 19th century, the alcohol content and claims of cures for feminine issues provoked mockery in the form of bawdy drinking songs. Lilly The Pink by The Scaffold is a highly sanitised version of those early drinking songs. Some sample verses from the 19th century are below.

Mrs. Jones she had no children,

And she loved them very dear.

So she took three bottles of Pinkham’s

Now she has twins every year.

Lottie Smyth ne’er had a lover,

Blotchy pimples caused her plight;

But she took nine bottles of Pinkham’s–

Sweethearts swarm about her each night.

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!

And Peter Whelan (Peter Whelan)

He was sad because he only had one nut

Till he took some of Lydia’s compound

And now they grow in clusters ’round his butt.

The company continued in family ownership until the 1930s and after World War II the US Food and Drink Administration intervened and the company made significant changes to the tonic and its alcohol content, as well as the claims being made about what it could cure. Lydia Pinkham Herbal Compound is still on sale in the United States. It is no longer alcoholic but may well still be most efficacious in every case.

Thomas Sturgess

3 thoughts on “The Real Lily the Pink

  1. Remember this song well? But I never knew there was a story behind. Thank you for the best laugh of the day.

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