"No excuse for ugliness!": How Health and Beauty Influencers Promoted their Products in the Late Nineteenth Century

Abby Craig-Jones

Today, our feeds on social media are constantly bombarded with influencers pushing miracle products.

They claim that these pills and potions will make us “lose 100lbs in a week” or “add ten years onto our lives!” It turns out that influencers have been running the industry long before apps such as Instagram and TikTok were invented. During the late nineteenth century in the US the term ‘patent medicine’ referred to medicines and beauty preparations which could be sold by anyone, with no education or qualification needed. Essentially anyone could brew up a tonic in their homes, slap a label on it to claim it as lifesaving, and start up a successful business. By the year 1900 the patent medicine industry had grown to a worth of seventy-four million dollars a year. Madame Yale and Lydia Pinkham jumped on this trend of selling “must have” products and became well-known names amongst the women of America. Lydia Pinkham started her venture in the early 1870s and her most famous product was her ‘Vegetable Compound' which was a supposed cure for all ‘female complaints.’ The term 'female complaints' was commonly used in the medical world of the nineteenth century and it related to menstrual pains, pregnancy, and menopause. Madame Yale’s career took off in the 1890s, and her product ‘Fruitcura’ was in strong competition for Lydia’s as it was designed to treat similar issues. However, she took it one step further by also selling beauty products such as ‘Eyelash grower’, ‘complexion soap’ and ‘bust food’ (which is exactly what it sounds like), along with cosmetics and hair products. In the late nineteenth century there was a growth in a celebrity style culture that we see today. Entrepreneurs created an influencer-like image in order to promote their products and this often involved designing a whole new identity for themselves. For example, Madame Yale’s real name was in fact Maude Mayberg, and she did not have a degree from Wellesley College like she claimed to. Unlike today, these women couldn’t simply make a post online urging customers to buy their products. Madame Yale went city to city lecturing to eager and hopeful women on how to be beautiful. These lectures involved comedic lessons of how to walk with grace and live demonstrations of how her products worked. She was a firm believer that everyone had the capacity to be beautiful and that there was no excuse for ugliness! What these women had in common was using their gender as their unique selling point to succeed in the male dominated patent medicine market. They played on the idea that it was important for a woman to be selling female related health products, as they had first hand experience. They both tried to be relatable to their customers as they claimed they had suffered greatly with menstrual pain and therefore wanted to create a formula to help themselves and other women.
“No excuse for ugliness!”: How Health and Beauty Influencers Promoted their Products in the Late Nineteenth Century
Advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound in "Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Magazine" Vol. XIII, No. 4, April, 1882, p. 514. New York

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“No excuse for ugliness!”: How Health and Beauty Influencers Promoted their Products in the Late Nineteenth Century
Front cover portrait of Madame Yale from Madame Yale, System of Physical and Beauty Culture, 1909.

Ultimately their selling technique worked, and these women went viral!

The high demand for their products meant that these women had to quickly learn how to be businesswomen and manage their companies. Madame Yale equipped for this by hiring men to run certain departments in her business. Nevertheless, there is still evidence to suggest that she herself was making business decisions and she was an active working woman of the time. She was also a firm believer of women helping women. A flyer found in the back of one of her booklets shows similarities with today’s pyramid schemes as she tried to get women to join her and ‘make dollars!’ Her vision was to maintain the female led theme and hire women to sell her products. Whilst the effect of this flier is unclear, it does demonstrate an attempt to get women entering business. Lydia also had help to get her business venture off of the ground as her two sons were crucial in all stages of the journey. In 1873 the financial panic hit the United States, and this left the Pinkham’s broke. This business was the family’s lifeline out of their financial trouble and Lydia played a large role in that. Whilst these women both required help, it was still remarkable achievements for women to make in the late nineteenth century. In true influencer fashion these female entrepreneurs also tried to educate their customers. They published periodicals containing beauty tips and advice for dealing with female reproductive health. The nineteenth century was described as the ‘poisoning century’ as doctors had medical ignorance on the female body. Doctors believed that the genitalia and the womb was the cause for anything wrong with a woman and as a result they often performed dangerous operations to remove them. Yale and Pinkham sought to change this by educating women on their bodies and give them alternative options than the surgeons knife. They tried to guide women through their most intimate health matters during every stage of their life from puberty up to menopause. Obviously, this also involved telling them to by their products of course! Pinkham and Yale claimed that knowledge was priceless, and they wanted to break the generational cycle of silence surrounding female health. They both urged mothers to educate their daughters on their bodies in order to stop young girls from silently suffering.
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This was more than a simple buying and selling transaction.

Customers were also encouraged to write to them and share their own sufferings with female health and low self-esteem. These letters were then published by the companies as a way of demonstrating real life accounts of where their products had succeeded. This was not an uncommon selling tactic of the era, as many patent medicine firms would publish testimonials to increase sales. However, similar to online reviews of products today, there was scepticism over their credibility. Critics believed that they were written by the companies themselves to increase their sales. To this day historians cannot know the true nature of these testimonials. However to the thousands of women who were reading them, they would have surely provided a comfort. Similar to how in modern day people find relatability within comment sections on social media, these women would have felt less alone with their female health. This interconnectivity of women across the US opened up discussions surrounding the struggles that they faced in society, which was a first in the late nineteenth century. Whilst there were positive effects of their businesses, they still held on to a traditional role for women and centred a woman’s worth around her ability to be a good mother and wife. Some of Pinkham’s advertising slogans were ‘Tired, Nervous, Mothers…Their Condition Irritates Both Husband and Children.’ Allegedly Pinkham’s vegetable compound would transform the nagging wife and overbearing mother into the domestic goddess that she was supposed to be. These influencers would have also made women feel physically inadequate, as they created this harsh beauty standard that was just as unforgiving as todays. Women were being lectured by Madame Yale on how to ‘reduce flesh’ on the body whilst also ‘gain flesh’ on the hips. Yale’s selling of makeup also contradicted with some of the feminist movements at the time. In one of Madame Yale’s lectures in 1893 she had a run in with Charlotte Smith, a notorious feminist, as the two locked horns over whether make up was progressive. Charlotte’s standpoint on the matter was that make-up hindered feminism as it created this “lady-like” stereotype and she argued that the movement needed “women not ladies.” However, it wasn’t all negative as Madame Yale did also preach on the idea of self-love. She herself was a 45-year-old women at the peak of her business career and she was a firm believer that age was just a number, and she claimed that ‘possession of self-confidence is half the battle won.’ Another downfall of these companies was their lack of inclusivity. The 21st century has seen a huge movement in creating a more inclusive society. However, this is very different to the environment of the late nineteenth century, where classism and racism was prominent in the US. The beauty industry was notorious for displaying levels of racism in its products and advertising. For example, Yale sold products such as ‘complexion bleach’, and ‘hand whitener.’ Pinkham’s company was also seen to be excluding African Americans from their customer demographic. The Vegetable Compound had a large following of black women; however their testimonials and reviews of the products were purposely left out of periodicals out of fear of upsetting the white customers. So whilst these female entrepreneurs created a community of women that were destigmatizing struggles of womanhood, it is important to remember that they were also actively contributing to the racism in early modern America. So, what happened to these women? Unfortunately as Madame Yale’s business grew so did the fight for the Pure Food and Drug act. Prior to this act, there were no regulations on food and drug companies for disclosing the ingredients in their products. This meant that a lot of patent medicines contained harmful ingredients such as Opium and alcohol. As a result people began to push for an act which would force producers to clearly define what was in their products and also ensure that they were not harmful. Once the act was established in 1906, Madame Yale fell victim. During an inspection in 1908 her products were seized from her and chemically analysed in a lab. Her famous Fruitcura was found to have 16.66% alcohol, with small quantities of plant drugs and charcoal. Her business plummeted and so did her name. She went from being one of the most influential women in America to an unheard-of name in today’s history. On the other hand, Lydia Pinkham’s business survived long after Lydia’s death. Her products passed the inspections, and her company grew well into the twentieth century and the Vegetable Compound is even available to buy today! Ultimately, the influencer lifestyle has outlived both these women and they can take credit for being amongst the first to make it big in the industry.
“No excuse for ugliness!”: How Health and Beauty Influencers Promoted their Products in the Late Nineteenth Century
A box of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, in the pharmacy exhibit at Old Mystic Seaport, Connecticut.
“No excuse for ugliness!”: How Health and Beauty Influencers Promoted their Products in the Late Nineteenth Century

Abby Craig-Jones

I am currently a postgraduate student at Cardiff University studying a masters in History. I have a first-class degree in ancient history and history and my areas of interest mainly involve women in nineteenth century America. My undergraduate dissertation title was ‘To what extent did women gain agency from popular medicine in the US? 1870-1910.’ I am planning on continuing this work for my MA dissertation and look at how beauty products also influenced women’s societal roles in late nineteenth century America. I am really passionate about creating greater public engagement with history and have undertaken placements with the Welsh Centre for International Affairs and Wimbledon Windmill Museum. I have also volunteered with SHARE with schools, which is a school outreach programme run by Cardiff University to showcase higher education in history to the local schools.
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