Abstract: Dear Mrs. Pinkham: Expanding Intimate Advice Networks into a National Community of Consumers, 1890-1935

Elysa Engelman


Despite its shady associations with bribery and deception, testimonial advertising remains one of the most successful techniques for promoting brand name consumer goods. Arguing that we need a better of understanding of how testimonials translate into sales, this paper examines the sophisticated and long-lived testimonial campaign of the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company (1875-1968). Long after the end of the golden age of patent medicines, the Pinkham company sold millions of bottles of its Vegetable Compound to American women, using dramatic testimonials from loyal customers in conjunction with a reassuring trademark and personal correspondence between the company and potential users. A close look at Pinkham advertisements, letters, and company records reveals how the company knit together individual consumers into an imagined community, a national advice network that crossed boundaries of region, occupation, and class. Using testimonials to blur the line between commerce and friendship, the company convinced women to trust Mrs. Pinkham and her product. In the end, testimonial advertising was the most potent ingredient in the Pinkham formula: the combined voices of thousands of satisfied customers created a placebo effect that "cured" some women of their menstrual and menopausal complaints.