A Diet and a Patent Medicine, All in One?

Welcome to 2014! A new year means a new start and that means resolutions. (Whether we follow up on them or not, we’re always optimistic in January, at least!) I started thinking how many people’s resolutions including losing weight, and I wondered what sort of historical treasures we might have on that topic. So this week, we’re featuring one of the earliest “diet books” in our collection: How Phyllis Grew Thin. I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I opened this 32 page pamphlet, but this wasn’t it…

The pamphlet is full of practical and not-so-practical tidbits, but my favorite has to be from the letter of introduction at the beginning: “It is not necessary for you to know just what a calorie is so long as you remember not to eat foods containing too many of them.” It sums up all the diet advice and meal planning that follows.

Although it does contain a fair bit of advice about dieting and a significant amount of advice on meal planning, the pamphlet is, at it’s core, an advertisement for a patent medicine for women (actually, more than one). It is chock full of testimonials and advice for use. Still, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was a success for many years. There are even companies producing similar herbal remedies today.

Our catalog record dates this items to some time in the 1800s, but the art deco-inspired cover and clothing suggest it more likely comes from the early part of the 20th century. Lydia Pinkham herself died in 1883, but her family continued to run the business into the 1930s. Her patent medicines were advertised in cookbooks, newspapers, ladies journals, and dedicated small pamphlets like the one in our collection. During Prohibition, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound gained an unexpected corner of the market–the original formula contained no small amount of alcohol and was, as a medicine, available for purchase. Lydia and her remedies even inspired a a folk/drinking song in the early 20th century (“The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham”) and later a modified version in the 1960s (“Lily the Pink”).

Clearly, “Phyllis’s” plan isn’t one for the modern dieter. However, these 32 pages offer some amazing insight into women’s medicine, dieting, and advertising in the early 20th century.

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One thought on “A Diet and a Patent Medicine, All in One?

  1. Pingback: Burdock Blood Bitters | What's Cookin' @ Special Collections?!

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