Academic journal article Journalism History

From "True Woman" to "New Woman": An Analysis of the Lydia Pinkham "Animated Ads" of 1890

Academic journal article Journalism History

From "True Woman" to "New Woman": An Analysis of the Lydia Pinkham "Animated Ads" of 1890

Article excerpt

This article analyzes five illustrated advertisements designed by the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in 1890. Dubbed "animated ads" by the company's director, they were an innovation among newspapers advertisements of the period in both design and execution. Each depicts a social tableaux in which women play a role in a specific social setting. A close reading of them reveals that they all made statements about woman's place in late Victorian society, which was a time when the traditional "True Woman" was being challenged by the emerging paradigm of the "New Woman." These advertisements reveal aspects of both models and suggest to modern readers how women in 1890 reading these advertisements could negotiate the transition between the two alternative views.

In her time, Lydia Estes Pinkham, a middle-aged wife and a mother of limited financial means who started out making home remedies in her kitchen for her family and friends, became a national celebrity. Her image was displayed on the package of her vegetable compound, in newspaper and magazine advertisements, and on trading cards and educational pamphlets. Newspapers and magazines reported the phenomenon of her rise from rags to riches, an adult female version of the heroes in the popular Horatio Alger dime novels of the period.1

After her death in 1883, which was well publicized, her name was used in popular songs and in advertisements for the company that continued selling its products to a national and, eventually, an international market until the late 1960s.2 Two adulatory biographies were published in 1931 and 1949 as well as a thorough history and analysis of her company and its methods in 1979.3 Since then, her name has continued to appear in encyclopedias, and she even has several pages of her own in Wikipedia. Today, as further testament to her success as an entrepreneur, "Lydia Pinkham Herbal Tablets," the package still bearing her image, can be purchased online as well as in some national drugstore chains.4

The Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company became one of the country's most prolific newspaper advertisers at a time when the patent medicine industry occupied a prominent place among national advertisers, driving the development of magazines and newspapers alike in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Though some of the techniques developed by the industry - the extravagant claims, the endorsements from so-called "experts," and the use of testimonials - later came under fire during the "truth-in-advertising" campaigns of the early 1900s, they played a key role in the development of modern advertising techniques that are still practiced today.5

Given the prevalence of her company's role in the development of advertising at the end of the nineteenth century, it is ironic that the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company has received so little attention in journalism and media histories. In these, the company's principal claim to fame is its role as the target of muckraking campaigns by the Ladies' Home Journal and Collier's Weekly against deceptive advertising methods and the use of alcohol in patent medicines at the turn of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, reforming journalists such as Edward S. Bok and Mark Sullivan and progressive members of Congress are cast as heroes for taking on the powerful and corrupt patent medicine industry.6 The company also is briefly mentioned in some advertising histories in the context of the development of the advertising industry. Here, in addition to noting its run-ins with muckrakers and congressional committees, scholars discuss some of its methods, such as the innovative use of Lydias portrait on trade cards and the part that the company played in providing revenue to the rapidly expanding newspaper industry during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.7

In 2006, Tori Barnes-Brus provided a sociological and rhetorical analysis of the cultural messages of reproduction her study of the company's educational pamphlets, but no one has attempted an equivalent analysis of the company's illustrated newspaper advertisements. …

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