“Relief at Last”
“For All Female Complaints”
“The Only Reliable Female Pill”
“Female Renovating Pills”
These cryptic phrases adorn small booklets, packages, and advertisements in an archival folder labeled “Female Remedies—Miscellaneous” in the New-York Historical Society’s library. They are part of a larger collection of material surrounding patent medicines: unregulated liquids, powders, oils, and pills that claimed to cure a wide variety of problems, from “purifying blood” to soothing teething children. These had their heyday in the United States in the 19th century and went out of fashion starting in 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act increased regulations such as requiring ingredient labels.
These packets and advertisements appeared recently in a small installation on the fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society titled Female Remedies, which explored how patent medicines were marketed to women. While we at the Center for Women’s History thought the topic and artifacts were fascinating of course, we were surprised at the attention the tiny exhibit received. In mid-May, NYC-Arts declared it the top attraction of the week. Moreover, over 150 people turned out to attend two lively salon conversations. Female Remedies and Wicked Women: Reproductive Health in 19th Century New York was a conversation between playwright Jessica Bashline, creator of Wickedest Woman, a play about Ann Lohman, a.k.a. Madame Restell, “the abortionist of Fifth Avenue,” and Dr. Ana Cepín, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist affiliated with Physicians for Reproductive Health. A smaller but equally lively program featured a discussion about the history and present state of midwifery with midwives Patricia Loftman and Paloumi Miles.
So what was in this exhibit? We sought to demonstrate a variety of remedies and how they targeted women and their physical problems. Tired and nervous? Try Tarrant’s Seltzer Aperient. Two folding cards claiming it cured indigestion, constipation, headaches, vomiting, and fever. Folded, the card showed an unhappy and unattractive woman. Unfolded, she is transformed, her ills vanished, her face beautiful—perhaps perked up by the cocaine in her pills. Fussy baby? Dose it with Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Well-dressed white mothers and their chubby babies beamed out of colored cards, while a pamphlet warned mothers that it is unnatural for babies to be “irritable” and promised the syrup contained no alcohol or opioids. However, a terrifying label from 1905 revealed that the syrup was, in fact, loaded with morphine sulphate and alcohol.
But the remaining artifacts in the case were more mysterious. Relief, regulation, renovation—what were these items promising to cure? While the nerve tonics or baby syrups suggested problems that needed solutions, these packages were cagey about their purpose. A deeper understanding of the legal context and the language of the day reveals the truth: They were promising to either regulate or restore menstruation. In other words, they were used as birth control or abortifacients.
Birth control and abortion are not modern inventions. Historians have documented that women in ancient Egypt used honey as spermicide; a text from the year 925 mentions a broth of cinnamon, rue, and wallflower to induce menses; and the first known condoms were used in the 1600s. The effectiveness of such methods can be questioned, but women have used herbs and plants for centuries. Maria Sibylla Merian, an 18th-century botanist featured in our Women and the American Story curriculum guide, noted that indigenous women in Surinam used seeds from the peacock flower “to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are.” The knowledge of which herbs or plants might be effective and how to use them was frequently the realm of female healers and midwives, but these bodies of knowledge became disrupted in the United States by increased urbanization and the growing influence of male physicians. Abortifacients became commercialized beginning in the 18th century, as druggists sold compounds of plants such as tansy, rue, cottonroot, pennyroyal, and ergot.
It is crucial to note that the understanding and regulation of abortion has changed over time. Historian Linda Gordon explains that in the early 18th century, women thought of conception as “blocking” and “obstructing” menses, and that “restoring the menses was a domestic practice.” The first attempts to regulate abortion were, in fact, anti-poisoning laws, reacting to the improper use of abortifacients. At the same time as male doctors replaced female midwives, the state increased its regulation of women’s bodies. In New York, abortion before “quickening” (when a woman first feels fetal movement, usually around four months) was legal until 1845, when state legislation stipulated that “providing abortions or abortifacients at any stage of pregnancy was a misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison.”
Another state intervention which added to the difficulty of obtaining reproductive care was the 1873 federal obscenity law, a.k.a. the Comstock Law, which, in the name of moral interstate commerce, declared it illegal to distribute “obscene” material through the U.S. mail. At the turn of the century, about one in five prosecutions in Chicago were under the Comstock Law, which also covered “lascivious” publications, images, and private correspondence (which of course makes one wonder how many letters were opened). In New York City, Anthony Comstock, the postal inspector for whom the law was named, served as secretary for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which fought to keep Margaret Sanger, among others, from publishing or sharing information about birth control with women.
This legislation hardly stopped people from wanting or selling birth control or abortifacients. Working-class women would have been more likely to seek out items at a druggist or through the mail since wealthier women could access personal doctors. Coded language was still effective: Linda Gordon calls it an “open secret” as pharmacists assisted customers and newspapers advertised products and providers. The booklet advertising Dr. Martel’s French Female Pills promised “you can cure yourself, saving the expense of a doctor, without mention or reference to anyone.” Women could send for Madame Restell’s “female monthly pills,” purchase slippery elm or Chichester’s Diamond Pills at a pharmacy, or contact providers such as a Mrs. Bird, who advertised her expertise in “the task of imparting relief, and effecting cures in the most desperate cases.” While the word abortion was not used in 19th-century advertisements for products or providers, a history of thinking of early pregnancy as a “stoppage” or a “complaint” rendered this language of “renovating” and “restoring” loud and clear.
Whether these products were effective or safe is harder to determine. A 1911 article by the American Medical Association—which officially opposed the use of abortifacients and assisted the state in prosecutions—claimed a chemical analysis of Chichester’s Pills showed they contained no pennyroyal or other effective abortifacients. The article described a “vicious state of affairs”:
We believe there is not a state in the Union which has not adopted laws against it, but in spite of this, these preparations, in thin disguise, are shamelessly advertised in newspapers and boldly sold over the counters of many drug stores. While it is true that many of these nostrums are merely fraudulent, rather than dangerous, yet not a few contain potent and — for the purpose for which sold—villainous drugs.
A 1917 analysis of Dr. Martel’s pills (“the only reliable and trustworthy medicine of its kind”) as part of a Pure Food and Drug Act investigation showed that they, too, were ineffective.
Were desperate women spending money on products that promised relief but did nothing? Probably. But women had used herbs and plants effectively in the past, and it is likely that at least some of the commercial compounds used the same ingredients. Prohibitive laws surrounding abortion and obscenity led to women being vulnerable to unscrupulous manufacturers. The way to reduce reliance on potentially shady products would be to provide reliable contraception. At the same time that the AMA condemned commercial abortifacients, women could use cervical caps and condoms were available as well. Yet the AMA did not advocate for reliable contraception or revocation of the Comstock Law, which was also used to prohibit sex-education publications such as Margaret Sanger’s column “What Every Girl Should Know” in the New York Call.
So what made this tiny installation resonate with visitors and reviewers? Perhaps it struck a nerve. More than a century later, women continue to struggle to obtain safe and reliable reproductive health care.
– Sarah Gordon, Curator of Female Remedies, Center for Women’s History
Top Photo Credits: Detail of Bona Dea, For All Female Complaints pill packet, 1880-1900. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.
Maria Sibylla Merian, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, in Stassa Edwards, “The History of Abortifacients,” Jezebel, November 18, 2014, https://jezebel.com/the-history-of-abortifacients-1658993381
 Linda Gordon Woman’s Body Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York: Grossman/Viking, 1976), 8-9.
 See for example Noel Sprenger, The Rise and Demise of Patent Medicine Abortifacients and their Influence on the Agency of Victorian Women, MA thesis, University of Queensland, October 2007.
 Karen Abbott, “Madame Restell, The Abortionist of Fifth Avenue,” Smithsonian.com, November 27, 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/madame-restell-the-abortionist-of-fifth-avenue-145109198/
 Shirley J. Burton, “Obscene, Lewd, and Lascivious: Ida Craddock and the Criminally Obscene Women of Chicago, 1873-1913,” Michigan Historical Review, vol. 19 no. 1 (Spring 1993), 1-16.
 Dr. Martel’s French Female Pills promotional booklet, ca 1904, 1-2, emphasis in the original, New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection
Dr. Vandenburgh’s Female Renovating Pills advertising broadside, 1850. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection
 W.A. Puckner and L.E. Warren, “Chichester’s Diamond Brand Pills,” Journal of American Medical Association, in Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery …, Volume 1, American Medical Association, 1911, 593.