June 30, 2019

Pittsburgh's Abortifacient History

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this:
Between 1800 and 1900, the birthrate of white native-born women in American declined by almost half, due in some part to the increased use of birth control. The amount of printed literature providing information about contraception, from medical texts to classified advertisements, indicates the popular demand for knowledge, products, and services beginning in the 1840s. Contraception allowed women a degree of freedom and control over their own bodies; abortions enabled them to choose to carry a pregnancy to term or not, whether they were prostitutes selling sex for a living or “ordinary” working women struggling to support the children they already had.
At the bottom of the page were some examples of advertisements found in the New York Herald - like this one from 1841:

It might be difficult to read but the important words are in the title:

And in the text:
These Pills are acknowledged by the first Physicians in the United States as the very best medicine that ladies laboring under a suppression of their natural illness can take, and they very seldom fail to relieve when taken according to the directions.
And so on. What do you think "a suppression of their natural illness" could possibly mean?

I think you can figure it out when you see this other add for Madame Costello:

Were you to take a close look at the second paragraph:
Suppression, irregularity, obstruction &c, by whatever case produced, can be removed by Madam C, in a very short time.
And then the end of the third, how Madame can see:
...those who wish to be treated for obstruction of their monthly period.
"Obstruction of their monthly period"?? I'm not a doctor but what could possibly "obstruct" menstruation but a pregnancy?

So we're talking, at the very least, about pills to trigger miscarriages, if not actual abortion procedures, advertised in New York City newspapers.

The coded language for pregnancy back then was amazing:
  • suppression of [the ladies'] natural illness
  • obstruction of the monthly period
As were the code words used for treatment:
  • "female tonic"
  • "female pills"
  • "female remedies"
  • "regulators"
As well as the names of the medicines themselves:
  • English Remedy
  • French Remedy
And so on. The combination of these terms ("female tonic to regulate the monthly period" or "English Remedy for the removal of any obstruction") could only point to one thing - ending an unwanted pregnancy.

Take as an example an ad touting the above mentioned "French Remedy" from the Brandon Mail May 5, 1887:

The code words are there - Dr LeDuc's "periodic pills" are a  "cure for suppressed menstruation" along with the necessary warning that they "must not be taken during the first five months of pregnancy."

What do you think a woman in 1841, scared that she might be pregnant, would think reading the above ad?


Got me to thinking - did any of these ads show up in any Pittsburgh newspaper in the 19th century/early 20th century?

We've gotten this far down the blog post so I think you know the answer to this.

Take a look at this from The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette, August 2, 1841:

It's ostensibly an announcement regarding a set of medicines previously sold at "41 and 19 St Clair Street" will now be sold by a "Mr. SAMUEL FREW, corner of Wood and Liberty, downtown.

Look about a quarter of the way down:
DR LEROY'S FEMALE PILLS, for diseases peculiar to the sex.
 Any woman in need of those pills in 1841 would know exactly what they were for.

70 years later the story was the same. Take a look at this from the Pittsburgh Press of August 10, 1910:

No longer Dr LeRoy, now we're on to Dr Martell's "Female Pills" sold at May Drug stores.

But May Drug stores (and I guess there were 7 in 1910) wasn't the only place to go. Along with the sales of the "female pills" or the "French Remedy" or the various products promising "regulation of the menstrual period" there were ads selling "female tonic."  Like this one from the Pittsburg Press September 29, 1912:

The amazing part of this is that it's a recipe for the tonic. The tonic is for "toning up the system and restoring the female organs to their normal conditions...." And there's that word "regulator" in there as well.  The clue for it's use is the first ingredient, "black cohosh."

What is it? What is it used for?

Well, there's this from WebMd:
Black cohosh is most often used to control the symptoms of menopause, such as:

Some studies have found evidence that black cohosh does help with these symptoms. However, many experts consider the evidence unclear and say more research is needed.

Other uses of black cohosh have less scientific support. Women sometimes take it to regulate periods, ease PMS symptoms, and cause women to go into labor.
So, let me ask - as it's a recipe for a tonic intended to end a pregnancy, is it illegal for me to repost? For you to read? How about for a woman in Georgia or any of those other "heartbeat bill" states?

Let me put in a caveat here: I am not a doctor or expert in biochemistry in any way. I have no idea whether any of these remedies actually work or even if they're safe. Given that 19th century America was drenched in snake oil cures for many maladies known (or imagined), it would not be wrong to think that some or all of these "cures" are hokum - perhaps even dangerous hokum.

But that doesn't matter - what matters is that the women of 19th century Pittsburgh believed that taking the "periodic pills" (or the tonic or the various remedies) would end an unwanted pregnancy and they were willing to take the pills to end those pregnancies.

Women have been doing this for centuries.

Legislating it away won't legislate it away.

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