Commentary: Is there a tonic for cabin fever?

Commentary: Is there a tonic for cabin fever?
Irene Jackson
Left, an empty bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Medicine. On the right, an old newspaper ad for the product

Irene Jackson is a guitar teacher, musician and general writer “wanna-be” living in the beautiful city of Victoria, B.C. Her website is at

My Dad was triumphant. Not only had he managed to find the log cabin that he had spent about four years in as a child when my grandparents lived on Wallace Mountain in Beaverdell, but he had found an empty bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Medicine. I still have the bottle.

You see it on the left (above). It might be of benefit to you. Read on.

Dad had a habit of telling a lot of stories over and over and I used to roll my eyes at them when I was a kid. But as he grew older and his Alzheimer’s became more prominent, those stories became so much more precious to me. This was one he told many times.

My grandfather worked for a short time at a silver mine on Wallace Mountain back in the mid-1920s. My grandparents lived in a log cabin, one of a number of log cabins built by those who worked in the mine. A lot of the occupants of these cabins came from Scandinavia;  my grandparents were Danish immigrants.

Wallace Mountain was covered in snow most of the winter, and my grandmother was stuck inside that log cabin with two (and eventually three) small children for months at a time while my grandfather worked in the mine. She managed to develop what was the very definition of “cabin fever”. Something, I’m sure, many of you are actually feeling yourselves right now.

As my father told it, she found out about a cure for cabin fever. He referred to it as a “spring tonic” in his memoirs. It was called “Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound”. Shall I tell you the ingredients in this apparently amazing elixir? Here they are:

Pleurisy Root (well that sounds dubious)
Life Root (a little more life-affirming)
Unicorn Root
Black Cohosh



Yes, 40% proof alcohol, which, as the recipe suggests “relieves muscular stress, reduces pain, and can affect mood.” Well, yeah. All of the ladies of Wallace Mountain were, as my Dad described it, “happy on the hill in spring.”

But what my Dad probably didn’t know, was that the tonic was actually prescribed to women for menstrual symptoms. Yep. He thought it was for cabin fever. I’m sure none of the “ladies of the hill” told anybody except each other, what it was actually for.

So I did a little research, and I found a newspaper ad from much later when the “medicine” came in pill form. (See the ad above.)

The text is small, so here’s what some of it says:

“These Hysterical Women. Crying….sobbing…laughing! She has no control of herself…the slightest thing drives her to distraction. Tired all the time…overwrought…nerves strung to the breaking point, she tries to do her work (hmmm..wonder what “work” they’re speaking of…”housework” perhaps?)

“Constant headache, backache and dizzy spells are robbing this woman of youth, beauty and health. (Youth and beauty come first, no?) How pitiful it is to see her suffering…and how unnecessary. If she would only give Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound a chance to help, how happy she might be.”

Yes, this is an actual ad.  Aimed at the man of the house, of course. Pitiful.

Well, these are different times. We are, indeed, experiencing our own form of “cabin fever” these days, and regardless of what Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was actually for, I think it might come in handy right about now.

So my recommendation, especially to you ladies out there, is that we dump the fenugreek (what the heck is that anyway?) and the pleurisy root, and just go with the alcohol. In fact, my friends and I are going to do exactly that this evening. We are meeting on Zoom for a glass of wine. We shall be the new “ladies of the hill.”


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Irene JacksonIrene Jackson

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