Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The entryway of Hubba Hubba in Cambridge’s Central Square features a community bulletin board. (Photo: History Cambridge)

An advertisement in an 1875 edition of the Cambridge Chronicle declared “It is a sad commentary upon our boasted civilization that the women of our times have degenerated in health and physique until they are literally a race of invalids – pale, nervous, feeble and back-achy, with only here and there a few noble exceptions in the persons of the robust, buxom ladies, characteristic of the sex in days gone by.” This ad for Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription is one example of the many tonics, supplement and elixirs marketed to girls and women in the 19th and 20th centuries to “cure” the peculiar woes of womanhood and restore women to their full vigor. These advertisements, and the articles that accompanied them, illustrate the ways women’s sexual and reproductive health was pathologized and monetized during this period, leading girls and women to believe that to be female was to suffer from health problems that only these specific treatments could cure.

In an 1878 ad in the Chronicle titled “The Sufferings of Women,” the marketers of Lydia Pinkham’s Liver Pills claimed that “female complaints, so common to our best female population, are generally manifested by the uneasy, restless sensation of the patient. The stomach and nervous system are all sympathetically disordered in most diseases of the uterus.” Attributing a range of symptoms – from back pain and nausea to runny eyes and mental confusion – to uterine issues, these companies promised a quick cure for all that was ailing women, and local Cambridge pharmacies were eager to provide these remedies to female customers. An 1895 advertisement for Webber’s Pharmacy in Cambridgeport featured a number of products targeted specifically at women, including Lydia Pinkham’s pills and Hunt’s Remedy.

Much of the discussion of women’s health issues in the late 19th century stemmed from broader concerns about what the rise of industrialization meant for Americans’ health in general. Many believed that the grinding, repetitive conditions of factory and shop work, combined with a lack of outdoor activity, was making Americans – men and women – weak, nervous and sickly. For women and girls, this was exacerbated by the female reproductive systems that already made them less resilient than men, and the burgeoning field of pseudo-pharmacology was more than willing to exploit these fears.

A product in 1885 called Ayer’s Sarsaparilla cited the onset of menstruation as the source of most of women’s health issues. Their advertisements warned that “mothers who discover any signs of impurities in the blood of their children should be prompt in the use of proper remedies” because “the neglect of such care for young girls is the primary cause of most of the diseases which afflict women.” Other advertisements focused on different periods of women’s sexual and reproductive life; Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription declared that, “for many women, the wedding ring is but a link of a chain of sickness and misery.” Women were expected to wait until marriage to become sexually active, and the beginning of married life was to be the start of years of childbearing that was the basis of women’s allure to their husbands and the cause of their misery. Many products also targeted menopause, when women were no longer able to bear children and were often faced with the mental and emotional challenges of their changing hormones and the shifting dynamics of their marriage and family structure. All of these changes, advertisers claimed, could be “cured” by products that promised to fortify the body and soothe the nerves.

Although most of these products sought (whether deliberately or unwittingly) to take advantage of women’s pain and fear around issues of sexual and reproductive health, there were several products that advertised themselves as by women and for women. Foremost among these was Lydia Pinkham and her line of pills and tonics that claimed to cure everything from menstrual pain to backaches, headaches, indigestion, mental fog and more. Pinkham’s unique claim was that she (and, later, the female employees she hired for help with the large volume of mail she received) opened, read and replied to every letter. Pinkham built much of her reputation on the fact that women customers could share their troubles openly; buying a product at a local drugstore and/or addressing their concerns to Mrs. Pinkham in writing eliminated the need for a face-to-face interaction with the (male) family physician. In this way, Pinkham and other female entrepreneurs were able to carve out space for themselves in the male-dominated realm of medicine, and to help create a community in which women helped each other navigate issues of sexual and reproductive health.

Although it may seem a far cry from the newspaper columns of the 19th century, Cambridge’s adult entertainment store Hubba Hubba serves a similar purpose in helping to create a safe and inclusive space for women to explore issues of sexuality and sexual health. Woman-owned since its opening in 1979, Hubba Hubba prides itself on being a welcoming place where people of all gender and sexual identities can feel free to express themselves. the ability to embrace their sexuality has long been acceptable for men, but women, nonbinary and female-presenting people have not always been encouraged to express these parts of themselves – something Hubba Hubba’s owners and staff have worked hard to change over the past 45 years.

Current Hubba Hubba owner M.J. Pullins emphasizes that the shift in attitudes toward women’s sexuality and sexual health cannot be separated from changing attitudes toward and within Cambridge’s LGBTQ+ community. She cites the determination of her Queer customers to create their own forms of gender and sexual expression as a major force in empowering all female-identifying individuals, as well as breaking down barriers between what had traditionally been “male” and “female” fashion and accessories. For example, Hubba Hubba’s products are placed in sections labeled “masculine” and “feminine” to underscore the idea that anyone can draw from these categories, regardless of their biology or gender identity. For those identifying as women, the store’s open, inclusive and nonjudgmental atmosphere is a far cry from the repressive 19th-century society that pathologized women’s sexual health and promised to cure its ills with pseudo-scientific remedies. Hubba Hubba’s colorful rainbow-themed decor and array of posters and fliers underscores its commitment to issues of importance to the local community, and highlights the new reality in which the sexual health and enjoyment of all people (women included) is celebrated rather than hidden from sight.


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at

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Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.