Sunday, August 2, 2015

191. Patent Medicines, and Who Is a Quack?

     Long ago, when I was squinting at old New York newspapers on microfilm, researching the financial antics of Wall Street speculator Daniel Drew, and the scandalous career of Madame Restell, the abortionist, I came on full pages of ads that baffled, then intrigued me.  The products advertised, both then and throughout the century, included such items as these:

Swaim’s Panacea
Viner’s Vermifuge
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Herb Medicine
Ayer’s Cathartic Pills
Cocaine Toothache Drops
Hostetter’s Bitters
Wister’s Balsam
Pastor Koenig’s Nerve Tonic
Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

     Such were the patent medicines of the time, which, by the way, were anything but patented.  In seventeenth-century England, elixirs that found favor with royalty received letters patent, allowing them to use the royal endorsement in marketing; the name “patent medicine” resulted, and stuck.

File:Lydia Pinkham.png

Here they actually say the
dread words: venereal disease.

Yes, there really was such a thing
as snake oil.

     And what did these medicines cure?  Indeed, what didn’t they purport to cure?  Swaim’s Panacea, the product of Swaim’s Laboratory in Philadelphia, was created in 1820 by a Professor William Swaim and claimed to heal scrofula, coxalgia (hip-joint disease), mercurial rheumatism, chronic ulcers, scrofulous ophthalmia, eczema, and poisoning of the blood.  Still marketed in the 1890s, it was sometimes pictured as a stalwart Hercules clubbing the multimouthed dragon of disease.

     Ayer’s Cathartic Pills, the creation of Dr. J.C. Ayer of Lowell, Massachusetts, was a “safe, pleasant and reliable family medicine,” sugar-coated and designed to cure flatulency, dizziness, foul stomach, rheumatism, liver disorder, kidney complaints, constipation, and diarrhea.  When he retired in 1878, Dr. Ayer – who was in fact a real doctor – was thought to be the wealthiest manufacturer of patent medicines in the country.

     Cocaine Toothache Drops, manufactured in Albany, promised an instantaneous cure for toothache and were marketed especially for children, while also guaranteeing to put the user in a “better” mood.  Hailed as miracle cures, cocaine, morphine, and even heroin were sold quite legally.

File:Cocaine for kids.png
Cocaine for kids, 1885.

File:Hostetter's Bitters (1905 ad).jpg
Slaying the dragon of disease.
A 1905 ad.
     Hostetter’s Bitters, the creation of Dr. Jacob Hostetter, a prominent Pennsylvania physician, was promoted by his son and first appeared on the market in 1853.  Pictured as a mounted hero spearing a writhing dragon of disease, it claimed to cure colds, dyspepsia, indigestion, constipation, biliousness, and general debility.  When the Civil War broke out, it was promoted as “a positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps,” and the War Department shipped trainloads of it to the troops, who surely appreciated it.  In peacetime thousands bought it, convinced that a daily dose would keep them healthy and in good spirits.  Good spirits certainly resulted, and we shall soon see why.

     Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, a Canadian product manufactured in this country in Schenectady, was sold throughout the U.S. and the British Empire.  What it offered, besides alliteration, was a cure for St. Vitus’ Dance, locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica (whatever that might be), neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after effects of grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, and “all forms of weakness in male and female.”  Whether a Dr. Williams actually existed, I haven’t been able to determine.

     The key to the success of these mass-produced products was advertising, then in its infancy or at least its adolescence, and as imaginative as it was energetic, ruthless, and robust.  In a previous post, “Advertising: Hucksters of Yore and Today” (#151, November 1, 2014), I described how patent medicines were promoted in New York and beyond:

               Patent medicine almanacs were dispensed free on the counters of drugstores and general stores between Christmas and New Year’s, or were distributed to the public by young boys paid a quarter a day.  And the names of the products appeared in posters on walls and fences and the decks and cabins of steamboats; on the sides of horsecars; on signs on wagons roaming the busy streets; on brick piles; on asbestos curtains in theaters; and on mirrors in public waiting rooms.  No flat surface was safe, and the sidewalks of busy Broadway were enlivened by sandwich men flaunting the names of remedies fore and aft:

Pocahontas Bitters
Radical Cure Trusses
Philipot’s Infallible Extract

               Nor was rural America spared: the names of nostrums appeared on rocks, trees, fences, barns, and sheds; adorned the soaring basalt cliffs of the Palisades, visible to passengers on Hudson River steamboats; and with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, graced telegraph poles and even the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada range in distant California.  And as a traveler approached San Francisco by train, he was informed that “VINEGAR  BITTERS  IS  ALL  THE  GO  FOR  LOVE!”  “Ob-scenery!” protested the New York Tribune, but to no avail.  The ultimate in advertising was achieved when a nostrum maker bought a steamboat, adorned it with ads for his liniment, cast it adrift on Lake Erie, and let it float to destruction over Niagara Falls.

         In a nutshell: patented medicines were mass-produced products, allegedly medicinal, that were marketed aggressively with false statements and extravagant claims.

File:Kickapoo Sagwa.png

     The patent medicine hucksters linked their products sometimes to science or pseudoscience, and sometimes to the Native American peoples, thought to be in tune with nature and wise in natural lore.  And as if that wasn’t enough, an ad might show a corpse sitting upright in a coffin, with the words “Killed by Catarrh!”  Or a skeleton of death escorting a victim toward an open grave past tombstones with skull and crossbones, until the medicine, pictured as a knight with sword unsheathed or a hovering angel, effected a last-minute rescue.  And often there was a final enticement: “Recommended by ministers.”

      Many patent medicines were vastly successful, permitting their creators to join the ranks of the newly moneyed, along with profiteers fattened by government contracts during the Civil War, inventors of patented shirtfronts and trusses, Wall Street speculators, railroad magnates, and other rajahs of finance. 


       What explains the success of these nostrums, their ingredients undisclosed or misrepresented, and their grandiose pretensions dubious at best?  Throughout much of the nineteenth century orthodox medicine had little to offer: ether as an anesthetic, quinine for malaria, a vaccine for smallpox, and not much else except tender loving care.  The limits of TLC, however conscientiously applied, became evident when pitted against the ravages of consumption, arthritis, and “delicate” (venereal) diseases.  Into this pharmaceutical vacuum the nostrum manufacturers strode boldly, promising panaceas for every imaginable complaint, and the public, out of faith and desperation, bought.  And if the nostrums’ undisclosed ingredients included a significant amount of alcohol, cocaine, or heroin, it could only enhance sales, especially in communities where temperance was enforced by law.  (Not, of course, in New York City, where a liquor grocery graced every street corner in the slums, and dazzling mirror-backed bars abounded in more respectable neighborhoods, including the fanciest hotels.)

       Inevitably, in this golden age of pharmaceutical permissiveness, this Wild West of medicinal outlawry, there were calls for government  regulation.  A national food and drug act was first proposed in Congress in 1880, but it failed to pass.  Many publications relied heavily on patent medicine ads for income, nor were most Americans ready for reform, believing as they did in certain inalienable rights: the right not only to worship freely, resist taxation, and damn the government, but also to self-medicate.  On every middle-class household’s library shelf, along with Tennyson, Longfellow, Little Women, and the Holy Bible, was a compendium of time-honored home remedies, many of them sanctioned by tradition and little else:

·      For toothache: 3 drops essential oil of cloves on cotton, placed in the hollow of the tooth.
·      To prevent or cure baldness: 2 oz. eau de cologne, 2 drams tincture of cantharides, 20 drops each of oil of rosemary, oil of nutmeg, and oil of nutmeg, to be rubbed on the bald spot every night. 
·      For burns and scalds: 4 oz. powdered alum put into a pint of cold water, then applied to the affected area.
·      For freckles: ½ dram muriate of ammonia, 2 drams lavender water, ½ pint distilled water, applied with a sponge 2 or 3 times a day.
·      For offensive breath: 6 to 10 drops concentrated solution of chloride of soda.
·      For deafness: 3 drops sheep’s gall, warmed, put into ear at bedtime and syringed with warm soap and water in the morning, applied for 3 successive nights.

     Armed with such remedies, why would one need patent medicines, too?  Because even the best home remedies didn’t always work, and how could one resist the glowing promises, the fervent testimonials, the round, square, drum-shaped, pig- or fish-shaped colored bottles, or even bottles in the likeness of a lighthouse, an Indian maiden, or a bust of Washington?  Also, many of the nostrums made you feel so good.

     But at the start of the twentieth century things began to change.  Muckraker journalists began investigating the ingredients of patent medicines and exposed their use of narcotics and – worse in the eyes of some – alcohol.  Hostetter’s Bitters, for example, was 4% herbal oils and extracts, 64% water, and a whopping 32% alcohol; no wonder it made you feel so good!  And the public began to question whether cocaine belong in toothache drops meant for children, and why users of certain nostrums developed alarming signs of addiction.  Then, in 1905, Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a series of eleven articles for Collier’s Weekly entitled “The Great American  Fraud,” exposing the patent medicine industry’s false claims and the harm they did to the public’s health.  Turning one of that industry’s stratagems against it, Collier’s put on its cover an illustration of a skull with a row of medicine bottles serving as teeth, and on the skull the words


and below the skull, “DEATH’S LABORATORY.”  It’s no coincidence that one year later, in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first of a series of federal consumer protection laws that, slowly but surely, brought an end to the patent medicine industry.  Morris Fishbein, the longtime editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, devoted much of his career to exposing quacks and driving them out of business.  But among his targets were osteopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic, dietary fads, and physical therapy, which should give one pause for thought.

Add caption

     Not that the quacks – or, if you prefer, patent medicine makers – went out of business completely.  Instead, they shifted their talents from selling nostrums to promoting deodorants and toothpastes, using the same techniques they had employed so effectively in selling nostrums.  Never underestimate the skill and resourcefulness of the American huckster; they’re with us to this day.

     And so are many products once promoted with extravagant or dubious medicinal claims in the patent medicine era, and now still on the market, albeit with a change in image and ingredients.  Soft drinks are prominent among them.

·      7 Up, marketed as Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda when launched in 1929, contained the mood-stabilizing drug lithium citrate  and was advertised as a remedy for hangovers.  The drug was removed from it in 1948.  Now 7 Up is advertised as a soft drink only.
·      Dr. Pepper, created in Texas in 1880 and marketed nationally in 1904,  was advertised as a brain tonic and “liquid sunshine,” capable of building up cells broken down by fatigue.
·      Pepsi-Cola, created in 1893 in North Carolina and named Pepsi-Cola in 1898, was marketed as a drink that would let you “zoom over your troubles” and scintillate, and nip an incipient headache in the bud.  Whether such claims can be labeled “medicinal” can be debated, but they certainly came close.
·      Hires Root Beer was created by a Philadelphia Pharmacist named Charles Elmer Hires in the 1870s and was marketed as purifying the blood and making rosy cheeks.

     Coca-Cola deserves a mention of its own.  It was invented by Confederate Colonel John Pemberton who, wounded in the Civil War, became addicted to morphine and sought to find a less dangerous opiate to relieve his pain.  Launched in Atlanta in 1886, Coca-Cola claimed to cure morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence.  The exact formula for Coca-Cola’s natural flavorings has always been a closely held trade secret, but its two key ingredients originally were cocaine (hence “Coca”) and caffeine (from Kola nuts).  Cocaine was eliminated in 1903, and in the 1911 lawsuit United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola the government tried to make the company eliminate caffeine as well.  The 40 barrels and 20 kegs won in court but in 1916 lost on appeal, causing the company to settle the case by agreeing to reduce the amount of caffeine.  Today the soft drink contains 43 mg of caffeine per 12 fluid ounces.


File:1922 bottled Coca-Cola ad.png

     Patent medicine makers came to be considered quacks, but what exactly is a quack?  According to my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is based on Webster’s Third International, a quack is simply “a pretender to medical skill.”  The word derives from the archaic Dutch word kwakzalver, or “hawker of salve.”  In olden times kwak meant “shouting”; quacksalvers touted their wares in a loud voice in the market. 

     Today “health fraud” and “pseudo-science” are practically synonyms for “quackery,” which is defined as the practices or pretensions of a quack, but the matter is by no means simple.  Orthodox medicine has always been suspicious of alternative treatments, and only with great reluctance came to acknowledge a certain validity in acupuncture and chiropractic, and this last only after a prolonged legal battle.  Because the American Medical Association had labeled chiropractic “an unscientific cult” and urged physicians not to associate with its practitioners, five chiropractors sued the AMA for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  The federal lawsuit Wilt v. American Medical Association ended in 1987 with a judge’s ruling that the AMA had indeed violated a section of the Sherman Antitrust Act and engaged in “a long history of illegal behavior”; while declining to decide whether or not chiropractic had any validity, the judge issued a permanent injunction against the AMA to prevent such behavior in the future. 

     But that was not the end of it.  Today quackbusters, often self-appointed, are rampant.  Prominent among them is the organization Quackwatch, founded in Pennsylvania in 1969 by Stephen Barrett, a now retired physician, to combat “health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct.”  Its targets have included acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, alternative medicine, herbal medicine, homeopathy, chiropractic, dietary supplements, and organic food – so wide a range of products and services, including traditional practices going back thousands of years, as to provoke serious doubts.  Anything alien to modern mainstream medicine seems to merit attack.  Despite numerous awards, Quackwatch and its founder are highly controversial and, in my opinion, deserve just as much scrutiny as the practices they attack.      

     My personal take: following my surgery for colon cancer in 1994, I was told that my cancer had a 40% chance of recurring, but that chemotherapy could reduce this to 20%.  But the idea of lying there passively at intervals over a period of weeks, while they dripped an alien substance into me, did not appeal, least of all the added possibility of unpleasant side effects.  As an alternative, I embraced a nutritional approach and began following an anticancer vegan diet that included cruciferous vegetables, garlic, soy foods, and lots of fruits and vegetables generally, preferably organic.  This approach involved no nasty side effects and I am still on it today; the cancer has not returned.  So when it comes to a debate regarding the pros and cons of alternative medicine, I have to come down emphatically on the side of pro.  Friends of mine with cancer have gone the orthodox way, enduring  chemotherapy and radiation and their hideous side effects; not one of them survived. 

     I don’t deny that there are cancer quacks out there, and other quacks as well.  But to pin that label to all forms of alternative medicine is unwarranted; some of that stuff works.  There are times for mainstream practices, and times for alternatives; both offer benefits, and both have limitations.  The consumer/patient has to make informed decisions.  But watch out where you get your information; make sure the source is trustworthy, and not simply the self-interested agent of the medical/ industrial complex (yes, it really does exist) or its opponents.  As always, caveat emptor applies. 

File:Louis Pasteur, foto av Félix Nadar.jpg
Louis Pasteur -- a quack?
     Meanwhile, let’s be glad that the patent medicines of yore have been buried in the dust of time; there’s little doubt that their promoters – yes, even the original sponsors of that beloved American icon, Coca-Cola – were quacks.  On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that Louis Pasteur, the pioneering French microbiologist, and Linus Pauling, twice a Nobel Prize winner, who advocated massive doses of Vitamin C for treating various diseases, including cancer and the common cold, were both denounced as quacks in their lifetime.  As was John Harvey Kellogg, a promoter of vegetarianism and, with his brother, the creator of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, a staple of my childhood as essential to the American scene and psyche as Coke (and I don’t mean cocaine).

Linus Pauling, twice a Nobel Prize
winner -- and a quack?

     Coming soon:  Where radar, transistors, sound movies, television, and so much else were pioneered right here in the West Village, while scandalous things happened nearby.

     ©  Clifford Browder  2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

190. The Village Nursing Home: Auntie Mame and Guinness Stout

     On my way to my dentist in the 1960s and 1970s, I walked past the big six-floor red-brick building at 320 West 12th Street that housed the Village Nursing Home, and on sunny days I usually saw some of the residents sitting in wheelchairs out on the sidewalk in front, getting a bit of fresh air (if “fresh” is appropriate for New York City air).  When my dentist, whose office was just across West 12th, told me of making visits there to tend the residents, I asked him how it was.  He gave a mixed review, saying that some of the staff were truly committed, while for others it was just a job, which is probably the case with most nursing homes.  At least, no horror stories emerged from there, so far as I recall. 

The Nursing Home building today.

     Two of its residents were legendary in the Village.  Marion Tanner, a graduate of Smith College and onetime actress often described as the inspiration for Auntie Mame, was made famous when her nephew, under the pen name Patrick Dennis, allegedly wrote about her in a best-selling 1955 novel that became a Broadway play starring Rosalind Russell (I saw it in 1957, loved it), then a movie that became a Broadway musical that in turn became a movie.  Ms. Tanner at first embraced the notion that she was the model for the eccentric, fun-loving Mame and coasted on it for quite a while, then distanced herself, insisting that she was a nicer person than Mame.  But as late as 1977 she was photographed in the nursing home, white-haired and smiling benignly, under a photo of Rosalind Russell in the film.

     Whether or not she was the model for Mame – accounts differ -- she was certainly a colorful Village eccentric, opening her home at 72 Bank Street to struggling artists, writers, freethinkers, and radicals (“Bohemian types,” she called them), whom she encouraged in their careers.  But in time she loosened her standards and also let in derelict drunks, ex-inmates, addicts, and shopping-bag ladies.  The house finally became a shambles, strewn with garbage and reeking of urine.  There was no lock on the front door, so while she would be off in a corner doing yoga and meditating, all kinds of people would be in and out of the house getting a free meal in the kitchen; the silverware soon disappeared.  Her nephew shared the dismay and disgust of the neighbors, and discontinued the monthly stipends he had been sending her.  She herself by now was sleeping on the top floor in a black sleeping bag full of roaches.

     Playing Lady Bountiful to these nonpaying guests took its toll financially as well.  In 1964, unable to keep up the mortgage payments, Ms. Tanner lost the house and, along with all the residents, was evicted.  By now, dowdy and straggly-haired, she herself looked more like a bag lady than Rosalind Russell’s elegant Mame, and she was on crutches as well, having broken her leg.  But on the day of the eviction she made sure the press was on hand, for she relished publicity.  The new owners hired a crew of four men to work twelve-hour days for a week cleaning and fumigating the house, and when they moved in, there was a crunch of dead roaches under their feet.

     Following the eviction Ms. Tanner moved into Bierer House, a halfway house for the emotionally troubled in Chelsea, where she was supposed to look after things while the owner was away during the day at work.  She stayed there for thirteen years and seems to have made a hit with the tenants.  In 1977, suffering from increased physical deterioration and senility, she found refuge in the nursing home, where her regal manner soon made her one of the stars; among her many visitors was none other than First Lady Rosalynn Carter, on an official visit.  But when, against Ms. Tanner’s fanatical will, the home’s assistant administrator had to wheel her out of her room so workman could proceed with much-needed renovations, she spat in the woman’s face.  In 1985, two months after a severe stroke, she died in the  home at age 94.  

     Marion Tanner was seen by some as a wonderful person, and by others as haughty, arrogant, and difficult.  Said the young deputy sheriff who evicted her, “She’s an amazing woman.  There’s no place left in our society for a person like her.  It’s too bad.  In an earlier time she might have been a saint.”  When a relative was informed of her passing, his only comment was, “Good.”  But at a memorial service for her at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Al Carmine of the Judson Memorial Church gave the eulogy.  “In her presence,” he said, “things glittered.”

     When I checked out her Bank Street address recently, I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk from my building on West 11th and Bleecker.  It’s a plain three-story red-brick building, and no plaque identifies it as the onetime residence of the alleged prototype of Auntie Mame.  Maybe, even after all this time, the neighborhood would just as soon forget about the antics of Ms. Tanner and her waifs and strays.

     The other legendary resident of the Village Nursing Home was Genevieve Camlian, who in 1977 attributed her living to the age of 93 to her daily ration of Guinness Stout, the famous Irish dark beer that is marketed worldwide.  In earlier days she had run about doing fortune telling based on the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination manual; one young man who encountered her called her an “Irish witch.”  Despite failing eyesight, after lunch at the nursing home she would trek down West 12th Street to the No Name Bar for her Guinness, which she, a native of Belfast, described as a “nutritional Irish drink.”  The bar’s owner, who let her run up a tab, had been captivated by the way she read poetry – she especially loved Yeats -- with her Irish lilt, and some twelve years earlier had arranged for her to enter the nursing home.  Little is known of her life before that.

     Long before I heard of Marion Tanner’s residing there, I had heard of Ms. Camlian’s residence at the home and her daily imbibing of Guinness.  In researching this post I wondered if the two had ever become acquainted, and imagined that a convergence of all that free-living eccentricity would have been dynamic, even explosive.  Then I learned that they had indeed known each other before, shared an interest in the occult, and “palled around” together, but by the time they were in the nursing home they detested each other and were no longer speaking; two prima donnas in one nursing home was probably one too many.  But the media loved them, and they were often mentioned in articles and TV news spots about the nursing home’s lack of funds and imminent demise; as a result, contributions poured in and helped save the home.

     New to the Village in the 1960s, I assumed that the nursing home had always been there, and that it always would be, which shows my ignorance and naiveté.  Like all old New York buildings, it had a long history, and that history was – and is -- still unfolding.

     The building that later housed the Village Nursing Home was built in 1906 by the wealthy New York City merchant William Martin as a residence for the young unmarried women who in those days worked in shops and department stores or in apparel and millinery factories, earning barely enough to buy food, much less pay rent.  Named the Trowmart Inn, the building on the outside was the same one I see today, a six-story red-brick building with granite facing and terra-cotta trim.  It could accommodate 400 women, each of its 10-by-12-foot rooms having a bed, a dressing table, a washstand, a table, and a couple of chairs: hardly luxury housing, but for working girls of the time, modest but comfortable accommodations. 

The Trowmart Inn.
Museum of the City of New York

     The building also had a spacious dining room, bathrooms, laundry facilities, a library, a full-time nurse, and six ground-floor parlors where the residents could entertain gentlemen callers, since Mr. Martin thought that the best solution for the working girl was a respectable marriage.  Rent was $3 a week for a shared room, and $4 for a single, and included breakfast and supper.  Staying out late was discouraged; the elevators stopped running at 11 p.m.  And under no circumstances were gentlemen to be entertained above the ground floor.  To be eligible, a woman had to earn less than $12 a week and be under age 35.  Within a year the hotel was full.

The dining room.
Museum of the City of New York

     Life at the Trowmart Inn was hardly dull.  Dances were held in the main  parlor three times a week, and silk hats and frock coats abounded, indicating that the gentlemen callers were of a certain status; to find favor with the girls, a gentleman needed to don his cleanest shirt and highest collar and, for a final touch, an artificial gardenia pinned to his buttonhole.  Many a ragtime romp ensued, and Mr. Martin’s goal was no doubt attained when, discreetly in the ground-floor reception rooms, marriage proposals were forthcoming. 

A dance at the Trowmart, 1908.

File:John D. Rockefeller Jr. cph.3a03736.jpg
John D. Jr., in 1920.
     But World War I brought change, for the U.S. government took over the hotel and used it to house the nurses and male attendants of a nearby army hospital.  With the war’s end, these residents moved out and the Trowmart Inn sat empty.  Then in 1920 John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated $300,000 to the YWCA to buy the inn, renovate it, and reopen it for working girls.  Renamed Laura Spelman Hall in memory of the benefactor’s late mother, an abolitionist and philanthropist, the renovated building had 258 larger rooms for what were now termed “business girls.”  

     As the years passed, times changed again; the need for women-only hotels declined, and the purpose of the Laura Spelman Hall became obsolete.  In 1958 the building became the Village Nursing Home, the only such home in the Village, with a private, for-profit operator.  But financial woes beset it from the outset, and it had trouble meeting government standards.  (Wikipedia states that in the early 1970s the owner absconded with the home’s funds, but I’ve found no confirmation of this.)  Threatened with closing in 1977, it was saved by a community effort that got help even from First Lady Roslyn Carter.  “Save our nursing home” was the cry, inspiring neighbors to hold cookie sales and restaurants to donate $275,000 to buy the building, and a coalition of church groups and social agencies to form a nonprofit organization, Village Care of New York, to run it. 

     Village Care grew impressively with time, but in 2004 it announced that it would close the facility and open a network of community residential health-care sites called SeniorLife Choices.  The building had become cramped and outdated, with water damage and cracked walls; in keeping with the latest trends in health care, the new facilities would have more of a family feeling and less of an institutional one.  Clearly, this was a concerted effort to change the public image of nursing homes, which were often viewed with suspicion and contempt.

     In 2007 the building was sold for $33 million to FLAnk, a condominium developer, which waited several years until Village Care, facing construction delays at its new Houston Street facility, could leave, then gutted the building and created ten spacious units, including two duplex penthouses.  Thanks to the delay, the timing was right, for the luxury housing market, crippled by the Great Recession of 2007-2009, was now reviving with a roar.  Brought to market in June 2013, the units – “townhouses in the sky,” as the developer described them -- were soon sold for prices ranging from $8.75 million to $31 million, prices that, for the West Village, were without precedent.  Now christened the Abingdon, the building offers a 24-hour doorman, a gym, a sauna, and private basement storage rooms for each unit, not to mention fine views of Abingdon Square Park across the street and, for the penthouses, the Hudson River.

     And Village Care?  In 2010 the Village Care Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, to use its full name, opened its new facility at 214 West Houston Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick, where it serves not as an end-point facility, but rather as a place where patients get rehabilitation and recovery care that prepares them to return home.  The 6-story, 105-bed facility is the first newly built skilled nursing facility for seniors in Manhattan in more than half a century.  On each floor there is a “commons” area where patients can socialize with other patients, dine, relax, and visit with friends and family.  A healing bamboo garden, offering a place for quiet social interaction and contemplation, reflects Village Care’s determination to offer “with it” twenty-first-century healing, as opposed to the traditional institutional atmosphere that characterized the old Village Nursing Home.  And Village Care has other facilities as well, treating a total of 14,384 patients in 2014.

     So ends, for now, the saga of the Village Nursing Home, aka the Trowmart Inn, Laura Spelman Hall, and now the Abingdon. When the scaffolding was removed in 2013, the old 607 Hudson Street entrance was revealed, its rounded arch flanked by columns and, carved in stone above, the words LAURA SPELMAN HALL.  I see it every day when I pass what was once a reasonably priced residence for young working girls and is now a luxury condo.


     For the new residents of the Abingdon who don’t enjoy a view of the Hudson River and sunsets over New Jersey, there is a view just across Hudson Street of Abingdon Square Park.  A small triangular park bounded by West 12th Street, Eighth Avenue, and Hudson Street, it has its history, too.  Originally it was part of a 300-acre estate bought by Sir Peter Warren, a British naval officer, in 1744.  When his daughter Charlotte married the 4th Earl of Abingdon in 1766, she received land in the area as part of her dowry, and the site became known as Abingdon Square.  After independence, in 1794 the City Council voted to replace all British place names, but the name of the square was spared, since the Earl and his wife had sympathized with the rebellious Americans, and he had argued in Parliament against British policy in the thirteen colonies. 

     In 1831 the Common Council decided to make a public park of the site and subsequently bought the land and enclosed it with a cast-iron fence that still stands today.  Then in 1886 the renowned architect Calvert Vaux was hired to create a new design for the park, which became a center of community life and the site of well-attended public concerts.  But in 1931, years before the creation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, a row of charming old red-brick homes on the north side of West 12th Street was  demolished to make way for the massive 16-story brick apartment building at 299 West 12th Street that towers oppressively over the park today, its awninged entrance presided over by a uniformed doorman.

     But all was not lost, for in 2003-2004 the park was renovated so as to restore its nineteenth-century atmosphere, with 1850s-style benches, bluestone walkways, and three cast-iron light poles replicating the gas streetlamps of another day.  Founded in 2000, the Abingdon Square Conservancy, a nonprofit community organization, now works in cooperation with the city to maintain the park, and I can attest that it does so magnificently, with frequent plantings of fresh flowers in season.  And, just outside the fence, on Saturday mornings throughout the year a greenmarket appears that I visit regularly to get bread and, in season, cherries and blueberries and apples from the farmers.  Presiding over the Park is the Abingdon Square Doughboy, a statue by Philip Martiny honoring the dead of World War I, whose dedication in 1921 was attended by 20,000 people.  Today, alas, its worn inscription is almost unreadable, and the statue itself is barely noticed by passing strollers, cell-phone addicts, and dog walkers.

     So if the residents of 299 West 12th Street and the outrageously wealthy new occupants of the Abingdon enjoy fine views of the park from their lofty domiciles, so do I when I stroll through there almost daily, and I don’t pay an exorbitant rent for the privilege.

     Coming soon:  Patent Medicines: Cocaine Toothache Drops (meant specifically for children), Hostetter's Bitters (why did it make you feel so good?), Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, and oh yes, Coca-Cola and 7 Up.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder