Sunday, July 5, 2015

187. Apothecaries and the Charms of Belladonna

     Big wide-mouthed apothecary jars of another time, with glass stoppers and bold labels reading


A host of smaller brown bottles with similar labels on a table, perhaps a medicine chest, that has seen better days.  An outiszed mortar and pestle, and a number of glass tubes and receptacles probably used to distill medications.  Metal canisters labeled ALUM and, intriguingly,


Apothecary jars

In a protective glass case, antique scales.  What looks to be an old radio, and another large object I can’t identify.  And, as the centerpiece of the display, a huge prescription book, the edges of its pages not yellow but brown with age, open to scores of prescriptions scribbled in an indecipherable hand, but whose year, if you squint and look closely, can be made out: 1917.  And in bold print at the top of each prescription, FRANK AVIGNONE & CO.

     Such is the current window display at Grove Drugs at 302 West 12th Street, but a couple of blocks from my apartment, one of the few independent pharmacies left in the West Village, where chain stores dominate.  Grove’s window displays are always of interest, but this one fascinated me at first glance, since it took me back to the apothecary shops of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  When I asked inside about the source of these relics from the past, I was told that they had belonged to a pharmacy at Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue, now closed, that had gone back a century or more.

     (Note:  The word “apothecary” can designate either the shop or the medicine compounder working in the shop.  To avoid confusion, I will use “apothecary shop” for the shop.)

     I soon identified the pharmacy in question as Avignone Chemists, formerly Avignone Pharmacy, which had been at Bleecker and Sixth Avenue since 1929.  But the pharmacy traces its origins back to 1832, when its antecedent was founded as Stock Pharmacy at 59 MacDougal Street, at the corner of Houston, one of the oldest apothecary shops in the United States.  In 1898 Stock Pharmacy was bought by Frank Avignone, an Italian immigrant, who changed the name to Avignone Pharmacy.  When the building was demolished in 1929 for the widening of Houston Street, Frank and Horatio Avignone built a two-story brick structure at 281 Sixth Avenue/226 Bleecker Street and moved their pharmacy in.  Frank Avignone’s son Carlo took over the business in 1956 and in 1974 sold it to the Grassi family, who were joined by Abe Lerner in 1991. 

     (A parenthesis to the above: Wikipedia calls Avignone the oldest apothecary shop in the U.S., but that honor is also claimed by another Village independent, C.O. Bigelow’s, at 414 Sixth Avenue, just above West 8th Street, which dates its founding to 1838.  This assertion relies on affiliating Bigelow’s with its predecessor, the Village Apothecary Shop, which was indeed established at a nearby location in 1838 by Dr. Galen Hunter.  Clarence Otis Bigelow, an employee of Dr. Hunter’s successor, bought the shop from his boss in 1880, renamed it after himself, then built the present building and moved into it in 1902.  Which of these claims, if either, is valid, I leave to the viewer.  I will only observe that an apothecary shop opened in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1759, a slightly earlier date than either date cited by these pharmacies.)

     When Abe Lerner and his co-owners renovated the building in 2007, they changed the name to Avignone Chemists.  The blond wood-frame exterior and double-door entrance, topped by a striped awning and an illuminated green cross indicating a pharmacy, gave it a welcoming warmth such as few  chain pharmacies can boast.  In the front window and on display inside were the very items of which I saw a selection in Grove Drug’s window: old apothecary jars, mortars and pestles, old clocks and radios and cameras, and several massive prescription books, all of which had been discovered in the basement during the 2007 renovation.

     The end for Avignone came earlier this year, when the building was sold and the new owner, Force Capital Management, a New York-based hedge fund founded in 2002, tripled the pharmacy’s rent to $60,000, which Abe Lerner could not pay.  Lerner, now 62, choked up at the thought of closing on April 30.  “I’ve spent half my life here,” he told an interviewer.  “I’ve known many of these people for thirty years; I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up.  A lot of these people have become friends -- they’re not just customers, they’re friends.”  The whole neighborhood mourns the pharmacy’s loss as well, for it had become a neighborhood hangout, a place to come and chat with friends.  Yet another example of how soaring commercial rents, which are not controlled, can gut a neighborhood, driving out mom-and-pop stores that have been in the neighborhood for years. 

     I walked by the old pharmacy at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street a couple of months after the closing, and there it was, a two-story building dwarfed by its neighbors, with “AVIGNONE CHEMISTS” above the striped awning, and on the awning “est. 1932,” which might be considered a bit of a stretch, since that date applies to a different pharmacy with a different name at a different address.  The double door is padlocked, and in the window is a big sign, RETAIL AVAILABLE, indicating that no new tenant has as yet been found.  And if one enters Winston Churchill Square, the small fenced park adjoining, high up on the building’s brick wall you can still see a faded sign probably dating from the 1950s:


     And what about Grove Drugs, whose display set me off on this investigation?  It’s a small pharmacy whom an online Yelp reviewer describes as “a fine, friendly, old-fashioned neighborhood pharmacy.”  True enough.  Like Avignone Chemists, Grove relishes its status as an independent pharmacy competing with the chain stores: David against Goliath, the little guy against the multiple massive presence of CVS Pharmacy, Duane Reade, and Rite-Aid.  Being small, it can offer only the basic basics, as compared with the Rite-Aid on Hudson Street, which has five times the floor space and offers a bewildering variety of products, including children’s toys, seasonal greeting cards, and junk-food snacks.

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Not exactly a friendly neighborhood pharmacy.

     Rite-Aid entices me with a so-called Wellness Card offering a 20% discount – not to be sniffed at -- on the first Wednesday of every month, but I can wander its many aisles without ever encountering an employee.  If I go to Grove, at the counter in back there’s always someone to point me to whatever I need.  Also, I like the plain-Jane simplicity of “Grove Drugs,” as opposed to “Village Apothecary,” another West Village independent, and yes, even “Avignone Chemists,” which to my mind hint of pretension.  And there’s something charmingly quaint about Grove’s closing on Sunday and holidays (“Please anticipate your needs”), and at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, while the chain stores are open 24/7.  As for its seasonal window displays – an animated wintry panorama with a miniature toy factory, carolers, and skaters at Christmas, bunnies at Easter, and skulls and bats and huge spiders and their webs at Halloween – they are the most entertaining in the entire West Village.

     And why does the pharmacy at 202 West 12th Street bear the name “Grove Drugs”?  Because for many years the owner, John Duffy, operated another West Village independent, Grove Pharmacy, at 261 Seventh Avenue, on the corner of Grove Street, until forced out by his landlord in 2006.  And why did the artifacts of the Avignone Chemists come to Grove Drugs?  Because John Duffy was part owner of Avignone as well.  So Grove Drugs must be his last stand against greedy landlords and invasive chain stores.  I wish him well.

     But I’m not quite done with the fascinating relics in Grove’s window, for to fully grasp their significance you have to understand the role of the old-time apothecary, a profession dating back to antiquity and differing from that of today’s pharmacist.  Pharmacies today are well stocked with over-the-counter products mass-produced by pharmaceutical companies; they come in standardized dosages formulated to meet the needs of the average user.  But throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the apothecary, the predecessor of today’s pharmacist, created medications individually for each customer, who received a product that was, so to speak, tailor-made.  In theory, the apothecary had some knowledge of chemistry, but at first there was little regulation. 
File:Laboratory and library of an apothecary Wellcome M0007386.jpg
A 17th-century German apothecary.
Welcome Library

     The objects on display in Grove’s window hearken back to this early period when the apothecary made compounds from ingredients like those in the bottles and jars displayed, grinding them to a powder with a mortar and pestle, weighing them with scales to get the right measure, or distilling them with the glass paraphernalia seen in the window to make a tincture, lotion, volatile oil, or perfume.  The one thing typical of the old apothecary shops that the display can’t reproduce was the aroma, a strange mix of spices, perfumes, camphor, castor oil, and other soothing or astringent remedies.  Mercifully absent as well is a jar with live leeches, since by the late nineteenth century the time-honored practice of bloodletting, which probably killed more patients than it benefited, had been discontinued.

     The apothecary’s remedies were derived sometimes from folk medicine and sometimes from published compendiums.  Chalk was used for heartburn, calamine for skin irritations, spearmint for stomachache, rose petals steeped in vinegar for headaches, and cinchona bark for fevers.  Often serving as a physician, the apothecary applied garlic poultices to sores and wounds and rheumatic limbs.  Laudanum, or opium tincture, was employed freely, with little regard to its addictiveness, to treat ulcers, bruises, and inflamed joints, and was taken internally to alleviate pain.  Little wonder that well-bred ladies became addicted, like Eugene O’Neill’s mother, as memorably portrayed in his play A Long Day’s Journey into Night.  But if some of these remedies seem fanciful or naïve or even dangerous, others are known to work even today, as for example witch hazel for hemorrhoids.

     But medicines weren’t the only products of an apothecary shop.  Rose petals, jasmine, and gardenias might be distilled to create perfumes, and lavender, honey, and beeswax were compounded to create face creams  to enhance the milk-white complexion desired by ladies, in a time when the sun tan so prized today characterized a market woman or farmer’s wife, lower-caste females who had to work outdoors for a living.  (The prime defense against the sun was, of course, the parasol, without which no lady ventured outdoors.)  A fragrant pomade for the hair was made of soft beef fat, essence of violets, jasmine, and oil of bergamot, and cosmetic gloves rubbed on the inside with spermaceti, balsam of Peru, and oil of nutmeg and cassia were worn by ladies in bed at night, to soften and bleach the hands, and to prevent chapped hands and chilblains.

     But the apothecary’s products were not without risks.  Face powders might contain arsenic; belladonna, a known poison, was used to widen the pupils of the eyes; and bleaching agents included ammonia, quicksilver, spirits of turpentine, and tar.  All of which suggests a less than comprehensive grasp of basic chemistry.  And in the flavored syrups and sodas devised to mask the unpleasant medicinal taste of prescriptions, two common ingredients were cocaine and alcohol, which must have induced in the patients an unwonted buoyancy of spirits.

File:Cocaine tooth drops.png
Marketed especially for children, no less.

     Also available in an apothecary shop were cooking spices, candles, soap, salad oil, toothbrushes, combs, cigars, and tobacco, so that it in some ways approximated the general store of the time.  And in the eighteenth century American apothecaries also made house calls, trained apprentices, performed surgery, and acted as male midwives.

File:Close-up of a specimen of black or deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), ca.1920 (CHS-5525).jpg    Belladonna, which appears in the Grove Drugs window display, merits a mention of its own.  The name means “beautiful lady” in Italian, for the juice of its berry was used by Italian women in the Renaissance to dilate the pupils of their eyes so as to appear more seductive.  A sinister and risky beauty resulted, for this small shrub that grows in many parts of the world, including North America, produces leaves and berries that are extremely toxic, as indicated by its other common name, “deadly nightshade.”  It has long been known as a medicine, poison, and cosmetic.  Nineteenth-century medicine used it to alleviate pain, relax the muscles, and treat inflammation, and it is still in use today as a sedative to stop bronchial spasms, and also to treat Parkinson’s, rheumatism, and other ailments. 

File:Francisco de Goya y Lucientes - Witches Sabbath - Google Art Project.jpg
A witches' sabbath, Goya version.  
Satan often appeared as a goat.
     Belladonna figures often in history and legend.  It is said that Livia, the wife of  the Roman emperor Augustus, used it to kill her husband.  And in folklore, witches used a mixture of belladonna, opium, and other poisons to help them fly to conclaves of witches called sabbaths, where participants did naughty things, danced wildly, and kissed the devil’s behind.  The shiny black berries have been called “murderer’s berries,” “sorcerer’s berries,” and “devil’s berries.”

     All in all, not a plant to mess with, although a staple in most apothecary shops of former  times.  If you think you’ve never gone near it, think again, for if you’ve ever had your eyes dilated, belladonna is in the eye drops.  And I’ll admit that the name intrigues me: belladonna, the beautiful lady who poisons.  Which brings us back to the Empress Livia; maybe she did do the old boy in.

     Gradually, the professions of apothecary and pharmacist --  never quite distinct – became more organized, then regulated.  In the nineteenth century patent medicines (which were not patented) became big business, thanks to advertising, but their mislabeling of ingredients and  extravagant claims inspired a growing desire for regulation that finally resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  This and subsequent legislation probably benefited apothecaries, since mass-produced patent medicines competed with their products. 

File:FDA Exhibits (FDA 177) (8225342034).jpg
An FDA exhibit of dangerous products that the 1906 act didn't cover, used to campaign for stricter legislation, which was enacted in 1938.

     As late as the 1930s and 1940s, apothecaries still compounded some 60% of all U.S. medications.  In the years following World War II, however, the growth of commercial drug manufacturers signaled the coming decline of the medicine-compounding apothecary, just as the use of the mortar and pestle diminished to the point of becoming a quaint and charming symbol of a bygone era.  In 1951 new federal legislation introduced doctor-only legal status for most medicines, and from then on the modern pharmacist prevailed, dispensing pre-manufactured drugs. 

     By the 1980s large chain drugstores had come to dominate the pharmaceutical sales market, rendering the survival of the independent neighborhood pharmacy precarious.  Yet some of them do survive, as we have seen, and when one closes, the whole neighborhood mourns.  But in a final twist, the word “apothecary,” meaning a place of business rather than a medicine compounder, has become “hip” and “in,” appearing in names of businesses having nothing to do with medicines.  It expresses a nostalgia for experience free from technology and characterized by creativity and a personal touch, a longing for Old World tradition and gentility.  And as one observer has commented, “apothecary” is fun to say. 

     A note on poisonous plants:  Though it grows in North America, I’ve never seen belladonna, nor is it listed in U.S. field guides.  But other poisonous plants are common, and I’ve seen them in the field.  Poison ivy is ubiquitous but too familiar to dwell on.  Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) does indeed sting, as I know from experience, and cursed buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), which I’ve seen growing in shallow swamp water in Van Cortland Park, causes blisters if touched; yet neither is described as poisonous.  Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), an umbrella-like plant with terminal clusters of tiny white flowers and finely divided fernlike leaves, grows in one shady spot in Van Cortland Park and lives up to its name, since its juices are highly toxic; in ancient Athens it was the means for putting Socrates to death. 

File:Conium maculatum Lincolnshire 1.jpg
Mick Talbot
     But the real surprise for me, in researching poisonous plants, was to learn that jimsonweed (Datura stramonium), which I’ve seen growing in dry soil in Pelham Bay Park in the summer, is both hallucinogenic and poisonous.  I should have known, for it’s in the nightshade family, which includes belladonna.  (And the potato and tomato, but that’s another matter.)  An erect, foul-smelling plant with coarse-toothed leaves and big, trumpet-like flowers three to five inches long, it attracts attention because of its large, pale violet flowers, but there’s something about it that is brazen and coarse.  The common name is a contraction of “Jamestown weed,” for it was first described in America in 1676 in Jamestown, Virginia.  It has been used in folk medicine as an analgesic, and in sacred ceremonies among Native American tribes as a hallucinogen.  But both the medicinal and hallucinogenic properties are fatally toxic if used in slightly higher amounts than the medicinal dosage, and many a would-be visionary and adventurous thrill-seeker has ended up in the hospital, if not in a coffin. 

File:Datura stramonium 002.JPG
H. Zell

     So here am I, reveling in the exotic charms of belladonna, when right close to home, viewed every summer in a city park, is a native species every bit as dangerous, and fascinating, as the beautiful eye-dilating lady of the Renaissance.  But no, I’m not even remotely tempted to taste of the hallucinatory joys of jimsonweed, whose other names include devil’s snare, devil’s trumpet, and hell’s bells.  But it does make a hike in Pelham Bay Park more interesting.

     Coming soon:  West Village Wonders and Horrors.  Including a civilized parlor and the most talked-about monstrosity in the Village.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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