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A SuePur Destination:

Three of New York City's New-Age Old-World Apothecaries

by Susan Purdy

 

A bell tinkles on the apothecary door. A woman steps inside and takes a deep breath of a heady combination of fragrances. The lingering sweet smell of vanilla, the sharp, clean scent of lemon, and the healing bouquet of aromatic herbs, all seem to mingle and fill the air. She smiles and begins to browse the well-stocked shelves, while a clerk waits to assist her. Is this the 1800s the 1900s or the new millennium? Surprisingly, it can be all of the above. Tucked away throughout New York City are several old-world apothecaries, still catering to their clientele with the tender touch of yesteryear.

Today, very few of these pharmacies, some located in the same area where they first purveyed their goods, continue to dispense medication. Instead, they have evolved into cozy shops that offer upscale products such as perfumes, lotions, scented soaps and toiletries, often made exclusively for them. But despite their old-world look, they are very much 21st century businesses that sell their products in company stores, department stores and on websites.

Making Presidential Scents

In 1752, the year that Benjamin Franklin first flew his kite, Dr. William Hunter, founded the apothecary shop that would become Caswell-Massey. Located in the heart of Midtown, at 518 Lexington Avenue at 48th Street, this shop has catered to stars like Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and Greta Garbo, who didnt vant to be alone," when she made a daily visit to Caswell-Massey.

The Number Six cologne, favored by President George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette is still on shelves today, as is Jockey Club, the fragrance worn by JFK. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower made the Almond and Aloe collection a White House staple, and Dolly Madison loved the sophisticated scent of White Rose.

In 1926, William Massey and John Caswell created the famous flagship store on Lexington Avenue that has recently undergone a face-lift. President and CEO Anne Robinson, who oversaw the shops renovation with an eye toward restoration, said, Our goal was to enhance the store with a more updated elegance, while preserving the beauty and history that are its cornerstones.

As you browse the shelves, look for the door that originally led directly into the Barclay Hotel, now the Hotel Intercontinental. The pharmacy closed eleven years ago but the old-world charm of this apothecary remains, reflected in the original huge mirrors that line the walls, magnificent crystal chandeliers that illuminate the colorful bottles and the mahogany cabinets and shelves that hold the now antique pharmacy scale and old apothecary jars. The tang of fragrances that waft through the air combine to take visitors on a sweetly scented trip to a time long past.

A National Treasure

The East Village corner at 109 3rd Avenue at 13th Street where Kiehls has been located since 1851, is known in history books as Pear Tree Corner. This is the spot where Governor Peter Stuyvesant planted the famous fruit tree that survived into the 19th century and that may well have shaded the shop that took up residence. Objects from this apothecary, one of the oldest in the city, were requested by the Smithsonian for the Museum of History and Technology and now are on display in Washington, DC.

Originally owned by John Kiehl, the store was operated as an outlet for medicinal ointments and remedies. Pharmacologist Irving Morse bought it in 1921 and ran it for many years before turning it over to son Aaron. Since then the proprietor has introduced the hair and skin care products now used by stars such as Sharon Stone, Winona Ryder and Sarah Jessica Parker. Aaron also filled the tiny shop with a hodge-podge of memorabilia lining walls and flanking shelves today. Objects such as antique motorcycles would interest the husbands of women while they shopped.

Among all the no-frills bottles and jars -- the focus is on the ingredients, not the packaging -- are a mix of family member snapshots whose personal hobbies inspired new product lines. Daughter Jami Morse Heidegger, who recently sold the business to Cosmairs LOreal division remains at its helm. It was Jami who inspired a baby line when she gave birth to daughter Nicole and, in turn, Nicole's interest in riding helped to create the Equine line. Her husband Klaus is a champion skier and he energized the introduction of the sports line including all the sun screen products.

Customers have always enjoyed the 19th century charm of the wooden floors and antique-filled windows, as well as the generous free samples here.

The Shop Around the Corner

Picture Greenwich Village in 1838: cobblestone streets, a few buildings beginning to take on the patina of age, and the Village Apothecary Shop, which would later become Bigelows, at 414 6th Avenue and West 8th Street.

The shop dispensed herbs and chemicals to doctors who blended them to create their own prescriptions, and the 600 pound, solid brass scale used for this purpose now sits high atop a shelf behind todays busy pharmacy. Its said that Bigelows has filled over 3,500,000 prescriptions since it opened its doors, including those for Mark Twain who in addition stocked up on toothpaste, as well as for Civil War generals and the citys mayors.

The blending of old and new seems to fit here, as beautiful oak shelves display the latest pharmaceutical and beauty products including Bigelows line of essential oils and soaps. The ceiling, supported by marble pillars, is not plaster, but canvas stretched across the expanse of the store. The iron gas chandeliers and the wind-up clock were converted to electricity but have not lost their charm, and the genealogy of ownership can be read on a shiny brass plaque beneath the clock.

Partner and pharmacist, Joel Eichel, here since the 1930s reported, We still carry items like Lassars paste, which is zinc oxide for babys bottoms, and Listerine, which has been around since the late 1800s and was originally used as an antiseptic. We also see homeopathic remedies returning to the shelves that originally held them before World War I. Bigelows catalog features products from around the world such as J. Pickles, an English ointment for corns and hard calluses, in production for over a century, and Botot mouthwash, invented for Louis XV of France.

 

Phone numbers of the apothecaries:

Caswell-Massey -- www.caswellmassey.com, (212)755.2254

Kiehls -- (212) 677-3171

C.O. Bigelow -- (212) 473-7324

 

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