Winter is barely half over in New York, and the dryness of the air along with cold temperatures has people religiously dabbing lip salve and slathering emollient creams onto face, hands, and the bottoms of their feet.
Rather than trekking into the likes of Duane Reade or Walgreens, history walkers who find themselves inside C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries are treated not only to one-of-a-kind personal care products, but a shopping experience that transports you back to a time when the neighborhood chemist diagnosed ailments and prescribed homeopathic remedies for fevers and pains.
Touted as the oldest apothecary in America, Dr. Galen Hunter founded The Village Apothecary Shop in Greenwich Village in 1838. During that same year, Rose Wonder Cold Cream was formulated by Hunter as a cleanser, makeup remover, and moisturizer. In 1880, Clarence Otis Bigelow, an employee of the shop, took over proprietorship, re-named the shop, and moved to its current location a few doors down on Sixth Avenue in a newly-designed brick-and-limestone Romanesque Revival building. Bigelow was not only a chemist, he was one of the founders of West Side Savings Bank and held memberships in social organizations like the Salmagundi Club and the Sons of the Revolution. He lived on the Upper West Side and owned a summer home in Allendale, New Jersey.
In the 1920s, a soda fountain was added to the premises, in keeping with many pharmacies at that time. A hack stand was located outside of the building for cabbies who would take lunch breaks at the counter, which was removed in 1984 during renovations. The store boasts Gothic-style chandeliers and its original gaslights that have since been electrified; the gas can still be turned on and kept business running during the blackouts of 1965 and 1977.
Among its famous customers, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain was known to have paid his bills promptly; his name can be seen in the ledger that is sometimes on display in the store. Thomas Edison reputedly patronized the apothecary when he needed salve for his finger, burned from tinkering with his invention called the light bulb. The store carries a variety of brands, from everyday lotions like Lubriderm to unique beauty items that cannot be found in a typical chain store.
A famed feline personality associated with C.O. Bigelow was Rex, or “Mr. Bigelow”, a cat who was in-residence for over fifteen years. People would drop in to give Mr. Bigelow home-cooked chicken and deli meat, which explained his heavy eighteen-pound frame. Mr. Bigelow liked to lick the store windows, sometimes for forty minutes straight, and was not a big mouse-chaser. He did love children and would jump into customers’ laps if he took a liking to them. Mr. Bigelow was so renowned a New York Times obituary was written after his death.
The apothecary is now owned by Ian Ginsburg; his grandfather, William, bought the store in 1939 and William’s son, Jerry, took over in the 1950s. In response to the arrivals of big drugstore chains like Duane Reade, Ginsburg began to market the C.O. Bigelow name on the Internet and brokered deals to distribute its products through companies like Limited Brands and Bath and Body Works. Much like Bigelow himself, Ginsburg has become quite the New York socialite, lending the Bigelow name and its resources to support causes such as breast cancer research.