Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, continued
The next site I seek is right across the street from the New School on W. 12th St near 6th Ave. The address was number 77, but as you can see, there’s no building with that number here anymore. According to Robin Pokorski of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Sanger made her first public appearance here on January 6th, 1916 after returning from her self-imposed exile in Europe to escape obscenity charges. She eventually decided to return and face them, however: her husband had already done so on behalf of her cause the month before, and her chances in court were better now since birth control had become a much more regular topic in the press. I find no record of her talk nor a history of a public venue here. I do find a listing for 77 W 12th St in the Catalogue of the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Volume 1, published in 1917. It’s the address of Caroline Speare, who has two pieces of art pictured in the catalogue. Looking through it for more about Speare, which I don’t find, I stumble across an early charcoal work by Georgia O’Keeffe, which is a delightful find. Perhaps talks were held at Speare’s place as well as displays of her art, but I can find no evidence of this at this time.
I do find a form letter which Sanger had written the previous day, on Jan. 5th, 1916, to send out to friends. In it, she writes about the indictments against her over her distribution the year before of her magazine The Woman Rebel and its so-called obscene subject matters: the sexual liberty of women and birth control.
She also shared the news in the letter, briefly, of the death of her ‘little daughter’ from pneumonia two months before. Five-year-old Peggy’s death was very hard on Sanger, and the brevity of her announcement in this letter betrays her feelings. She mourned her daughter for the rest of her life, sometimes in the shape of panicked dreams that her little girl needed her help but couldn’t be found, sometimes by looking into systems of spirituality that might put Sanger in touch with little Peggy somehow, be it Rosicrucianism or spiritualism. Sanger likely felt some degree of guilt that she left her daughter behind for so long, though Peggy was well cared for by family and friends. Her young son Grant also blamed Peggy’s illness on Sanger’s being away. This was a sore spot in their relationship for years to come, as were Sanger’s frequent and long absences from the lives of her children generally.
I head two blocks north on 6th Ave and turn left (west) on W 14th to number 246. Sanger lived here in December of 1916. The building I find here now, with a nightclub with a marquee and theater style doors painted a deep glossy black on its ground floor, is numbered 244, and the beer and burger shop next door is numbered 248. It appears 246 and 248 W. 14th St. used to be one address not too long ago before it split into two smaller spaces. There are apartments above the burger shop. It’s a five-story building with a store on the ground floor as a contemporary atlas indicates was there, but if it is original to Sanger’s time, it’s hard to tell given the changes to the exterior over the years.
Then I turn back east, then north, towards 46 W. 15th St. between 5th and 6th Aves. This stretch of 15th turns out to be the set for a scene from Gotham, as a sign taped to a lamppost says, which is presumably the TV show of that name. I’m allowed to pass by quickly but not stop at my destination until the scene is shot. So I watch the action while I wait. There’s a man of middle age, handsome, wearing slicked-back gray hair, a long black coat, and a serious expression, who stoops to attend to something near the rear driver’s side tire of a black car as the cameras record. Then, next take, he’s behind the wheel, parked, and he ‘flings’ a man aside who’s just leaned into the driver’s side window by shoving open the door, then leaps out and ‘punches’ another man who runs at him from the rear of the car. As I wait, the actors take breaks while they ready the car for another take. I find myself standing next to the actor who plays the protagonist of the scene. He looks on, bored, but smiles pleasantly when he catches my eye.
I return to take my photos in a pause between takes when they allow people to pass by. Again, the address I seek no longer belongs to any building. The tile company numbered 42 is next to a large, sleek, glassy building numbered 50. The Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau opened its third, expanded location here at 46 W. 15th Street in early 1929. (Pokorski gives the year of the move as 1930, but this photo and other evidence I find place it in the year before.) I find an image of the BCCRB, but it’s owned by Getty Images. The licensing fee is expensive so I won’t use it to illustrate this account, but you can see it online. In the background of that photo, you can see a W. 15th St address printed on an awning, so we know what’s happening in the foreground was at this location: the police raid of the BCCRB on April 15th, 1929.
An undercover policewoman, Ann McNamara, posing as a patient, gave her medical history, received a pelvic exam, and was fitted with a diaphragm at the BCCRB. She reported the details of her visit to Mary Sullivan, administrator of the New York Police Department Women’s Bureau who led the raid, on the assumption that the clinic’s practices which McNamara observed were illegal. The police officers rounded up the clinic’s medical director Dr. Hannah Stone, assistant medical director Dr. Elizabeth Pissort, and nurses Antoinette Field, Marcella Sideri, and Sigrid H. Brestwell. The raid ended up garnering a lot of support for the BCCRB and for the birth control cause in general. As it turned out, the clinic was operating in accordance with state laws since it was run by physicians, and the police had overstepped their legal bounds by improperly seizing and reading confidential medical records. Physicians all over the United States and beyond were outraged at this violation of doctor-patient confidentiality and public support flooded in. The case was dropped, the five women were vindicated, and detective Sullivan was demoted.
It looks like they’re about to film another action scene here: the car is rigged with cameras and a machine nearby is dramatically pumping out steam. I have too many places to go today to stay and see what happens. But if you’re watching Gotham one day and see a woman in the background wandering with a red-covered tablet and a brightly printed Thai cotton shirt, that’s me. I wasn’t exactly good about staying put the whole time.
I walk just around the corner and a little ways north on Fifth Ave to number 104 between 16th and 15th Streets. 104 Fifth Ave was added to the already existing Stuyvesant Building at 100 Fifth Ave, built in 1906, in a style to match.
This was the first home of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, founded here on January 1st, 1923 across the hall from the first offices of the American Birth Control League. The ABCL, as you may remember, was conceived of in Juliet Rublee’s home in 1921, then instituted here later that same year. The American Birth Control League would join forces, or in a sense, reunite, with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and become Planned Parenthood in 1942. More on Planned Parenthood to follow in an upcoming account.
And just around the corner from 104 park Ave, north and then left at W. 16th St, at number 17 between 5th and 6th Aves, is the Margaret Sanger Clinic House. The actor’s trailers and equipment trucks from the Gotham shoot I just passed through a block over on W 15th are parked along this street, and one is so placed that it blocks a clear shot of the front of the building. So I take some closeup photos and one at a sharp angle which shows its location next to the Center for Jewish History. This seems fitting, since Sanger’s early work as a nurse in the Lower East Side and her birth control clinics served so many Jewish immigrant women struggling to make a new start in the United States.
The Margaret Sanger Clinic House at 17 W. 16th St, originally the second home of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, was the first legal birth control clinic to open in the United States. That’s because, as discussed above, Sanger took care to run this one within the parameters of the law by placing it under the direction of physicians. Sanger was ambivalent about legally limiting all birth control services to physician-run clinics. For one thing, physicians were not yet in general agreement about the medical and moral effectiveness and desirability of birth control, for many reasons. Many physicians opposed it on religious grounds, others on positive eugenics grounds. And many more simply recognized that there was far too little known as yet about the processes of reproduction and how to control it.
Sanger knew the latter all too well, so often frustrated by her inability to help women control their fertility as much as she would like too. Most birth control methods had a fairly high failure rate even when used correctly, but using them correctly was time-consuming and awkward, especially, of course, in times of passion, so the failure rates overall were very high. Many of the best contraceptive devices were expensive and many other women, the very ones who needed birth control the most, could not afford doctor’s visits. And because the supply of artificial contraception was driven into the black market, all manner of dubious, ridiculous, and even outright dangerous methods proliferated. Sanger and the BCCRB staff knew this all too well and kept a curio cabinet full of these junk devices and potions at the clinic as examples of what not to use (which the police seized in the raid as well, in their ignorance). However dangerous, however dubious, women still continued to use them, as they were often safer than the other alternatives: self-inflicted or illegal abortions, or carrying a pregnancy to term. Maternal and infant mortality rates were very high at the time, especially among the poor.
But Sanger’s more pressing doubts about restricting birth control services to physicians sprung from her feminist concerns over women’s right to control their own bodies and destinies. Many physicians believed that women should have as many babies as their bodies conceived, whether or not their patients believed this too. This subordinated women’s decisions about sex, reproduction, and family planning to those of their doctors, whose opinions on the matter often had nothing to do with medical concerns. And even more concerning since the ramifications were wider, much of the ignorance about reproduction stemmed from the indifference or squeamishness of the male-dominated medical and research science professions. Most were simply unwilling to risk their reputations and professional careers in the search for knowledge about human reproduction, still considered a distasteful, messy side of humanity best kept under a discreet veil of sentimentality and ignorance.
I take the subway north and return to the New York City Public Library. First, I consult Ellen Chesler’s excellent Sanger biography for more details of discoveries I’ve made and to refresh my memory on some other things. As I read page 62 of Woman of Valor, I’m reminded that Sanger worked for awhile as a nurse with Lilian Wald’s Visiting Nurses Association. I first learned about Lilian Wald’s nursing service at the Henry Street Settlement House site when I visited the Lower East Side for my Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton series in 2014. It was right around the corner from the former site of Rose’s 1836 home at 484 Grand Street and the nearby Bialystoker Synagogue.
Coincidentally, I’m reminded of Ernestine Rose here in the beautiful Rose Room of the New York Public Library. I love this library. I read and make notes, my feet grateful for the rest, then I head down to the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Room 117, where I confirm the location of some sites that are no longer there. Some of the maps are original paper ones, and you’ll find photos of these throughout this series. Others are scanned into the online system, and the librarian helps familiarize me with the website’s digital collection.
I walk north on 5th Ave then turn left at 46th, to 69 W. 46th St, just east of 6th Ave near Times Square. Again, there is no longer a building with that address here, but in the 1920’s it was the site of the Gamut Club, founded by feminist actress Mary Shaw in 1913. She thought other women’s clubs she belonged to had become little more than sessions of ‘tea table tattle, bridge, and banalities’. Her Gamut Club would devote itself instead to intelligent discussion and the support of socially conscious arts. The club hosted dinner discussions, guest speakers, and feminist-themed plays. There are two occasions which lead me to follow Sanger here. On January 21st, 1920, as recorded in the February edition of The Birth Control Review of that year, Sanger was a speaker at one of the weekly Tuesday dinner meetings. As the Review tells it, these women-only events were intimate enough to allow the attendees to discuss the issues much more fully and freely than they might have in mixed company. And on March 26, 1924, she lectured with Dr. Dorothy Bocker on the topic ‘Should All Women be Mothers?’ As of the time I write this, I find no record of the lecture, but my guess is that their answer to that questions was ‘no’.
Then I head to Hotel Astor at One Astor Plaza at the intersection of 44th St and 7th Ave. The Astor faces onto Times Square. It’s a weekday rush hour and the throng is thick. I take a deep breath and plunge in.
According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which included ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’
I see there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal in the collections of the University of California. This now gives me two topics to research there for this series. I’ll return to fill in the details of this story as soon as I can.
The last Sanger site I visit for the day is at 123 W. 43rd St between 6th and 7th Aves. It’s now early evening but I have just enough light left to photograph the Town Hall Building. It’s an attractive red brick building in a federal revival style, with modest decorations in pale stone and its name and humanitarian purposes carved into a huge pale stone placed horizontally and prominently along its façade. It was built in 1921, earlier in the same year of the event that brings me here.
On, Nov 13, 1921, a meeting was scheduled here to close the First American Birth Control Conference which saw the public launch of the American Birth Control League, which, in turn, was to become Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s friend Harold Cox was to deliver a speech called ‘The Morality of Birth Control‘, which Sanger authored. He was scheduled to speak after Mary Shaw, founder of the aforementioned Gamut Club. However, to their surprise (though perhaps not total surprise) a squadron of police officers blocked their entrance at the door. After some wrangling, Sanger, Cox, and attendees managed to make their way inside. The police, however, would not allow Cox to speak, dragging him from the stage.
As it turns out, the police claimed to be there at the request of Archbishop Patrick Hayes. They carried Cox and Sanger off to the station followed by a crowd of protesting attendees. As a generator of publicity for her cause, Sanger couldn’t have planned it better. She had long opposed the Catholic church as backward, unscientific, and oppressive of women’s rights, and this debacle, in the eyes of many, proved her point. The American Civil Liberties Union, prominent New Yorkers, and newspapers from all over roundly criticized this trespass on free speech rights. While Hayes was ultimately never found officially responsible, we’ll likely never know for certain whether he did request police intervention. Who knows, it may have been a simple case of ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ except, of course, the other way around. Hayes’ friends and sympathizers may have just wanted to help him out by putting a stop to this turbulent woman, at least in his city.
But Sanger triumphed in public opinion in this case not once, but twice. On Jan 15th, 1937, Sanger was presented here at the Town Hall with the Award of Honor by the Town Hall Club in honor of her bravery and contributions to society.
Thus ends another fascinating day’s journey in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger. Stay tuned for my adventures on Day Three!
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~ Special thanks to the Museum of the City of New York, a wonderful institution with an extensive collection of photographs and documents which tell the story of New York City and its people
Sources and Inspiration:
‘100 Fifth Avenue‘, from 42Floors website
‘About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.
‘Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies‘. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Oct 01, 1999. From the Center for Disease Control website
Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 32 and Plate 37. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
‘Diversity of the Desirable‘, The Evening Journal, Nov 21, 1929 page 6, Wilmington, Delaware
Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.
Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Johnson, Ben. ‘Thomas Becket.’ Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accomodation Guide
Krich Chinoy, Helen and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre, 1981, 1987, 2006. New York: Theatre Communications Group
‘Margaret Sanger Is Dead at 82; Led Campaign for Birth Control‘. The New York Times: On This Day, Obituary Sep 7, 1966
Miller, Tom. ‘The 1847 “Margaret Sanger Clinic” House – 17 West 16th Street‘, Sep 18, 2010, Daytonian in Manhattan blog
‘National Birth Control Parley Nov 18 in N.Y.‘ The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, Oct 3, 1929
‘Nell’s‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
‘Raid Sanger Clinic on Birth Control‘. New York Times Apr 16, 1929
Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.‘ Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.
Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth-Control Raid‘, May 1, 1929, The New Republic, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944. Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Form Letter to Friend(s)‘, from Samples from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project for the Model Editions Partnership
Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938
Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Morality of Birth Control,’ Nov 18, 1921. Published Speech. Source: The Morality of Birth Control, (New York, 1921)The Margaret Sanger Papers Project
Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013
Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company
‘The Town Hall Raid‘, Newsletter #27 (Spring 2001) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project
‘Troublemakers!‘ Nov 28, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU