Saturday, May 17, 2014

The 1909 Woman's Protective Health Assoc. Fountain - Riverside Drive

photo by Alice Lum

Mrs. John H. Scribner, writing in Public Health Papers and Reports in October 1897, recalled the beginnings of the Woman’s Health Protective Association and its current goal.  “The Woman’s Health Protective Associations owe their origin to the efforts of a band of women, thirteen years ago, in New York, to abolish a frightful nuisance in their neighborhood.  After six years of unintermittent work the nuisance was overcome and abolished, but in the meantime other evils which menaced the public health had been called to their attention, and in turn the slaughter houses, public baths, gas houses, bake-shops, etc., received their aid, and the New York City Board of Health recognized their influence, and in time their work became much easier and their influence greater each succeeding year.”

The “band of women” had increased over those thirteen years and branched out to Boston, Philadelphia and other cities.  The determined women recognized health problems, spearheaded their own investigations, and lobbied (or bullied) city and state agencies for solutions.  The women often came from moneyed families; but were by no means reserved and helpless females.

Five months before Mrs. Scribner’s article Teresa Barcalow demonstrated just how feisty an Association member could be.  On the morning of May 4, 1897 she was on her way to a meeting of the Woman’s Health Protective Association when she noticed two boys, about 16 years old, fist-fighting on West 34th Street near Broadway.  The vicious fisticuffs had attracted a crowd of men who were enjoying the spectacle.  The following day the New-York Tribune gave a blow-by-blow account.

“Miss Barcalow promptly made her way to the combatants, seized them by their respective collars and dragged them apart.  One of the youths had left a milk wagon to engage in the contest, and Miss Barcalow ordered him to get into it immediately and drive away.”  She told the boy that if he did not obey her, she would drive the wagon herself to the nearest police station.  The humiliated lad considered his situation for a moment, then climbed aboard the milk wagon and drove away.

By the time a policeman arrived the newspaper estimated the crowd of men to have swelled to about 100.  As she walked briskly away from them, she “remarked in a tone perfectly audible to the assembled multitude that one woman was equal to about five hundred men, and then she proceeded calmly on her way to join in the deliberations of the honorable body, the W. H. P. A., of which she is a member.”

It would appear that the Association had no lack of causes to protest.  In May 1900 it was successful in getting an ordinance pass prohibiting “expectoration on steps or platforms of the elevated railroad system.”  The new ban was an extension of the existing prohibition on spitting in the railroad cars.  The association would soon print “spitting cards” on which were printed the Sanitary Code ordinance.  Women traveled about the city armed with the cards and when they saw a violating expectorator, they handed him a card.

Before long the women would address conditions in the cars themselves.  On December 20, 1902 Mrs. Ralph Trautman, president of the association, held a meeting in her home “to take further action in the question of car crowding.”  That year they also took up the issue of perishable foods displayed in front of butcher and vegetable stores.  “Fruits, vegetables and meats so placed collect many impurities and are extremely injurious to health, the association argued,” reported the New-York Tribune on November 5, 1902.

The unsanitary condition of ships bringing immigrants to the United States was attacked by the Women’s Health Protective Association in 1903 and the group’s solution was to put women inspectors on each ship.  Mrs. Trautman was quoted by the New-York Tribune on May 6 that year as “heartily approving the expedient of sending women back and forth on immigrant vessels, the steamship companies to contribute their passage and the government to pay for their services.”

The group also investigated the problem of underfed children and launched a push for school luncheons.  As could be expected, not everyone appreciated the determined efforts of the female society.  Many men, especially those whose jobs and day-to-day activities were curtailed by women whom they felt should be at home, were less than complimentary.

When a committee from the Association called on Captain Gibson of the Department of Street Cleaning in 1901, the irate Commissioner would go directly to the Mayor.  The Association said “The object of this call was to induce him to send a committee to inspect the various systems of garbage cremation, with a view to allowing those that seemed worthy to compete for the garbage contract of New-York.”

Commissioner Nagle apparently did not appreciate high-intentioned women telling him how to run his Department.  He wrote a letter to Acting Mayor Guggenheimer accusing the women of “political jobbery” and “selfish motives.”

The Commissioner’s accusations were met with a retaliatory letter from Mrs. Sydney Rosenfeld, secretary of the group.  And he was also informed of “excessive garbage on the beaches.”

A faction of the Woman’s Health Protective Association took up another cause as well—Women’s Suffrage.  In addition to its demand for women’s right to vote, it was equally opinionated in its stand to not include African-American men the same right.  The feeling was that this would dilute the focus on women’s rights and they supported a new, 16th Amendment instead that would offer “universal suffrage” to all races, genders and religions.

In the first years of the 20th century public fountains were often donated by individuals or groups, either as memorials or as “temperance fountains”—those intended to provide refreshing water and keep men out of the saloons.  In 1906 a touching pink marble fountain was unveiled in Tomkins Square Park—a moving tribute to the nearly 1,000 victims of the General Slocum side-wheeler disaster.  Three years later the Woman’s Health Protective Association commissioned its sculptor, Bruno Louis Zimm, to design another.

photo by Alice Lum
As the Association’s 25-year anniversary approached, the group planned homage to itself.  On May 7, 1910 the handsome marble bench and fountain was dedicated on the west side of Riverside Park at 116th Street.  A large grandstand for 1,000 spectators had been erected which was decorated with red, white and blue.  The New York Times estimated that at least another 1,000 people crowded around.  “There was music and the children from several public schools sang patriotic airs and gave May pole dances.”

The women had paid $8,000 for the fountain—about $189,000 in today’s money.  It consisted of a bench on either side of the fountain, behind which an 11-foot stele rose.  In low relief Zimm sculpted two female figures holding a lamp between them; representing the group’s shedding of light on health issues.  Names of the leading members were inscribed on either side.  Not forgetting other thirsty beasts, a trough below the fountain supplied water for dogs. 

Two women holding a lamp was representative of the Association's bringing public health problems to light -- photo by Alice Lum
In accepting the fountain, Park Commissioner Stover was as much grateful as he was inconvenienced at the gift.  He took the opportunity to remind the women that public fountains required almost constant maintenance, at city expense.  Unmaintained fountains could become the source of stagnant water, mosquito larvae, and disease—all the things the Woman’s Protective Health Association railed against.
In his speech, according to The New York Times, he “told the women that a fountain was one of the most attractive ornaments and useful acquisitions in a big city, but that, not properly controlled, they would become not only a detriment, but a menace to health.  He spoke of, as an illustration, the fountain presented by Jacob Schiff some years ago, standing at East Broadway and Rutgers Street, put up at a cost of $13,000, and now actually a menace.”

The Commissioner did not stop there.  “While there is no gift which is more acceptable from its usefulness than a fountain, there is none which makes so much trouble.  We can quote in New York, ‘Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.’”  He made note of the water shortage in New York at the time.  “I have been warned by the Water Supply, Gas and Electric Department that we are using too much water, and that the fountain supply must be cut off in New York at night.”

The newspaper made no mention of how the society women reacted to the Commissioner’s less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of their $8,000 gift to the city.

The dog trough, now removed, originally sat below the fountain basin -- photo by Alice Lum

The Woman’s Protective Health Association fought its various battles for a few more decades.  Its memorial to itself survives along Riverside Drive; a striking, if distressed, tribute to a group of strong-willed women whom few remember today.

The Tennessee marble is cracked and stained; a serious candidate for restoration -- photo by Alice Lum

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