While John Woodbury wasn’t born in Albany, it was during the 15 or so years he lived here that he created a product that endured for almost a century and a cosmetic surgery empire.
Woodbury was born in 1851 in New Hampshire into an old New England family. He came to Albany when he was about 23 in 1874 and established himself as Dr. Woodbury – chiropodist (podiatrist) at 70 State St. at the corner of State and N. Pearl (in what was then the Dexter Building).
His first newspaper ads indicate that he’d previously practiced with Nehemiah Kennison in Boston – the father of modern podiatry in the U.S. (“Dr.” Kennison was so well known he was the subject of satire in the “Harvard Lampoon” in the 1870s.) Woodbury’s offices were large – 3 parlors; we assume that he may have had some financing from a member of his mother’s family – a cousin – Charles Tenney – an very wealthy NYC hat manufacturer.
At the same time Dr.Woodbury was practicing podiatry he was selling soap. Lots of soap, and not just any soap, but a facial soap-guaranteed to enhance and beautify – Woodbury Soap. In the Gilded Age, the beauty product and cosmetic market was just taking off. Most soaps had been made from primarily from harsh caustic alkalis – like lye and ash. Dr. Woodbury’s facial soap was special – it was “toilet soap” made with oil and perfumed. It was a small luxury item a shop girl or factory worker could afford. Dr. Waterbury perfected the product and advertised like crazy in newspapers all over the country – becoming the dominant brand in marketplace. He created the “Woodbury” brand that would endure for another 100 years.
His practice thrived; soap sales thrived. He moved his offices – first to 40 N. Pearl (the Ten Eyck Plaza is there today), and then across the street – to 39 N. Pearl. By 1877 his office were next door at 37 N. Pearl – 6 rooms with 3 separate parlors for ladies. Soap sales boomed and he was now selling a book on dermatology and skin care through the mail.
Financially secure, Woodbury married a young woman, Ada Kelley also from New Hampshire, in 1877, and they lived above the offices. It was the beginning of a perfect domestic and business life. Their future was bright. Sadly, she died the next year at age 22.
It appears that Woodbury threw himself into his businesses after her death, selling more soap and patenting an orthotic device, while living as a boarder on lower Chestnut St. It was during this time Dr. Woodbury expanded his practice to include dermatology. It was quite successful. Recent research* has identified Dr. Woodbury as the one of the pioneers of modern cosmetic surgery – performing everything from brow lifts to nose bobs to face lifts using cocaine anesthetic in his offices in Albany. Who knew? Meanwhile, the soap business grew and the Woodbury name was quickly becoming synonymous with facial soap (in the way we would say “Kleenex” for tissues today).
Woodbury re-married in 1882, to Cora Landon from Sharon Springs and they move back to the rooms at 37 N. Pearl. In 1889, looking for a bigger market, he moved to New York City to concentrate on dermatology (he published his first article on cosmetic surgery procedures in 1892), selling soap and an expanding his brand of personal care products – powders and creams.
In NYC in 1897 he opened the Dermatological Institute. In 1899 he runs into legal problems – New York State sues Woodbury for advertising a medical practice while not being a licensed physician. Woodbury wins and expands his business. By now Woodbury soap is an entrenched national brand – sold by druggists all over the country. He sells the iconic soap (his face is on the wrapper) to the Andrew Jergens Co. in 1901 (Woodbury retains 10% royalty) and uses the money to maintain the expansion of the Dermatological Institute in 4 cities – double chins begone!
But soon there is more legal wrangling over the use of the name “Woodbury” between the Dr. and the Jergens Co. (Woodbury was now selling “Woodbury’s New Skin Soap.) There was malpractice litigation. And again, in 1908, Woodbury was sued for practicing medicine without a license- this time he lost. (The argument that the Institute was a corporation and not an individual failed to prevail, and set NYS precedent about the corporate practice of medicine.) The Institute went into bankruptcy.
Finally in 1909 Dr. John Woodbury commits suicide at an hotel in Coney Island.
But the soap he created and refined in Albany is his legacy. The named remains, but Jergens takes his picture off the wrapper and launches a major magazine campaign targeted explicitly to women. In 1911 Jergens strikes gold; it hires J. Walter Thompson, one of the pioneering ad agencies. A Thompson employee, Helen Lansdowne Resor, the first female copywriter in the country (Yay!) comes up with the slogan, “A Skin you love to touch”. Sex sells and sales of Woodbury soap skyrocket.
The marketing campaign continues until the 1930s when Jergens breaks another barrier (Dr. Woodbury, I think, would have approved.) Jergens pairs the tag “Filtered Sunshine” with totally tasteful semi-nude photos of women (by the world renowned photographer Edward Steichen) in a national advertising campaign.
But over the next 40 or so years competition appears, the advertising loses its spark, and Woodbury came to be viewed as an “old fashioned” brand (did your Grandma use? Mine did.) Despite spiffy new graphic packaging, sales flag. Finally, when Jergens is acquired by another company in 1970, the Woodbury brand slowly disappears.
But next time you’re downtown, and walk by the southeast corner of N. Pearl and Pine St., think about the fact that this was location of what was probably the first nose job performed in the U.S. in 1887! Another Albany first. There really needs to be an historic marker.
*”The 19th Century Origins of Facial Cosmetic
Surgery and John H. Woodbury”, Keith Denkler, MD, Plastic Surgery, Larkspur, CA, UCSF Medical Center and Rosalind F. Hudson, MD, “Aesthetic Surgery Journal”
2015, Vol 35(7) 878-889
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor