Why An Iconic Pharmacy Is Turning Into A Sex Toy Museum
The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg thanks to its industrious owner. Now, her daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop.
The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner, who is sitting next to her at the table. Genger and Müllner are surrounded by heavy wooden drawers and antique glass vessels labelled with the Latin names of their contents, as is often found in old pharmacies.
The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests. Genger grew up in St. Pauli and after leaving school, moved to London to study painting. Now she is a freelance artist, businesswoman and owner of the former Clemens-Schulz Street pharmacy, which is now a historical landmark. Müllner is also a freelance artist and works as a curator.
For 50 years, Genger's mother Regis Genger also took a creative approach in running the New St. Pauli Pharmacy. At least, she sometimes found creative ways to help her customers. They didn't only come to her in search of remedies for headaches and sore throats; her customers also included trans people whose insurance wouldn't cover hormone treatment and were therefore looking for alternatives. The busy pharmacist could often offer them a solution.
Bringing together art and business
For Genger's daughter Anna, it was clear that if her mother decided to give up work, she would have to sell the old pharmacy paraphernalia to make room for new ideas, her own ideas. But in October 2018, a wrench was thrown in the works when the Office for the Protection of Historic Buildings wrote to her saying that the pharmacy equipment couldn't be removed.
The curators didn't have to search very hard for a link between sex toys and the pharmacy
"This pharmacy is the only one in Hamburg that has been in constant use from 1799 to 2018," says Anna Genger. So she decided to rethink her business model, looking for something "that would be commercially driven but also appropriate for the premises, something that would enrich the area," she explains. Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys.
But the museum will not be a collection of the funniest dildos, inviting visitors to chuckle at the exhibit like women at a bachelorette party. That doesn't mean laughing will be forbidden, though. For Genger and Müllner, it's not about sex toys specifically, but about the history behind them.
They want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities. The corset of polite society was pulled tight, with gratification only condoned for the means of procreation. Therefore it was unthinkable that men and women would turn to other ways of reaching climax.
Old and new handmade contemporary exhibits in L'Apotheque museum
Links between medical care and pleasure
It's not surprising that the first electrical, mechanical sex toys that began to be used in the early 20th century weren't officially marketed as such.
"It was usually massagers which were meant to improve health and beauty," says Nadine Beck, an academic from Altona who has spent the past 10 years studying the precursors of sex toys. Beck wrote her doctoral dissertation on vibrators and has lent part of her collection to the L'apotheque museum.
"Men and women used the vibrating, stimulating appliances in ways that weren't their intended purpose. They simply took them into the bedroom," says Beck.
A quick look at the exhibition shows that the curators didn't have to search very hard for a link between sex toys and the pharmacy. One example is "higo zuiki," a traditional Japanese sex toy that was used as early as the 17th century. Dildos and penis rings made from dried stems of the taro plant are also on display. Taro was believed to have an aphrodisiac effect as well as anti-inflammatory properties, so it was also used as a treatment for other complaints.
One piece of evidence that household appliances were used for unintended purposes is the story of the tumble drier from East Germany.
The museum shows how the history of desire has changed over time
"It had a starting lever on the top. You had to sit on the drier to stop it from jolting around the room. The combination of the vibration and positioning the lever in the right place could be very stimulating," says Müllner. It's unclear whether the manufacturer was aware of this alternative usage.
The cover was originally made of plastic and was easily damaged by people sitting on it, so it was later replaced by a metal version. The starting lever that had been so useful was replaced by a simple switch, so the new models lost their appeal.
L'Apotheque was built in 1861 and is one of the oldest pharmacies in Germany.
History of desire
Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.
There are other direct links to St. Pauli's red-light district. The two women have created their own gin, called L'a Gin, with the Nordik distillery in the Altes Land area near Hamburg. They've collaborated with the fetish label Inner Sanctum, which is based in St. Pauli, to release two limited editions: 50 bottles in frilly purple latex and another 200 in a black and white bunny outfit, exclusively designed for Playboy. Genger says, "We think it's reasonable to expect we'll make a profit on these luxury editions."
And what does Genger's mother think of all this? She still lives above the former pharmacy, occasionally dropping in and remarking that the old pharmacy bottles with Latin name labels are in the wrong order.
"Other than that, she's proud of what we're creating here," says Anna Genger. Perhaps it's because her daughter is living out the most important piece of advice the pharmacist ever gave her: "It's better to fly free and alone like an eagle than in a flock with the ravens."
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