Treasures of the Corner Drugstore and Soda Fountain

September 12th, 2008

In this interview, Bill Soderlund talks about the history of pharmacies and about collecting drugstore antiques including show globes, bottles, and soda fountain items.

I’m fourth generation in the pharmacy business, so I grew up in a pharmacy, and it always was interesting to me. I also enjoyed a lot of the old black-and-white movies that had a hospital scene or a doctor scene. Those just piqued my interest. I’ve collected everything from drugstores except tobacco, and at some point I probably will start doing that. I’ve stuck basically to soda fountains and the pharmacy aspect, the drugstore aspect.

I especially like the patent medicines. I like seeing what they had, and what was being used, 50 to 100 years ago, and what’s happened to the drugs over time. I’m a pharmacist myself, so I’ve tried to study what the latest and greatest was 50 years ago and see what has stood the test of time. A lot of the drugs are still effective, and a lot have fallen by the wayside even though they were good drugs.

I like seeing the progression of the pharmaceutical companies over time. Most of the major drug companies we have right now were started by pharmacists. They started out pretty rudimentary, pretty basic, and evolved over time, into multinational companies.

Collectors Weekly: Can you give us the short history of the drugstore?

Liquid Carbonic Co. Cherrie Punch syrup dispenser

Soderlund: In ancient times, the pharmacist was a priest. Religion and medicine were practiced hand in hand. Over time, it got slightly more scientific, but basically it started out hit or miss. Different areas of the world had their own types of drugs, and the trade routes and the priests expanded that. Knowledge of the different herbs was spread around. There were times in history where drugs became more advanced, and then fell by the wayside and got maybe a little more hocus pocus.

The modern pharmacy era started when they began to take the crude drugs, the vegetable herbs, and extract the active ingredients out of them. They extracted opium from the poppy, and isolated morphine. They were able to isolate cocaine and quinine, those are probably the three biggest drugs. And once they isolated them, with chemistry, they were able to discern some of the properties, and chemistry got its start back then as well. And then the Germans tried to invent synthetic dyes, and came up with an anti-microbial drug with a synthetic dye. It was a sulfur drug that actually killed the bacteria.

So pharmacy I think really got its start in the late 1800s. There were all kinds of tonics and crazy theories, but over time it evolved and it got more scientific. A lot of it started here, in the U.S. Look at the soda industry, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Pharmacists tended to get into the soda fountain aspect because they were making flavors to mask the taste of these bitter drugs. So they went hand in hand.

Artist rendering of soda fountain circa 1890

Typically early drugstores were very small, but they usually included some kind of a soda fountain. You could get something to eat as well. The original ones were basically guys driving around with a wagon, selling drugs, the snake oil salesman, but as the pharmacy developed, people would set up shop in towns, especially in the Midwest. A pharmacist would basically mix up the remedies onsite. They all had their own specialties.

You didn’t have to have an education or a license to practice pharmacy. You just went into town, and if you did a good job, you stayed. If you killed off people, you didn’t stick around too long. In the 1930s, there was a real concerted effort to get pharmacies and pharmacists actually licensed. Before that there wasn’t really an accreditation process. A guy could just put out a shingle.

Up until 1914 you could put anything you wanted in a drug. And Sears and Roebuck sold a lot of drugs right out of their catalogue. They had soothing baby syrup, for example, that actually had opium in it and alcohol. You’d give that to the baby and it put them to sleep, but it was a narcotic.

During the Civil War, the morphine and the opium products were available, and a lot of people lost limbs or had serious problems. A lot of the Civil War veterans came back and they were addicted, and it wasn’t until 1865 to 1914 before they cracked down on it. But it was common; there were a lot of opium addicts running all over the place.  As a rule they couldn’t function. They just needed to get their slug at the bottle periodically. People would put that into the prescription drug because you’d get a repeat customer. Same with Coca-Cola, they had cocaine and caffeine in it, and originally marketed it as a headache treatment. But you’d probably show up at the pharmacy to get it on a regular basis because it could be addictive.

“Sears Roebuck sold a soothing baby syrup that had opium in it.”

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 cracked down on labeling – if it had narcotics, you had to say so. Then there was an outcry, so in 1914 they abolished over-the-counter narcotics and then Prohibition followed shortly after. There was a real push to sober up the country, get them off the drugs, because there were a lot of people hooked on the narcotics. And there was a lot of drinking. So five years after the Harrison Act, which got rid of the narcotics, they got rid of alcohol.

Before that, people didn’t know what was in these medicines. A lot of these tonics would say it’ll improve your blood or your health. But the active ingredient was actually alcohol. And then they started throwing in strychnine, a lot of the old tonics actually had strychnine, which is a poison. But after 1907 they’d put that right on the label. They had to.

Collectors Weekly: And after they made these laws, did it change things for drugstores?

Radam’s Microbe Killer Lehn & Fink Ad

Soderlund: Yes, they’d actually advertise drugs that were non-narcotic. That was a big selling feature because people had became leery of it. Interestingly, though, before the 1940s, what really became popular were amphetamines. They’d actually put amphetamines in the vitamin tablets. That went on up until the 1960s. So they were leery of the narcotics, but amphetamines were relatively new. They came about in the ‘30s, and they started throwing them in everything. In the ‘60s they clamped down, so you needed a prescription.

Barbituates were another thing that came out; they were sleeping pills. And they found out people became extremely addicted to them, and you develop a tolerance very quick. So maybe by the 10th night, they’re really not doing much but you got to take them because you’re addicted to it. As a side note, when codeine came out, that’s an isolate from opium, they advertised that it wasn’t supposed to be addictive. Well, it’s just as addictive as any of the other opioids.

Collectors Weekly: Tell us more about the soda fountains.

Soderlund: Drugstores had them to supplement their income, and it was a good dovetail with the pharmacy because you had to flavor these syrups. Otherwise people wouldn’t take the medicine, it was too bitter. The pharmacist’s chocolate and syrups were good masking agents for drugs. You pretty much had to make them yourself because they weren’t commercially available.

Chocolate was the big soda flavor, but a lot of fruit juices too, they boiled them down and made syrups out of them. When you get to a certain sugar level, it’s about 85 percent weight to volume or 65 percent weight to weight. They call it a simple syrup. And if you boil it down and you get to a sugar concentration of the 65 percent, bacteria won’t grow on it.

I think they started putting soda fountains in drugstores in the 1880s, and they became pretty popular in the 1890s. The real heyday was around 1910 to 1930, when it just became a common thing to see a soda fountain in there. The Liquid Carbonic Company made that possible because you could make your own carbonated water with their apparatus. It would take carbon dioxide out of the air and concentrate it.

The reason they carbonated things was to mask bitter taste. Like the fizz in Alka-Seltzer, which masks the bitter aspirin taste. Carbonated beverages actually became popular because of quinine, which is used to treat malaria. It’s one of the most bitter drugs there is. They’d carbonate it so people could take it. They’d have tonic water and it would have quinine in it.

Prohibition was another reason for soda fountains in drugstores. During Prohibition, they would say you could get the best drink in town at a drugstore. Doctors could write prescriptions for people to go get a pint of whiskey and whatnot. The pharmacies could legally possess ethyl alcohol, ethanol, but they never made it illegal for doctors, hospitals, or drugstores to have alcohol. So if people didn’t want to do business with a bootlegger, they could get a prescription from the doctor for alcohol.

Alcohol was used a lot, back at the turn of the last century, it was the premier thing. If you saw the word elixir, it meant that it had alcohol in it as a dissolving agent.

Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a bit about the show globes?

Standing show globe from the 1930′s

Soderlund: Nowadays if you see a mortar and pestle, that’s the symbol of a pharmacy. But back then, just like a cabinetmaker would put a table and chairs in his window, a pharmacist would show his prowess with chemicals with a show globe. Some people say if the globe was red, that meant there was an outbreak of some disease in town, and if it was green, all clear. Either way, it was a nice image for people to look at and identify the pharmacy, and it also showed that the guy knew how to mix up chemicals because of the different colors he could put in there.

The show globe was kind of the barber pole for pharmacy. You needed artificial dyes and different kinds of colorings that were hard to come by. You needed to know what you were doing. So they’d put the colored water in there, and a lot of times they’d have different layers of different colors in there as well, using different solvents. So some would float on top of each other and then some would have different stripes in there.

They put them in their windows. There were all kinds of different styles of them. If you look at some of the old black-and-white movies, every pharmacy scene, they got show globes in there. For some reason they fell out of favor, and mortar and pestle has taken its place.

I don’t have any of the real expensive ones. You can pay $10,000 or $15,000 for the real rare ones. It’s glass. The older ones are definitely hand blown. There was also a variation, the lighted show globe. Once electricity came around, somebody got the idea, well, let’s put lights on it. It looks like a lamp almost. There’s one that says, “may we fill your prescription.” It actually has something that spins in there too. And it was before plastic came out, so they had some kind of a waxy substance on a cloth. And when it lights up, it turns inside the show globe.

Collectors Weekly: How were pharmacies using bottles back then?

Milam Herb Compound

Soderlund: Well, the pharmacist would use bottles with corks. If they couldn’t get the cork to fit into the bottle, they’d run it through a press to constrict it. All the old medicines from the 1800s had corks in them. So you’d take your dose and stick the cork back in the bottle.

They would make tablets. Capsules weren’t common, but for tablets, the pharmacist would wet the powder and make it sticky like a dough and then roll it out and make like a snake out of it or a long tube. Then they’d cut it with a knife, and what they call the pill tile, which had markings on it so you could cut it the same width each time. So they called druggists pill rollers because that’s how they made pills.

The other thing they’d make was powders. They’d put them in a paper and fold it like an envelope so you’d get a stack of powders, and then you’d open that up and put it in a liquid usually. But a good share of the drugs were in liquid form, because in order to get the drug out of the plant, they’d have to brew it just like a coffee or a tea. To get an extraction, the final product would be liquid.

There was a type of bottle the pharmacist would use that had a label with a piece of thin glass that fits over the top, thus the expression, label under glass. So if you spilled it, it wouldn’t get on the label. Those were real popular in the late 1800s up until probably about 1930, every pharmacist had them. They’re very pretty bottles.

There were probably 200 to 300 different types of products that they’d stick in those bottles. I’ve seen all kinds of different things. And when you went in to get your prescription, your prescription might be put in a bottle as well, a regular glass bottle with a cork. A lot of times bottles got reused. There’s one bottle I have; it’s Keeley’s Cure for Drunkenness. On the bottle, it says when you’re done with this, smash the bottle so someone else couldn’t use it and put some phony product in there. People reused bottles all the time, because they were expensive.

There were also the ceramic apothecary jars, though in the U.S. they were pretty much decorations. Over in Europe, I think they actually put herbs and plant material in them, but the ones from the United States, they’re pretty fragile. You wouldn’t want to be lugging around with them too much. You’d put them on a shelf and leave them there.

Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us more about patent medicine?

Oil of Anise Essential Oil

Soderlund: They started in the 1800s, and carried over until the early 1960s. There were still a lot of patent medicines around. Basically, there were probably 40 or 50 different drugs that were commonly used, and each drug company or pharmacist would have their own special formulation because drugs patents, per se, weren’t that common. So they all made the same drugs but they’d have their own brand of it. Those were considered patent medicines, and they’d put the word cure on it.

Everything cured something. I have one bottle, the logo on it is a guy beating up a skeleton and it says cures everything. Even after they started putting ingredients on the label, it was real common to have anywhere from 10 to 20 different drugs in a prescription bottle or even over the counter.  The only reason they got moved away from that is because you had to do all these studies, study each individual drug and find how it affects people. The average person is taking eight to 10 different prescription drugs. Well, back when you just mixed them all together, they were still taking that many drugs.

100 years ago, you could start a pharmaceutical company with a couple pieces of equipment, no testing or anything. They started some safety testing in the 1930s because some people got poisoned. Antifreeze in some of the medicine killed some people. So they passed a law you had to actually prove your drug was safe. But it wasn’t until the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, where you had to prove efficacy and effectiveness.

Collectors Weekly: Were drugstores set up the same way back then?

Soderlund: There were all kinds of variations on them, but they had similarities. Usually you have a door in the center and a window on each side. They were usually pretty narrow and long because you didn’t have shelves in the center, but along the edge and then glass shelf cases in front of those. The pharmacies were typically in the back.

The biggest difference was that everything was behind the counter or in a glass shelf case, you had to go in and ask for everything. It was the grocery stores in the ‘60s that changed that, got into the pharmacy business and started selling the over-the-counter drugs, aspirin and Band-aids. You could go down to the shelf and pick it out. They weren’t licensed by the state board of pharmacy, and they wouldn’t have a pharmacist, but people liked it because maybe it was a little less expensive or more convenient.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that drug companies started making things in tablets, which made it a lot faster for the druggist to fill a prescription because he didn’t have to make it from scratch. So the pharmacist could make just as much money in less time. Originally the drug companies, before they actually made the tablets and such, they would sell tinctures or concentrates of the drugs, and do the testing on it for potency.

Collectors Weekly: How did they go about advertising different drugs?

Alka-Seltzer Ad 1932 Dr. Miles Medical Co Elkhart Ind

Soderlund: Companies would market directly to the doctor. They had lots of sales reps running around the countryside, and the druggists would buy drugs directly from these salesmen. Now, as a side note, condoms were banned in a lot of states, and just about every state that allowed them, you had to buy it at a drugstore. Dad told me, and the pharmacist at this drugstore before me, that a guy would come by in his car and come through the back door and there was a real hush, hush, and the pharmacist would buy these out of the guy’s trunk because it was frowned upon. So you had to go into the pharmacy and specifically look around, make sure no one was looking and then you’d ask the pharmacist for the condom. That’s basically how a lot of these products were sent out to the pharmacies.

The pharmacy couldn’t advertise the drugs direct to the consumer, because it was illegal to do so in many cases. So usually what they’d advertise is that you could count on their quality. So if you look at the old labels, it would have the person’s name on it, Mrs. so-and-so, and then it would just say, “Take two tablespoons a day.” And if the patient said, “What’s this for?” you could lose your license if you told them. You’d have to say, “Go talk to your doctor.” This is because the doctors didn’t want to get their toes stepped on.

What the drugstores did advertise was which brands they carried, Schering-Plough or Merck. You couldn’t advertise prices either.  Some of my favorite brands were Lilly and Merck. My dad told me, and it was in 1972, Merck sent out a letter to the druggist and apologized that the first time in 50 years they were going to have to raise the price of a drug. They actually apologized.

Collectors Weekly: So what are your favorite collectible items?

Soderlund: Pretty much soda fountains and drugstore pharmacy items. I’ve inherited a bunch of things, and I look at eBay and go to antique shops. We have a small museum in the drugstore, and people just bring in things because they like what I’m doing. I don’t charge any admission; you just come in and look. People just clean out their medicine cabinet and bring things in. One guy brought in several boxes of drugs – his dad was a pharmaceutical sales rep. As a side note, I always try to keep the drug in the bottle. Some people dump them out because they are poisonous, but I have a PhD chemist here. And if we ever want to go back and test what’s in it, we got a record of it then.

Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of collectors of drugstore and apothecary antiques?

Gift or Premium Mortar and Pestle

Soderlund: I think a pretty good number. Pharmacists or people who inherited something and one of their parents was a pharmacist. There’s an organization out of Madison, Wisconsin that has the history of pharmacy. They put out a newsletter and promote pharmacy history. But as far as clubs, I’m not aware of any.

In terms of information resources, I think there’s more books for soda fountain collecting, but pharmacy is hard. I collect old books as well, and that’s where I’ve gotten a lot of my information. I’ve interviewed retired pharmacists and gone back and got some books from the mid 1800s. But a good book about the history of pharmacy, I really haven’t run into.

In Rochester, the Mayo Clinic does have a nice exhibit there. The Mayo Clinic had anesthesia, which became commonly used after the Civil War, they’d use ether. There are so many different branches in pharmacy that I just think are extremely interesting. The nitrous oxide, the laughing gas, the dentists came out with that one. A lot of pharmacists also were developing different forms of anesthesia.

Collectors Weekly: One last question, when did they start using the Rx symbol?

Soderlund: Rx is from Latin. The doctor would communicate with the pharmacists in these obscure symbols, and Rx meant this is what the prescription is. So that’s been around for 200 years or more. The reason they would do symbols is they didn’t want the patient to know what they were getting. But typically the doctor would write Rx on the prescription as an abbreviation to say this is the part that’s telling you what we’re giving them and how to take it.

One of the best names for a drugstore chain was Rexall, if you remember that. Basically it stood for Rx all, you could get all the Rx’s you could possibly want there. They were a big chain 40, 50 years ago. Walgreens is still around form that era, and there’re different local ones that are still going. Here in the Midwest we have Snyders Drug, they’re falling on hard times now but they’ve been around since probably the ‘20s.

(All images in this article courtesy of Bill Soderlund and The Drugstore Museum)

14 comments so far

  1. D. Neuman Says:

    My father was a pharmacist from about 1930 until about 1980. He passed away in 1998. I have inherited two of his scales, show globes, mortar and pestles, etc. One of his scales, which I remember him using all the time, is practically falling apart, but I would like to have it restored. Can you recommend anyone who does that kind of work in the area north of Chicago. Thank you.

  2. Jeff Dolezal Says:

    Bill–My greatgrandfather graduated from a Racine school in the late 1880′s and opened a drug store in Wilson, Ks. in the early 1890′s. A great uncle then graduated from Kansas University in 1908 and ran the store until my mother graduated from Kansas University in 1940. Finally, my sister graduated from Kansas University in 1973. She decided not to go into retail so the pharmacy closed in 1976. I have loads of items from the store and notice your interest in unusual bottles and boxes. I can send a pix of some of them if you would like. It would be super to visit your museum also. Thanks, Jeff

  3. E. P. (Gene) Schacht Says:

    Uncle left me with a brass mortar and pestle about five” tall. enscribed rings about 1″ each with rough marking on middle one. Also location for squarish handles. Pestle – 2 ended with scribed rings and circular knob at middle. #3 enscribed on mortar bottom. Estimate value? Thanks.
    Gene 11-14-09

  4. gordon kaye Says:

    hello,i have boxes of condoms from the 70′s, in great shape. a warehouse i demolished use to service gas stations in the 70′s, plus a couple of the machines, just wondering if there was any value to them, thanks…….

  5. Jennifer Gundling Landon Says:

    My father was a pharmacist for People’s Drug Stores from 1969-1974 then owned his own pharmacy until his death in 1985. I have a show globe that is one of 5 that was given to im by the Peoples chain. he was also a Bowl of Hygeia winner prior to his death. I have pics and am interested in selling the show globe. if interested please contact me via email.

  6. Wayne A. Power Says:

    I am the grandson of late Angus White of Fort William Ontario, who was a druggist/owner of Whites Rexall Drugstore and Soda Fountain. I have
    the original magazine and newspaper announcements of Friday July 29th 1938.
    In the articles, “Modern Trend Displayed in White’s New Soda Bar”, it describes the “very latest fountain equipment…” “efficiency uppermost in arrangement”. I found this fascinating to realize that within a few years of this new enterprize, WWII would be in its early days, after the hardships of the “dirty thirties”. At a time when my grandfather was creating these employment opportunities, he certainly was an astute visionary and entrepreneur….and risk taker. An URL ( I chanced upon) describing the fire 1971 destruction of my grandfather’s store, gave me mixed emotions to discover my roots and family history. Further vintage information can be requested…relating to pharmacy and my geneology.

  7. Nancy Wagner Says:

    I do not have a tie to pharmacy but purchased what I was told was a pharmacy fence. Supposedly it was used to section off the area where the pharmacist worked. It is wooden about 60 inches high. The top has square spindles much like a picket fence with the lower section being wood panels. It measures approximately 7′ x 9′ and has a doorway on one side. Does anyone have any information on this item. It is painted chippy and crackled green but at one time appears to have been stained. Any additional information as well as value would be appreciated.

  8. COLLEEN SHERMAN Says:

    My father passed away 3 years ago , he was 81
    I have several items , pill presses,bottles swamp root
    actual written prescription , some over 100 years old, scales
    how can I check value on some of these items?

  9. Betsy Ickes Says:

    My husband is the owner of a 3rd generation pharmacy. We’re going to start clean out the old storage room & sell many of the items. Do we empty the bottles & tins before we sell them? How do we advertise? Can we sell the old prescriptions or does Hippa laws prevent that?

  10. Fred Sundby R.Ph Says:

    Bill,
    I am a retired Pharmacist in Wisconsin and I bought a Pharmacy in
    1964. I have several old Pharmacy bottles with glass stoppers and labels
    that have the gold printing and covered with glass. I also have a scale
    that has brass pans that are about 8 inches in diameter ,the top of the
    scale is marble and also has a 1# brass weight. I have several old graduates
    and other Pharmacy display bottles that perhaps were for promotions
    back in the early years. My question is how or where should I go about
    selling these items.
    Fred Sundby R.Ph.

  11. Jim Payne Says:

    Bill,
    I am a recently retired pharmacist and store owner. I bought an old existing store in 1970. I have 2 old cabinets 12 foot long an 8 foot tall. One has all drawers on the bottom and glass sliding doors on the top. The other one has sliding glass doors on the bottom and open shevles on the top. I have several old small sliding boxes that have leaves and herbs, etc in them as well as other items. How do I go about finding out their value and where and how should I go about selling them?

    Jim Payne R.Ph.

  12. E. Loessberg Says:

    I live in LaCoste, Tx. We have a wooden carved bar that was once in a drugstore. Plaque on it has manufactured by L.A. Becker Co Chicago, USA. and a cross on it. Is there anyway to track it’s origin or date. Should I look for any markings?

  13. Nancy Melet Says:

    My husband, Fred Leivo, and I own the Ojai Village Pharmacy in Ojai CA. Our store has been in existence since 1891. We have old photos of the by gone years when the store had a beautiful soda fountain. Our goal is to rebuild this soda fountain which was built in 1918. Love this article.

  14. Cathy Trust Says:

    What were those decanter/bottles all the pharmacies used to have that held one liquid in the base, and had another liquid held separately in the stopper? I remember asking about them as a child in the 60′s, and was told they were for a similar purpose as the show globes. It was probably just colored water, but I thought it was pretty. I have one of those bottles. It’s Irish crystal and says “Aqua Vitae” on it. Yes, I looked up what that means, thanks. It’s about 18″ tall and has 2 chambers, 2 stoppers. Thanks for any info!


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