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LATEST FEATURE____________________________________

Ye Olde Apothecary
by Bob Brooke


Pharmacies today—better known as drug stores—are more like mini-department stores than sources of medicines to heal the sick. In some, getting to the prescription counter, after wandering through aisles filled with shampoos, perfumes, greeting cards, potato chips, beverages, even ice cream–can be an adventure in itself. But American drug stores weren’t always like this and today, collectors are gobbling up pieces of these time capsules to capture a bit of the mystic of a bygone era.

Early Pharmacies
The art of apothecary began in Babylon in 2600 B.C. Practitioners of healing back then were priest, pharmacist and physician–all in one. Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, around 100 B.C.), studied not only the art of poisoning, but also the art of preventing and counteracting poisoning.

During the Middle Ages, monks preserved the knowledge of Western pharmacy and medicine. They gathered herbs in the field or raised them in their own herb gardens, then prepared them for the benefit of the sick and injured.

The Arabs separated the arts of apothecary and physician, establishing the first privately owned drug stores in Bagdad late in the 8th Century. They also developed syrups, confections, distilled waters and alcoholic liquids. When the Moslems swept across Africa, Spain and southern France, they carried with them a new pattern of pharmacy which western Europe soon assimilated.

Public pharmacies began to appear in the 17th Century. However, it wasn’t until about 1240 A.D. that Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, who was Emperor of Germany as well as King of Sicily, separated pharmacy from Medicine through an edict separating a pharmacist’s responsibilities from those of physicians and prescribing regulations for their professional practice.

Trade in drugs and spices was lucrative in the Middle Ages. In the British Isles, it was monopolized by the Guild of Grocers, which had jurisdiction over the apothecaries. King James I established the Master, Wardens and Society of the Art and Mystery of the Apothecaries of the City of London, the first organization of pharmacists in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Christopher Marshall, an Irish immigrant, established an apothecary shop in Philadelphia in 1729. Changes in American pharmacy began in the early 1800s. Physicians began to write prescriptions for apothecaries to fill in their shops. The creation of the first United States Pharmacopoeia, a dictionary of drugs, in 1820 is indicative of this trend. This allowed apothecaries—called pharmacists after the Civil War—to know what each ingredient name meant when called for on prescriptions. The American "drugstore" arose at about the same time—between 1810 and 1830. The classic drugstore with a soda fountain up front and the prescription department in the back arrived in the 1870s and 1880s.

Early Medicines
Besides making up prescription remedies, pharmacists made all sorts of over-the-counter remedies, including cosmetics. Essentially, they were medical chemists, creating remedies from drugs such as codeine, morphine, coca, cocaine, opium, barbiturates, amphetamines, cannabis, and even poisons. And so as not to let customers see what they were preparing, they usually worked behind a windowed screen of some sort. Even today, pharmacists fill prescriptions behind a counter out of sight of the customer.

In the early days of pharmacy, it seems that nearly every over-the-counter product contained some form of laxative. There was Black Draught, Dare's Pink Purgative Pills and Pluto Water, to name a few. Alternative treatments included bleeders and leeches. The popular belief was that a person needed to expel the ailment, one way or another.

Early pharmacists compounded medicines from crude drugs extracted from plant materials using tools like a plant press for pressing out extracts, a drug-grinding mill, and a pill press. They also made their own pills and molded their own suppositories. Cork presses compressed a cork to about half of its original diameter, after the pharmacist immediately put it in a jar, where it would expand to form a tight seal.

Of course, the most well-known pharmacist’s tool was the mortar and pestle, which came in a variety of materials, including wood, stone, porcelain, glass, marble, pottery, bronze, and iron, with which he ground and mixed ingredients.

Other Products
As is true today, pharmacies in the past were not only a source of health care products but also of pens, dyes, shaving equipment, hair preparations, and many over-the-counter remedies for minor ailments. They sold many other items, particularly photographic equipment such as cameras and flash materials, and they offered to cut tobacco and herbs, and make suppositories for their patrons. Pharmacies also carried greeting cards, wrapping paper and gifts, for customers to bring to sick friends and relatives, as well as offering small games, such as punchboards, pinball and slot machines, to their customers, who could win small store discounts or cigarettes if they won.

In every pharmacy window hung the traditional show globe on a bronze dragon hook. The use of show globes as a symbol of pharmaceutical and medical care dates back over 400 years, and pharmacists through history have prided themselves on their ability to create and preserve vibrantly colored water. Sailors landing in England knew that a show globe in a store window meant medical treatment was available there. In early America, a red show globe could mean the town had some kind of quarantine or disease, while a green show globe indicated the town was healthy.

Another very common item found in old pharmacies was a box of homeopathic medicines, Humphrey's Specifics being one of the most popular. The pharmacist would use a small amount of a substance to treat a malady, and customers could order it by a number printed on the display box.

The Soda Fountain
While the pharmacist mixed compounds behind his counter, the front side often housed his soda fountain. The origin of the American soda fountain is an interesting one. Soda fountains originated in pharmacies in the 1830’s. Pharmacists would mix phosphates and flavorings with bitter tasting medicines to make them better tasting. Eventually customers asked for drinks without the medicine, creating what are today’s sodas and “soft” drinks. Pharmacists added crushed ice and salt to cool the mineral, soda, or seltzer waters which they dispensed through brass faucets to create a nectar soda or the fruit phosphates favored by customers of the time. Of course, no soda fountain would be complete without a Bromo Seltzer dispenser to help you get through the day.

The inventory lists prepared when the contents of old pharmacies go up for auction show that they were as much general stores as healthcare centers in late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the West. Drugstore collectibles take in everything from soda fountain accessories, tobacco products, cosmetics, pharmacy instruments, and medicines.

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