Apothecaries: Drugstores of the 1800s

Drive past any drugstore today and you’ll see the signs. “Open 24 Hours.”  “Pharmacist on Duty.”  “Refill Orders by Phone.”  We even have drive-thru pharmacies, unimaginable a century ago.

How did the settlers ever manage? What did they do if they had a stomach cramp in the middle of the night, or their sinuses were full?

If they lived on the open range, they used a home remedy that was suggested by opiod rehab or suffered through it. But if they lived in a bigger town like St. Louis or Cheyenne or San Francisco, they visited their local apothecary. The drugstore of their day.

The word apothecary came from the word apotheca, meaning a place where herbs, spices and wines were stored. During the thirteenth century, it also came to mean a person who sold these substances from a shop or street stall. Thus the word is used interchangeably—it can refer to the person or the pharmacy itself.

Herbalists existed well before this time, though. Monks, for instance, grew herbal gardens in their monasteries and used them for healing in the ninth century. Native Americans were expert herbalists, too. And across the other side of the ocean, so were the Chinese.

By the mid-sixteenth century, apothecaries in England had become the equivalent of today’s pharmacists, measuring and dispensing medicine.

Some apothecaries had formal college training in medicine, some learned as apprentices. Whatever the case, folks considered them a godsend. Apothecaries diagnosed problems, gave advice and sold remedies. Most drug laws in the U.S. never came into effect till after 1900, so these druggists were free to sell whatever helped. The los angeles rehab center can help the ones that have fallen prey to addiction.

By the seventeenth century, medical practice in England was divided into three groups: physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. However, at that time the groups did not carry over to the United States. A doctor from England who landed on American soil was expected to practice general medicine, do surgery, and dole out medication. The American Medical Association was formed in 1847 to oversee education and practice. They started to regulate the profession, on who could and couldn’t call themselves a doctor. Specialization started to take place after that.

The American Pharmaceutical Association was founded in 1852.

Famous apothecaries in history

Benedict Arnold, the famous American General in the American Revolution who switched his loyalty to the British side, apprenticed as an apothecary in his youth. Four of his siblings had died of yellow fever.

John Keats, the British poet, also trained as one. He attended medical school before he focused on studying literature. His mother and his brother both died of tuberculosis. Keats eventually died of it, too.

John Parkinson, a famous herbalist and apothecary to King James I, was one of the founding members, in 1617, of the now world-renowned Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in England.

Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman in the U.K. to be granted a medical license, by this Society of Apothecaries, 1865.  (The first female doctor in the U.S. to obtain a medical license, graduating at the top of her class, was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, 1849—not an apothecary.)

Western Frontier

On the eastern seaboard, many apothecaries had patrons who were wealthy, and the shops reflected this in their rich architecture, beautiful bottles of various sizes, wall-to-wall shelving and drawers, and huge sunny windows that fronted the streets.  

On the Western frontier, apothecaries (the buildings) came in all shapes and sizes. Some were little more than shacks.

This is a pestle and mortar, used to crush and mix substances. (The pestle is the pounding tool, the mortar is the bowl.)  They were often made of stone, marble, or brass—hard enough to crush the medicine without crushing fine particles of the tools themselves. The tools had to be extremely washable, where residue from one medicine would not mix with another. Apothecaries sometimes ground uncooked white rice in them to clean them—repeating the procedure until the rice came out completely white.

Apothecaries also had very fine tools and trays where they made their own pills, before pills were manufactured by machine. As you can imagine, precise measurement was extremely important, and keeping each pill exactly the same size was an art form. Apothecaries had their own precise system of weighing mass in liquid and solid form.

Until about 1900, most medical recipes were written in Latin. Latin was the universal language, understood in Europe and America.

Some apothecaries grew their own beautiful herb gardens.

During the twentieth century, drugstores became a blend of soda fountains and drug dispensaries. Remember Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” working in one as a boy?

When you were a kid, what was your local drugstore like? Did you actually know the name of the pharmacist? Did the drugstore smell of licorice? Lotions and potions? What do you remember most?

A list of reference sources for this article can be found on my website. http://www.katebridges.com


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30 thoughts on “Apothecaries: Drugstores of the 1800s”

  1. WOW, Kate, what an incredible post! And so much information I’ve never heard before. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    When my kids were small I felt really fortunate to live in a small town where we could call the pharmacist on a sunday night or whenever if something had gone amiss with our little ones. It was the same pharmacy I remember visiting as a kid with my grandma, and yeah, my biggest memory is probably those nickle candy machines *g* and other goodies 😉

  2. Good Morning Kate,

    What a great post you have today. I remember our local drug store when I was little was called Reynolds and it was on the square. “Square being the Southern Expression for the center of town”.
    It had the best ice cream and hamburgers in town, of course at that time there wasn’t a McDonalds (I remember when McDonalds came to town, but that’s another story). Mr. Reynolds was the druggist never knew his first name (back then older people didn’t have first names and that is yet another story).

    Running late, gotta go, have a great day ladies.

  3. Hi Stacey! I’m so impressed that your pharmacist was available for emergency orders. And that was fairly recent. No such luck in the bigger cities!
    LOL, I remember those candy machines, too. And going into a convenience store, you could buy so much candy for just a penny….

    Glad you found the post informative!

  4. Hi Sherry! Your mention of the town square reminded me of the movie, “Back to the Future,” with the clock tower and everything. Being served ice cream and hamburgers sounds so quaint. LOL on lack of first names for older people. I know what you mean. Have a great day, wherever you’re headed!

  5. Hi, Kate–loved the blog! Gosh, we didn’t have a one-on-one relationship with a pharmacist when I was growing up. I think we just didn’t get ‘scripts filled that often, thank goodness. But our drugstore was a tiny little shop on a corner–Park Avenue Drug. Growing up, tho, after moving to N. Platte which was a much smaller town, the drug store was more of a five and dime with a soda fountain and the best darn cinnamon rolls for miles around.

  6. I forgot to mention how curious I was about the precise system apothecaries used in making their pills and liquids. Would’ve been fascinating to watch. It’s doubtful they had liquid inside pills like we do now, but you’re right. The patient had to trust that the medicine was the perfect dose!

  7. Hi Pam,
    In Canada where I grew up, we never had five and dimes, so I’ve always been intrigued by them. We probably just called them something else…:-)

    About the Apothecaries’ system of weights–it’s so complicated I don’t understand much of it. What I do understand: England and the colonies used the Apothecary system, but the rest of Europe was using metric. Even within England, though, scientists used a different system for weighing precious metals such as gold and silver, compared to medicine. And they used special units such as carats for diamonds. The number of ounces in a pound varied with the system being used. It was very confusing in those days, too, and everyone had to be sure they knew what system of measure to use for what!

    To add more confusion, the U.K. system and the U.S. system began to divurge in the early 1800s, so that fluid ounce sizes were different in each country. One system had grains, the other didn’t, etc. I don’t think metric has the same problem, one gram equals one gram, worldwide.

  8. LOL, Mary, glad to help! Researching this stuff also helps me–with new insights and forcing me to organizing my notes on medical topics. So now I’m looking for ways to incorporate an apothecary into my next story. 🙂

  9. I read a lot about Elizabeth Blackwell in my research for my WIP.
    And nursing is an interesting study, too. It wasn’t a real profession for a long time.

    I read a lot about leeches and aspirin and other herbal remedies, so quacky things, some very real. Interesting how it all evolved. And of course there are plenty of ‘supplementary’ herb and medicines now that are a little weird and questionable.

  10. Sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of reading, Mary! I find it hard to read about leeches :-). I agree about some of the questionable herbs that are out on the market now–too bad some companies try to take advantage, because I think there are some herbs that are very effective. There’s always one product or another that is the latest fad. Right now, it seems to be colon-cleansing products. I think Oprah just went through a trial phase with one of them–I’m sure she’ll tell us all about it!

  11. Hi Kate,

    My gosh, I didn’t know apothecaries had to know as much as a doctor in the beginning. Even more I think because an apothecary dealt with the actual mixture of medicines after he made the diagnosis. How amazing. I just wonder if he ever got sued for making the wrong diagnosis? lol

    The pharmacy we used when I was a kid smelled like medicine. Made me wrinkle my nose. Or maybe it was knowing I’d soon be taking the darn stuff. It did have a medicinal odor though. Now, we can buy anything in a drugstore and the pharmacy part is tucked way at the back almost like an afterthought.

    Great subject! You always come up with the most intriguing ones.

  12. Oh Kate, another fascinating and enlightening post! I recall some interesting remedies at the Shelburn Museum (VT) Apothecary Shop…and some scary ones LOL.

    My great-uncle (born about 1908) was a pharmacist, and I have one of his mortar and pestles. It’s purple glass and I just love it. I’ve also bought a white porcelain one at the flea market.

    We had a neighborhood pharmacy when I was growing up (it didn’t have a soda fountain, though, but very personalized service)…and presently, my mom has one that delivers to her retirement apartment. Pretty cool.

    Thanks for a great start to my day!

  13. Linda–hi! I wonder when lawsuits started…you got me thinking. That medicine smell in some pharmacies is pretty yucky, isn’t it? Thanks for your compliment on the post!

    Tanya–hello! How cool that your great-uncle was a pharmacist. Purple glass sounds really amazing–I bet it’s pretty. That’s wonderful about the pharmacy that delivers to your mom. Enjoy the rest of your day!

  14. Kate, what a great blog, very insightful and informative. I can just vaguely recall the town pharmacy from when I was a child (under 7), I can recall the wooden floors and how it always smelled like floor wax and sweeping compound. I also recall that they had one metal rack of books.

    Green’s Pharmacy was replaced with Rite Aid in town when I was 8 or 9, but luckily the pharmacist has taken great care to keep the one on one service.

  15. Hi Kate!

    Wow, what a lot of info. Herbs and such are a particular study for me. In the old Indian days, the women and some men of the tribe had herbal remedies for most everything, including snake bite. Great research, Kate! And by the way, I love that old movie with Jimmy Stewart —

  16. Hi Terry! Thanks for dropping by. Kids sure notice the floors more than adults, don’t they?
    🙂 You’re lucky that your pharmacist still gives great service–must be something about small towns that offer that. We have so many different pharmacies all within a mile of my home, they’re friendly but I have no idea of anyone’s name.

    Karen–I suspected you would have a lot of info about Indian remedies. Must be fascinating. Snake bite, too? That’s amazing. I think our snakebite antidotes are based on having a bit of the toxin in them…Indians must have discovered that long ago, or maybe something different. I hope we don’t lose too much of this knowledge as generations pass.

  17. Hi Kate – Great blog! I’m into herbal medicines and homeopathics whenever possible. There’s a long reason about how that came to be, but I do love learning about all forms of medicine. And I do take over the counter/prescribed meds when necessary.
    It’s amazing how the medical profession has changed and progressed over the years.
    I remember doctors and pharmacists being more available to us back in the day. Our family doctor made housecalls!

  18. Hi Charlene! Learning about herbal medicines is really interesting. The older I get, the more I like to know what natural options there are out there. I bet you know a lot about it. You’re very lucky your family doctor used to make housecalls!

  19. Hi. Loved the post and the pictures. I grew up in a small town where the Drug Store was THE gathering place after school for marshmallow cokes or phosphates. Other favorites were chocolate sodas or a chocolate mashmallow sundae. all were served in glass at a wonderful old soda fountain bar with mirror back. The old wooden floor squeaked when you waslked on it and the brothers that owned it were great at knowing everyone’s favorites and all about the family. Loved the place and tho the place no longer exists as a drug stor the oak bar has been sold and now is somewhere in a soda fountain. Wonderful memories. Thanks for bringing them to mind.

  20. Hi Connie! You describe that drugstore so perfectly, I could almost hear that floor squeaking! That’s wonderful that the oak bar got reused. Some of that old polished wood is just magnificent. BTW, a marshmallow coke sounds so delicious, LOL!

  21. Great post, Kate. I have a mortar and pestle in my kitchen. I use it to crush dried herbs although I don’t grow them like I used to. I’ve also used the M & P to crush lumpy sugar. 😉

    I’ve been interested in the healing herbs for a long time. In fact, about 10 yrs ago, the kids and I were the first confirmed cases of whooping cough in Saskatchewan in about 50 yrs. The thing was, modern antibiotics weren’t working for it. The kids and I turned to natural herbs. We used licorice, elderberry, garlic and mullein and in 10 days we were cured. The doctor came asking what we used. 🙂

  22. Just the other day I passed by my old neighborhood (haven’t done that in many years). Of course everything is different and none of the same stores are there. Our drug store was called Weighs (maybe a play on words for weighing the drugs lol). And it had the old soda fountain – I used to get cherry cokes too lol. There was a little restaurant/grocery across the street and I’ve been racking my brain but can’t remember the name but the drug store stuck lol. Oh I remember buying comic books for 10 cents too lol. They used to hold yo-yo contests there in the summer. Lots of old memories. My dad had a little hardware store 3 doors down until the big shopping center moved in and that was the beginning of the end for most of the little stores.

  23. Anita Mae, that’s an amazing story about the whooping cough! Really amazing. I’m not surprised the doctor came calling. It just goes to show there are alternatives to everything. 🙂

  24. Hi Jeanne! What a walk down memory lane. Had to laugh at the mental picture you gave me of the yo-yo contests. Your dad’s hardware store must’ve had some interesting history behind it, too.

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