Apothecaries: Drugstores of the 1800s

photo112Drive 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 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, others learned the trade 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.

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.)

photo113Western 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.

One of the popular utensils they used was a pestle and mortar, for crushing and mixing 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?

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