The Drugstore Foundations of American Pharmacy

From the Collections is a recurring feature at that highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from AIHP publications and collections. This post is contributed by William A. Zellmer, AIHP Advisor for Pharmacy Outreach on February 12, 2021.

Drugstore Memories: American Pharmacists Recall Life Behind the Counter, 1824-1933, a remarkable book published by AIHP twenty years ago, offers a rich opportunity for pharmacy practitioners, educators, and students to deepen their awareness of the drugstore-foundations of the profession.

Drugstore Memories compiles first-person accounts from 59 practicing pharmacists about their experiences covering more than a century of American history. When AIHP sent the book to Institute members, Dr. Gregory Higby, then the Institute’s Executive Director, described the significance of these sources:

“Life behind the counter has changed dramatically for American pharmacists during the past two centuries. Standard history books rarely convey the thoughts and opinions of practicing community pharmacists. Their voices have been almost entirely lost. The editors of Drugstore Memories have searched widely among reminiscences, diaries, memoirs, letters, and publications now rare, to bring together first-hand accounts of personal experiences. Collated in this book, they bring into better focus the special world of the American drugstore.

Edited by Dr. Glenn Sonnedecker, Dr. David L. Cowen, and Higby, Drugstore Memories contains two chronological sections: 1824–1860 and 1860–1933. The editors prefaced both sections with pithy and informative summaries of the state and shape of American pharmacy in each era.

Describing the early nineteenth century, for example, the editors wrote:

“The practice of pharmacy was in the hands of a variety of functionaries—the physician who… compounded… and directly dispensed his medicines; the apothecary who, like his British counterpart, also diagnosed, prescribed, compounded and dispensed medicines; the druggist, who though a wholesaler nevertheless also ran a retail pharmacy; the pharmacist, who ran a retail establishment concerned largely with compounding and dispensing drugs…; and the general merchant who carried a line of medicines and sometimes evolved into a pharmacist” (pp. 1-2).

In the preface to the second section, the editors explained how twentieth-century pharmacy practice had changed:

“By the 1930s, about a third of prescriptions called for brand-name products. Still, the vast majority of medicines sold in drugstores throughout the period were either “druggists’ preparations,” i.e., standard remedies bearing the pharmacist’s own store label, or were nostrums. Only after World War II did an influx of new drugs and greater access to healthcare make the prescription department the financial “engine” of the average American pharmacy.” (p. 68).

The two short historical overviews—and the 59 autobiographical accounts in the book—discuss a variety of topics, including pharmacy laws and regulations, pharmacy education, pharmacy reference books, the development of the pharmaceutical industry, the effects of Prohibition and the Great Depression, and other subjects.

Higby’s 2003 transmittal letter upon sending the book to AIHP members whimsically concluded:

In addition to the reminiscences, Drugstore Memories contains many excellent illustrations of drugstore life and the equipment of practice. Unfortunately, we could not provide the wonderful aroma of the old-time shop now lost. Yet, if you close your eyes and let your imagination carry you away, perhaps you will catch a whiff of asafetida or tolu.

Please read the complete text of the two short historical overviews for a good introduction to the content of Drugstore Memories. For more information about the book, visit the Drugstore Memories home page. Contact us at, if you are interested in purchasing a a copy of Drugstore Memories.

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AIHP COVID-19 ProjectThe American Institute of the History of Pharmacy is documenting and preserving pharmacy stories and experiences during the COVID-19 global pandemic for the benefit of future historians and scholars. We seek to record the effects of this public health emergency on all types of pharmacy experiences. We invite you to share your pharmacy stories, photos, videos, artifacts, and other documentation of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

You can participate in the AIHP COVID-19 Pandemic Pharmacy Historical Documentation Project either (1) by immediately sharing your thoughts/experiences and/or submitting digital materials or (2) by signifying your to intention to submit materials in the future. Please comply with all applicable local or state stay-at-home orders while self-documenting.

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Upcoming events of interest to historians of pharmacy, pharmaceuticals, medicines, science, and related fields. (Event information current when posted. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, please double-check the status of all events):

May 28-31, 2024: Kremers Seminar in the History of Pharmacy webinars.
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July 7-11, 2024: International Social Pharmacy Workshop, Banff, Canada.
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