From the Collections: Exploring the Drug Topics Photograph Collection

From the Collections is a recurring feature at aihp.org that highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from AIHP publications and collections. This post is contributed by Susie Seefelt Lesieutre, AIHP’s Collections Associate.

The AIHP Drug Topics Photograph Collection comprises nearly 20,000 black and white photos commissioned by Drug Topics for use in the magazine from the 1940s to the early 1970s. The magazine donated their photo archive to AIHP in 1974. The collection is housed in over 1,000 folders spanning 16 filing cabinets in the Kremers Reference Files. The images in the collection tell the story of the retail drug trade in the decades after World War II. Many of the photos in the collection are candid shots of community pharmacy interiors showing customers and staff interacting within different departments of the stores.

Drug Topics magazine began publication in 1883 as a drug trade house organ of McKesson & Robbins. Early issues state on the masthead that the magazine was “A bi-weekly journal of current drug news and prices.” By 1933, they were billing themselves as a “national magazine of the drug trade” and were being published by Topics Publishing Company, which also put out Wholesale Druggist and Drug Trade News. While some advertising promoted new drugs on the market to inform the physician, many ads continued to reach out to the retail druggist with new cosmetic and health preparations, and new aids for displaying merchandise.

In 1940, Drug Topics absorbed another publication of the drug trade, Druggist Circular, which had begun publication in 1857 as American Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette.

By 1974, the year AIHP acquired the photo archive, the magazine was being published by the Medical Economics Company (Oradell, New Jersey), and it no longer carried the engaging scenes of shoppers selecting merchandise and speaking to drugstore staff. Today Drug Topics is a leading publication on advances in new drug and medical technologies and is published by MJH Life Sciences.

The photo archive is arranged by a topical classification scheme devised by Drug Topics staff many years ago (you can view the classification scheme here). Some of these subject terms seem very outdated today; AIHP staff are working to use more appropriate, culturally sensitive language where needed. Most photos have information about the image provided on the reverse side: the caption that accompanied the photo when it was published, the publication date, the name of the photographer, etc.

Some of the photos were taken to highlight the new mode, beginning in the 1940s, of offering customers access to products without the help of drugstore staff—the “self-serve” innovation. A lot of the photos capture new trends in promoting and displaying merchandise to increase customer interest and sales. Some of the more popular topics covered include baby products, school supplies, summer vacations, and front window displays. There are also hundreds of photos of soda fountain scenes, and of pharmacy and prescription areas showing pharmacists serving patients and customers, compounding prescriptions, or working with stock. A smaller number of photos spotlight the larger role women were starting to play in the pharmacy field, both as technicians and pharmacists.

Currently, AIHP staff are working with the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center (UWDCC) to make a portion of this collection available online. AIHP is selecting images and creating the metadata, and UWDCC will digitize the images and make them available on their free digital content platform. Since it’s founding in 2000, UWDCC has digitized over two million items from cultural heritage collections across the university campus and the state. This collaboration is creating extraordinary access to this unique documentation of the American retail drug trade in the mid 20th century.

Posted: August 22, 2022

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