Born in 1914: the modern drug superstore

Pills are making way for profitable products of all kinds
Posted August 24, 2000

Go into a drugstore today -- Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreen's and the rest -- and you'll find that "drugs" is the least of it. Today's drugstore has aisles and aisles of everything from potato chips to poolside toys to perfume and hosiery to dishwashing detergent to playing cards.

But if you think that these all-encompassing drug superstores popped into our world only in the last 20 years, you might be surprised to learn that in March 1914, Merchants Record and Show Window magazine was announcing the birth of the "specialized department store -- the modern drug store."

"In the evolution of merchandising that has come about in the last half-century," it was written, "no greater change has been made in any line of business than in that of the druggist. Fifty years ago, the druggist was in reality a chemist and his business was the supplying of crude drugs or mixtures. He derived his livelihood from the aches and ailments of the public he served."

But the modern drug store of 1914 was "as different from the old-fashioned chemist's shop as is the modern department store from the little crossroads general store of a generation ago."

What had changed the druggist's business? Well, he continued to sell "pills, pilasters and prescriptions." But now his real profits came from "photographic supplies, cutlery of most kinds, leather goods, stationery, candles, umbrellas, fishing tackle, paints, smokers'articles and almost any kind of merchandise that occupies a small space, is easily sold and yields a good profit."

And these stores were aggressively merchandising their all-purpose product lines, never promoting pharmaceuticals in their store windows, just suggesting that drugs could be had on the inside. Instead, the windows were filled with "all sorts of other lines that pay big profits."

"In the matter of fixtures, showcases and other devices for displaying merchandise, the high class drugstore of today is second to none. Display is of paramount importance. How many sales are made to people who are waiting for the telephone, buying a stamp or having a prescription filled cannot be estimated accurately, but the number is large. Knowing this, the wise druggist makes his store as inviting as possible with attractive fixtures and spreads his merchandise out under crystal clear glass where one cannot avoid seeing it."

Weber Drug Co. in Indianapolis (A) is a prime 1914 example of the modern drug supermarket. Its cigar counter (B) is a 20-foot-long, fixture-intense area along the right-hand wall near the entrance. The wooden wall and floor cases have swing glass-paneled doors with white enamel insides and metal shelves and marble slab bases. Humidors have moisteners and cigarette cases have compartments for stacking boxes. The handsome soda fountain (C) and elaborate ice cream department (D) contains plate glass, windows and mirrors in the English style. Displays include souvenirs and fine china, and the ice cream department has metal, octagonal tables with verde antique finishes and matching chairs. The back bar of the soda fountain is a massive blending of mahogany, art glass, mirrors, Olivo marble and electric lighting fixtures. Fixture cases throughout the store contain brass, marble, glass, plate mirrors, cornices with frieze effects and fine figure wood veneers. The store is also "a palace of lights and ornamental frosted globes."