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Drugstores in the '20s contended with Prohibition and powerful Washington lobbies, while customers enjoyed newfangled soda fountains and some nifty new products.
Drug Topics became an independent publication in 1922, serving the drug trade throughout the country with a home office in New York and advertising managers strategically located in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Publisher Aglar Cook and Editor Jerry McQuade produced a monthly pocket-sized publication packed with interesting news, features, and ads for retail druggists and wholesale drugstore owners in the United States and Canada. Drug Topics' annual subscription rate climbed to $1 in 1922 and reached $2 by the end of decade. Circulation figures topped 40,000.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1919 by three-fourths of the states, imposed the federal prohibition of alcohol. However, illegal operations of bootleggers and speakeasies continued to feed the underground market thirsting for alcohol. In addition, million of bottles of "medicinal" whiskey were sold from the neighborhood drugstore under real or fraudulent prescriptions.
In 1922, Drug Topics reported the news of a crackdown by the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue on a dozen bootleggers in the East, who lost their permits to engage in the drug business because they were masquerading as jobbers in medicinal preparations. "The retail druggist who buys his patents from a bootlegging 'wholesaler' hoping to save a nickel a dozen thereby plays with a buzz saw," warned Editer McQuade.
In another article, the editor shared a sordid tale of a bootlegger's telling an ex-saloon keeper of a scheme to set up a drugstore with a pharmacist and sell alcohol to customers. In 1922, McQuade said he confirmed the story with a number of pharmacists, who claimed that "they had been approached and offered drugstore 'set-ups' by bootleggers."
"In at least a dozen large cities of America, drugstores are multiplying so fast today that the bona fide druggist with his ear to the ground does not have to be psychic to sense serious inroads on his business if it is not stopped," he wrote.
Growth in chain drugstores
Besides the inroads made by bootleggers during the 1920s, independent pharmacies were also feeling the pressure of competition from the growth of the chain drugstore business.
By June 1, 1928, a Drug Topics survey indicated a total of 3,219 chain drugstores in the nation, an increase of 623 units from September 1, 1927. The majority of the chains were concentrated in the northern and eastern sections of the country. New York state topped the list at 422 chain drugs, followed by Michigan (303), Illinois (290), California (257), and Ohio (251). The largest chain was the Liggett Company with 460 stores, followed by the Walgreen chain with 135 stores.
Editor McQuade understood the power of lobbyists to gain support of legislation favoring the drug trade, much as it is today. In a 1928 editorial, McQuade pressed retail druggists to reach out to their congressmen to back the Capper-Kelly bill for price standardization of goods.
"Explain ... how price cutting on nationally advertised merchandise is driving the independent retailer out of business and injuring the civic life of the community by taking away from independent citizens the opportunity to earn a living as the operator of an independent store," the editor wrote.
"If something is not done by Congress to check this," McQuade warned, "the independent may be extinguished and the community be made dependent for its drugstore needs upon a powerful monopoly able to impose its will and such prices as absentee owners may decree upon the community."
Customers in the 1920s were drawn to their neighborhood drugstores not only to purchase pharmaceuticals; they enjoyed gathering around the soda fountain with friends and family. In response, Drug Topics added a special section to its monthly publication, geared to articles encouraging the soda fountain and luncheonette business.
With the introduction of the electric toaster, Carl Holzschuher credited the growth in his San Antonio, Texas drugstore with the ability to produce 300 sandwiches in a day.
"The business that has been built up through this department has enabled us to double the floor space of our store, add more stock and better equipment throughout, and has materially increased our sales in all other departments," he stated. "There is a good profit in this business if it is properly managed. Good equipment is one of the greatest sales incentives in modern business."
These are still wise words to live by.