It was near the beginning of the Civil War when Frank W. Brooks of Lewiston first took up the study of the apothecary business. It was a time before the emergence of mass-produced cure-all concoctions advertised in newspapers and magazines of a hundred years ago, and even to the present day.
An apothecary shop, which was the precursor of the corner drug store and soda shop, was an important establishment in every community. Brooks told a fascinating tale of the trade in an account printed in the April 17, 1912, edition of the Lewiston Evening Journal.
“September 10th, 1860, I began to learn the apothecary business with Philip A. Briggs and Dr. Albert Merrill in the Phoenix Block (east side of Main Street from Court Street), Auburn. At that time, the window of the apothecary had quite a number of large bottles, some with three or four sections. These were filled with different colored liquids, and were the distinguishing mark of the apothecary.”
Brooks explained how the community’s medical men “prescribed the regular tinctures and mixtures made by the apothecary (the druggist) himself.”
He said, “The drugs for the most part came in bulk … whole roots, leaves, bark, gums. In making the tinctures, they were put into a large iron mortar and bruised to a proper degree of fineness, then put into a bottle with the nostrum,” which meant the required formulation of the product.
“This was shaken well each day for 14 days, when it could be filtered into the regular shelf bottles, ready for dispensing,” Brooks wrote. The shelf bottles were two rows of quarts and one row of pints. Powdered drugs also were kept in quart and pint open-mouth bottles on the shelves.
At that time, there were no mass-produced packaged or bottled products in the shop. He recalled that only one line of fluid extracts had then come into use.
Brooks told of changing demand for ingredients. For instance, one ounce of glycerin (imported) had a cost of $2 or $3 when he first began working in the shop.
“Now, the druggist buys it in cans of 50 pounds or more at about one-tenth of the former price,” he said.
Only four types of stock pills were kept on hand, and those were made in lots of 1,000 by the apothecary with a hand machine.
“The apothecary also required some skill in dressing wounds,” Brooks said. “Persons injured then were carried into the drug store for care and treatment, adding, “I have done up many an injury in the past.”
The old-time apothecary prepared his own syrups, tinctures, ointments, medicinal wines, cathartics, tinctures of iron, “and many other items now obsolete.” They also kept and sold paints, oils, varnishes, paper hangings and kerosene. Paints were in crude form, the druggist having formulas for mixing colors.
“The war caused a large increase in price of many articles, especially those from the South,” Brooks recalled. He said spirits of turpentine went from five or six cents a pint to 75 cents per pint.
In the early days, only druggists had soda fountains, and there were only a few fruit syrups. The soda water was made by the apothecary who charged his own fountain.
Those story told by Frank Brooks also call to mind another example of early medicinal lore in Auburn. That was Dr. True’s Elixir, a product manufactured by Dr. J.F. True at his home on Drummond Street. He started his business in Dexter in 1851, and came to Auburn soon after. His product became known throughout the eastern United States for many decades, and its unproven claims for curing all kinds of ailments was the basis for fame and derision.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.