Saturday, August 04, 2018

Pharmacies in Battle Creek - A BRIEF Historical Overview

last update: 5 August 2018

A Bit of Background

Before the creation of the FDA in 1906, there were no restrictions placed on what could be sold as medicine in the United States.  Morphine was a common ingredient in infant teething formulas, asparagus extract was sold as a urinary “purifier,” and even Grape Nuts was touted by C. W. Post as a treatment for appendicitis.  Further, no drug company was required to state the ingredients of its products.  Overdosing and addiction were common in those “good old days.”.   Battle Creek, because of its reputation for health, drew the attention of several companies that set up shop, or at least rented a post office box, to benefit from the distinction of being in the same city as Dr. Kellogg’s Sanitarium.

Until 1919, Michigan pharmacists were only required to have a 10th grade education and have two years apprenticeship before taking a licensing exam.  Licensing of individual drugstores was not required until 1921.  Until that time, opening a pharmacy required little more than the willingness to do so.  It wasn’t until 1929 that even a two-year college level training was required (present training takes six years).

In the pre-FDA days, Battle Creek boasted over a dozen pharmacies, most of them concentrated around the center of town.  Many of them dispensed their prescriptions in elaborate monogrammed bottles, stoppered with the finest Portuguese cork, and sealed with paraffin.  The requirements for labeled ingredients imposed upon the patent medicines didn’t apply to compounded prescriptions; in fact, until as late as the mid-1960s it was still considered by many as a violation of the physician-pharmacist working relationship for a pharmacist to discuss medicine with the patient.

As chain pharmacies emerged, gaining strength with preferential pricing and agreements with insurance and drug companies, independent pharmacies found it increasingly difficult to remain competitive and still be profitable.  As a result, the baker’s dozen of independent pharmacies that existed in 1978 has dwindled to two in 2001.  Their legacy of treating the ill and serving their community will remain in our community’s collective memory.
Ahmberg and Murphy's Elegant storefront - Kellogg Foundation stands in this location

Some Random Notes on the Collection at the Kimball House Museum in Battle Creek, Michigan:

(note - this is far from a complete listing of Battle Creek pharmacies - this brochure was developed as a guide to selected artifacts at the museum put on brief display in 2001.  The legends surrounding Speaker's pharmacy could fill a book on its own.)

Log Cabin Sarsaparilla, of Rochester NY– sarsaparilla was a general tonic and “cure all” for digestive disorders; simple to make, it often contained high levels of alcohol to “enhance” its absorption and “preserve the ingredients.”  Dr. Guysott added yellow dock (then popular for jaundice or constipaton) to his preparation.

The “bitters” from Dr. Sawen’s and  Dr. Hostetter’s subscribed to the philosophy that medicine had to taste bad to be good.  It didn’t hurt that the compounds were usually 50 proof.  Dr. Hostetter made use of an annual almanac to promote his product.

Pine Tree Tar Cordial, again replete with a hefty dose of inebriants, would give the proper impression that the patient was drinking turpentine.

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was the grandmother of all patent medicines; her picture was common to nearly every typesetter’s box.  Her written advice to customers, however, was completely posthumous.  The product is still made today, although the “preservative” is at a lower concentration.

Buffalo Lithia water came from rich mineral springs during an era where drinking such water was an important part of taking “the cure.”  Contemporaries noted the best way to indulge was to “hold your nose and drink quickly.”

Vin Antimony, presented here in a pharmacy’s reagent bottle, was primarily put to use as a cathartic and emetic...for those with the “urge to purge.”  Also known as the “tartar emetic.”

The Old Indian Medicine Company, makers of Wa-Hoo Bitters, probably had nothing more than a post office box in Battle Creek.  It offered local residents the opportunity to try its concoction at a substantial discount.

Claude C. Jones ran a pharmacy in the old Bijou theatre arcade at 47 West Main (now Michigan) after trying out a location at 115 Calhoun.  When the Battle Creek Retail Druggists’ Association organized in 1928, he was its first president.
Bijou Theater Lobby

Bijou Theater becoming a historic parking lot

E. L. Jones, of 13 East Main, was a “manufacturing chemist” during the 1880s.

M. L. Pierce Palace Pharmacy was a new addition to 53 West Main by 1889.  Short-lived by comparison to most, his store didn’t survive to the turn of the century.  A similar fate met J. F. Halliday and Sons.

Will Phillips, of 38 East Main, then 10 West Main, then 53 West Main, had moved on completely by 1901.

J. E. Weeks, at 250 East Main, had his name on a pharmacy until at least 1916.

The Health Home Pharmacy was a fixture at 222 West Main for the last two decades of the 19th century.

Willard Drugs of 45 East Main remained in business until around World War I.

Larmour’s Drugs, founded by A. Fred Larmour, originated at 201 South Kendall before moving to Urbandale in the 1930s.  It remained the longest operating independent pharmacy in Battle Creek.

The Holton Brothers were doing business at 3 West Main in 1869.  A move to 19 East Main (the “Peninsular block”) came four years later.  They became Willard Drugs after moving to 45 East Main.

Grandine and Hinman (of 1883 vintage), of 6 East Main, changed billing from Andrus and Grandine, with its heritage also dating to at least 1869.  Hinman went off on his own in 1887 to 11 East Main, and the partnership site  went to E. J. Smith in 1889...busy pieces of real estate.

F. H. Boos, brewer of “Milwaukee Beer” found action as bottler of ginger ale during Prohibition.

R. W. Snyder had no local pharmacy, but prepared medical supplies (“Spirits of Camphor”) and through its successor, the Alden Brothers, produced “Orange Cider” and “Wild Cherry Phosphate.”  The labels are suitable for framing.

The Battle Creek Sanitarium Pharmacy was discreetly secreted into the depths of the San’s basement, emphasizing Dr. Kellogg’s philosophy that drugs were unnecessary in the world of “biologic living.”  One San pharmacist, Oscar Speaker, left in 1926 to begin a retail pharmacy at 22 East Main, a site that probably employed every pharmacist in the county at one time or another before it closed in the 1970s.
Bernard Swonk on the right - a longtime pharmaceutical presence in the cereal city

"For Lease" sign in the site of Speaker's Drugs (now demolished - site is "Mill Race" fountain wall)

2001 research for this project by Jim Middleton, one of the few pharmacists in Battle Creek who didn’t work at Speaker’s Drug Store....but nearly everyplace else that no longer exists.

1 comment:

Will said...

I find this site interesting, I have been researching Erwin Rubley who was a pharmacist in Battle Creek. he was born in 1895 in Indiana but moved to Battle Creek when he was seven. He died in 1954 at the age of 58.
He had a drug store on Main Street with Norman Freeman
The information about how one became a pharmacist in the twenties is very informative and helpful.
Rubley was a fellow soldier of my father's during WW1. They both served in the US Army with e 33rd Field Hospital in France. My father was also a pharmacist and had a drug store in Philadelphia, Pa. and he kept a diary while in the service.
The dairy will be published sometime next year
My email address is
Thank you