The Old World Allure of Pharmacies

published january 31, 2024 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
This is a sepia-toned photograph depicting the interior of Gonya's Drugstore, dated 1901. Several men are present, with attire appropriate to the era: suits, vests, and bow ties, suggesting they are either patrons or staff. One man leans casually against a glass display case at the front, which advertises "Imported & Domestic Cigars" and shows a "Drink Coca-Cola" sign. Behind the counter, two men in white aprons stand attentively, one next to a cash register. The shelves behind them are meticulously stocked with various bottles and boxes, likely containing medicinal products. Above the shelves, a prominent clock is displayed. The ceiling is high, adorned with light fixtures, and the wooden floor reflects the room's features, adding depth to the space. The photograph captures the essence of commerce and healthcare at the turn of the century, with a focus on customer service and a wide range of products.

The image of iconic, Rockwell-style soda shoppes, of uniformed soda jerkers concocting fizzy drinks and rows of delectable ice creams, are ingrained in our cultural landscape. With the closing of Bar Harbor’s West End Drug in 2018, it marked the end of an era, closing a chapter of simplicity, nostalgia, and community bonding. 

But how did these establishments get there? How did drug stores become the unexpected architects of our sweetest indulgences? What role did the pharmacist play in crafting both remedies and delectable treats?

To begin, the origins of pharmacy can be traced back to ancient Egypt, circa 3000 BCE, where healers and practitioners utilized natural remedies recorded on papyri, noting simple prescriptions that were drafted to address various ailments (Dickson 1998). This early practice laid the groundwork for the development of the apothecary and drug store.

As societies advanced, apothecaries emerged as establishments where skilled individuals prepared and dispensed medicinal remedies. During medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, apothecaries became central to community healthcare, crafting a diverse range of liquid remedies. Their concoctions often included herbal tinctures and elixirs, already establishing a link between beverages and medicinal practices (“Who Were the Apothecaries? · Jars of ‘Art and Mystery’: Pharmacists and Their Tools in the Mid-Nineteenth Century · OnView,” n.d.).

The 19th century in particular marked a turning point with the professionalization of the pharmacy. In 1852, the American Pharmaceutical Association was founded in Philadelphia, establishing standards and identity for pharmacists (Dickson 1998). This era saw the transformation of drug stores and apothecaries from mere dispensaries into institutions providing comprehensive pharmaceutical services.

From here, and with the invention of carbonated water in the late 18th century, pharmacies were the perfect breeding ground for elixirs and medicinal beverages. For instance, “Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Hires Root Beer were all first compounded by pharmacists” (Dickson 1998) because they were believed to have digestive benefits, and thus sodas were sometimes marketed as healthful tonics. They were popular simply because it made medicinal substances more palatable and easier to administer; people were more apt to drink a sweet, fizzy drink than they are to swallow thick, concentrated syrups.

Different ingredients were used to treat different ailments; Ginger ale, for example, was initially marketed as a remedy for indigestion, whereas Coca-Cola, originally containing coca leaves and kola nuts, was marketing itself as a healthful and invigorating beverage (“Research Guides: This Month in Business History: World’s First Coca-Cola Was Served,” n.d.).

Dr. Charles Dickson believed that the reason why these sorts of drinks first were at the hands of pharmacists was simply because

“the pharmacist had to measure and mix each prescription by hand, so the accuracy of compounding depended strictly upon the skills of the particular person doing it. The pharmacist was responsible for grinding out his own crude drugs, and one of the most important pieces of store furniture was a large mortar and pestle for doing this work” (Dickson 1998).

Pharmacists, acting as both healthcare practitioners and skilled mixologists, meticulously measured and blended ingredients, guaranteeing that each beverage was not only delicious but also adhered to medicinal standards, making these tonics and elixirs much safer and effective than home remedies with the same ingredients.

Thus, the pharmacist’s role as a trusted custodian of both health and enjoyment became integral to the evolution of the drug store into a multifaceted establishment.

Over time, as pills, capsules and other remedies became the better, viable options, the need for medicated drinks dissipated. But that didn’t mean the allure of this integral pastime would cease.

The addition of soda fountains allowed drug stores to expand their offerings further, such as including ice creams, milkshakes, and candies to attract more customers. Because of this, they became more than just places for obtaining medications; they became social destinations where people could interact and relax (and this was particularly true during the Prohibition era, where these establishments were able to provide a legal and socially acceptable alternative).

At this point, Bar Harbor was already becoming a summer resort destination. Though the exact year the Village Pharmacy was built is currently unknown, it predated any other establishment of the like in the area. Created to fulfill the town’s budding need for medicinal remedies, William Rogers, M.D., was the proprietor for the pharmacy, circa 1892 (The Bar Harbor Record 1892). And sometime later after the Village Pharmacy was established, M. C. Morrison & Co. built the Marlboro Pharmacy, further adding to the growing demand in town. 

This is a black and white photograph of the interior of Marlboro Pharmacy. The space is characterized by tall, wooden glass-fronted cabinets filled with numerous bottles and boxes, likely containing medicines and pharmaceutical supplies. A large, dark wooden counter runs across the room, featuring a flat display area on top with several items, including what appear to be small glass containers, possibly for compounding or displaying medicines. Above the counter, on the wall, there's a bird statue perched, and several decorative elements can be observed, such as a potted palm plant, which adds a touch of life to the otherwise sterile setting. The floor is not clearly visible, but the area is spacious and well-organized, reflecting the typical style of a late 19th or early 20th-century apothecary. The room is well-lit, suggesting the presence of large windows or ample lighting, even though the light sources are not visible in the photograph.
Inside the Marlboro Pharmacy

The year 1897 marked a significant turning point for drug stores in Bar Harbor, as two prominent establishments, the renowned Doe Drugstore (later evolving into Doe & Gonya’s and eventually Gonya’s) and Keucher’s Drugstore, made substantial contributions to the town’s pharmaceutical landscape. These establishments were more than mere dispensaries; they were integral components of the community.

Tan-colored parchment monthly statement from Doe and Gonya's to the Bar Harbor Water Company. Blue lettering above that states "To Doe & Gonya, Dr. Successors to John W. Doe. Prescription specialists. Corner Main and Cottage Streets. Store also at Palm Beach Florida. Telephone Connection." On the statement is script in pen and pencil. In pen, it states that on November 22, 1904, paraffin was sold for 25 (seemingly dollars). In pencil it states that they payment was received.
Statement for the BH Water Co. from Doe & Gonya's

Sometime between 1901 and 1921, Gonya’s Drugstore underwent a transformation that extended beyond medicinal offerings. The addition of a beverage counter signaled a new era, where patrons could not only seek remedies but also find a place to sit, relax, and enjoy soft beverages.

In 1918, West End Drugstore was moved across from the First National Bank. It became the final major pharmacy in the town to embrace the trend of offering old-world delicacies, providing beyond the traditional pharmaceutical remedies; West End Drugstore recognized the appeal of providing a diverse range of indulgent treats to its patrons.

As years progressed, the customization experience these old world pharmacies provided began to die out as bigger corporations began to buy out independently, locally-owned businesses. For 100 years, West End Drugstore was able to stay in the hands of the local Gilfillan family.

Once West End Drug closed its doors after serving its patrons for a century, it marked the end of an era. Now, the only pharmacies left in town are Walgreens and Hannaford’s; the shift towards corporate ownership signaled a departure from the intimate, community-driven service that characterized the earlier years of these pharmacies.

We see that as corporate ownership becomes the prevailing norm, the distinctive qualities that once defined these old-world pharmacies begin to wane, leaving behind a nostalgic yearning for an era where the local pharmacy was synonymous with personalized care and a sense of belonging.

For a century, the story of West End Drugstore stood as a testament to the challenges faced by community establishments in the face of corporate dominance. It’s times like these we are often reminded of the significant importance of community and togetherness.

Here at BHHS, we hope to be your pillar of support and continuity. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of businesses and communities, our commitment is unwavering—to be your steadfast ally in preserving the essence of community, fostering togetherness, and ensuring that the unique stories of local establishments, like the storied West End Drugstore, continue to be cherished and remembered.

We invite you to join us as Members of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, to help us continue telling these stories. Help us preserve, display, and interpret our town’s rich history! Join us by clicking “Join” on our website!

Reference List

Dickson, Charles. 1998. “A Trip Through Yesterday’s Drug Stores.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine, January 1998.

“The History of Pharmacy.” n.d. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

“Research Guides: This Month in Business History: World’s First Coca-Cola Was Served.” n.d.

“Who Were the Apothecaries? · Jars of ‘Art and Mystery’: Pharmacists and Their Tools in the Mid-Nineteenth Century · OnView.” n.d. The Francis a. Countway Library of Medicine: An Alliance of the Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical School. Copyright 2015 the President and Trustees of Harvard University.