Pharmacy in World War II: The Drugstore

Street scene, including drugstore, Cascade, Idaho, 1940s (Library of Congress)
Street scene, including drugstore, Cascade, Idaho, 1940s (Library of Congress)

Street scene, including drugstore, Cascade, Idaho, 1940s (Library of Congress)

In my novel Anchor in the Storm, which released May 3, 2016, the heroine, Lillian Avery, serves as a pharmacist in a drugstore in Boston during World War II.

As a pharmacist, I found much about my profession has changed, but some things have not—the personal concern for patients, the difficult balance between health care and business, and the struggle to gain respect in the physician-dominated health-care world. Earlier I discussed the role of the pharmacist in the 1940s, today we’ll visit the local drugstore and see how its role changed during the war, and then I’ll review the role of pharmacists in the US military.

Soda fountainWelcome to the Corner Drugstore—1939

Perkins’ Drugs stands on the corner of Main Street and Elm, where it’s stood all your life. Large glass windows boast ads for proprietary medications and candy, and a neon mortar-and-pestle blinks at you. When you open the door, bells jangle. The drugstore is open seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, so you know it’ll always be there for you. To your right, old-timers and teenagers sit at the soda fountain on green vinyl stools, discussing politics and the high school football game. The soda jerk waves at you.

You pass clean shelves stocked full of proprietary medications, toiletries, cosmetics, hot water bottles, hairpins and curlers, stockings, cigarettes, candy, and bandages. You know where everything is—and if you can’t find it, Mr. Perkins or his staff will be sure to help you.

The owner, Mr. Perkins, is hard at work behind the prescription counter with good old Mr. Smith and Mr. Abernathy, that new young druggist Mr. Perkins hired last year. Mr. Perkins greets you by name, asks about your family, and takes your prescription. He has to mix an elixir for you. If you don’t want to wait, he’ll be happy to have his delivery boy bring it to your house. But you don’t mind waiting. You have a few items to purchase, and you’d love to sit down with a cherry Coke.

civilian-defenseWelcome to the Corner Drugstore—1943

Perkins’ Drugs still stands at the corner of Main Street and Elm. Large glass windows boast Army and Navy recruitment posters. The neon sign has been removed to meet blackout regulations. The store is open for fewer hours since Mr. Smith retired and Mr. Abernathy got drafted. Mr. Perkins hired Miss Freeman. Not many people are thrilled to have a “girl pharmacist,” but if Mr. Perkins trusts her, that’s good enough for you. Perkins’ Drugs and Quality Drugs on the other side of town alternate evening hours so the town’s needs are met.

A placard on the door reminds you that Perkins’ Drugs is authorized by the Office of Civilian Defense as a pharmaceutical unit, meaning the store will provide a kit of medications and supplies for the casualty station in case of enemy attack. You pray the town will never need it.

Bells jangle when you open the door. The soda fountain is closed. Mr. Perkins can’t buy metal replacement parts for the machine, the soda jerk is flying fighter planes over Germany, and sugar is too scarce a commodity.

4.2.7A barrel stands by the door. You toss in five tin cans, washed, labels removed, tops and bottoms cut off, and flattened. Mrs. Perkins at the cash register thanks you.

You pass clean shelves with depleted stocks. Proprietary medications, cosmetics, toiletries, and medical supplies remain, but rubber hot water bottles, silk and nylon stockings, hairpins and curlers, candy, and cigarettes are in short stock—or unavailable. Most of the packaging has changed. Metal tins have been replaced by glass jars and cardboard boxes. You pick up a bottle of aspirin and a tube of toothpaste, double-checking that you brought your empty tube. Without that crumpled piece of tin, you couldn’t purchase a replacement. Tin is too dear.

At the prescription counter, Mr. Perkins greets you by name and asks about your family. Miss Freeman gives you a shy smile and you smile back. There’s a war on and women have a patriotic duty to do men’s work so men are free to fight. Mr. Perkins frowns at your prescription for an elixir. He’s used up his weekly quota of sugar, and his stock of alcohol and glycerin are running low. Would you mind capsules instead? Of course not. Mr. Perkins phones Dr. Weber and convinces him to change the prescription. Mr. Perkins can’t have the prescription delivered—he doesn’t qualify for extra gasoline and he couldn’t find a delivery boy to hire anyway.

You and Mr. Perkins discuss war news as he sets up a wooden block with little holes punched in it, then lines the pockets with empty capsule halves. He weighs powders on a scale, mixes them in a mortar, then fills the capsule shells. After he sets the capsule tops in place, he puts the capsules in an amber glass bottle with the familiar Perkins’ Drugs label.

War StampsYou buy a few War Stamps. Your wages are higher than ever with the war on, and with all the shortages there’s nothing to buy. Besides, War Bonds and Stamps are a solid financial investment and your patriotic duty.

Mr. Perkins thanks you for your purchase, and you thank him for his service. War or no war, you know Perkins’ Drugs will always be there for you.


My main source was this excellent, comprehensive, and well-researched book: Worthen, Dennis B. Pharmacy in World War II. New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004.

http://www.lloydlibrary.org (Website of the Lloyd Library and Museum, which has many articles and resources on the history of pharmacy).

6 Responses to “Pharmacy in World War II: The Drugstore”

  1. Jeanie Dannheim

    Wow, such a difference! This is a wonderful series!

    I have not yet been able to get your new book, so was unaware of the main character being a female pharmacist, or that you are a pharmacist! I was a pharm tech in early 80’s in a county hospital that served many, many outpatients and inpatients. As you know, this was before certification was required – and it was very difficult to be self supporting on the lower wages.

    The work was interesting, and I learned a lot. I am staggered at the changes to meds in the last 30+ years! Would have been incredibly staggered for the differences during WWII. To think, instead of counting out all those little capsules, having to compound and fill them.

    It now makes sense how my grandmother, in the 60’s and early 70’s, always took the label off of cans, removed top and bottom lids, then crushed the cans, before recycling was a common occurrence. Perhaps if we had those deprivations during the Viet Nam War, Gulf War and all those following, we would appreciate the war efforts and needs of soldiers more…and better value the things we have.

    Thank you for sharing, and for this informative series! I am looking forward to reading you new novel!

  2. Debora Wilder

    This is a wonderful post. It is amazing to read the differences that came about. I really like the description of how the capsules were made.

  3. Betti

    The changes in the pharmacy are fascinating. As a very young child, I remember the Five and Dime having what I now imagine was the pharmacy counter – raised so the pharmacist could see you coming in, I suppose.

  4. Lynne M Feuerstein

    Thank you so much for this post Sarah! I knew that drug stores were different in the past then today,but I didn’t really realize how different. I’ve seen many WWII era films and got a feel of what they were like,but your story gave me much more detail. (Oh, it’s not WWII era, but my mom did give me info on drugstores of the 50’s era. She went to high school in the mid and late 50’s. All I can say is they seemed a lot more fun and personal in the past. I think we lost something in the name of progress.)

  5. Roanne

    Lovely comparison…and looking forward to reading the novel! I’m always amazed at details from past decades that we don’t think twice about today… like unlimited access to sugar!