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History time: The long life of Jamaica Plain's first drug store

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  July 19, 2011 11:15 AM

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1 - C.B. Rogers, ca 1900.jpg

(Courtesy: Jamaica Plain Historical Society)

The C.B. Rogers drugstore circa 1900.

Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the first of three columns on a longtime Jamaica Plain pharmacy. Read the second installment here.

The Beginning (1867)
While Jesse James was busy robbing banks all over the Midwest and the country confronted Reconstruction, a 49-year old pharmacist, Charles B. Rogers, started the first drugstore in Jamaica Plain at the corner of Centre and Burroughs Streets.

That store was destined to serve the Jamaica Plain community for 111 years until overwhelming economic and social conditions forced its closure in 1978.

1 - Pharmacists at work. L to R Unknown, Bill Sullivan, Ed Carey, 1965, photo courtesy of Sally Donovan.jpg
(Courtesy: Sally Donovan)
Pharmacists at work in 1965.
The furnishings, fixtures, professional environment, and some unusual features in the store impressed the estimated two million or so customers it served in those 111 years.

Those customers included governors, mayors, judges, actors and vaudevillians, professional athletes and coaches, farriers, clergy and gangsters, teachers, the rich and famous, and the poor and needy of Jamaica Plain.

Passing through only five owners in its long life, C. B. Rogers held to its high pharmaceutical industry standards, while large chain drugstores were driving out the small neighborhood stores throughout the country and morphing into general stores with pharmaceutical sidelines, until 1978 when the last owner, John J. J. Donovan, was forced to close the store.

This is a snapshot of what it was like to work there from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, some of the people who worked there, and what the ending was like.

The Store's History

1 - C.B. Rogers, 1965, photo courtesy of Sally Donovan.jpg
(Courtesy: Sally Donovan)
The C.B. Rogers drugstore in 1965.
When Charles B. Rogers started his drugstore in 1867, four years before our Civil War Soldier's Monument was erected, we believe it was at 701 Centre St., at the corner of Burroughs Street, although city records don't show him there until later.

In 1893 Charles B. Rogers died and Linville Smith and Ernest Lewis took over the store. Around 1942, Ernest Lewis and his son, Jack, become the owners. In 1949, Ernest retired and Jack Lewis became sole proprietor.

In 1970 John J. J. Donovan bought the store. In 1978, due to the economic leverage of the large drug retailers, the growing crime against drug stores, and the stresses on the staff, his family and himself, Donovan closed the store, ending an unbroken run of 111 years serving Jamaica Plain's doctors, dentists, hospitals and their patients.

The Store
An estimated two million people entered the store in those 111 years and for most it was a unique experience. Even in the 1950s, new customers nearly always commented on the store, its woodwork, fixtures, and throwback products from much earlier days.

1 - C.B. Rogers bottles.jpg
(Courtesy: Jamaica Plain Historical Society)
C.B. Rogers bottles.
The fine oak woodwork included a mirrored partition with windows that separated the pharmacists from the public. The floor was tiled with small black-and-white porcelain tiles with a black border.

Dark oak display cases ringed the perimeter and a center island showcase divided the store on the long axis running parallel to Burroughs Street. Apothecary bottles with various chemicals lined the shelves above banks of wooden drawers holding hundreds of non-prescription treatments and miscellanea.

The pharmacists used antique scales and mixing tools when compounding ointments, lotions, pills, capsules, etc.

Every order was wrapped in white paper and sealed with a stick of hot sealing wax melted in a tiny gas jet burning at the end of the wrapping counter, next to the cash register. Many hours were spent training new employees to get the wrapping and sealing just right and mindful of the fire hazard.

Another gas jet burned in a little can-shaped cylinder atop a five-foot high gas pipe rising from the floor at the tobacco counter. After a gentleman selected his cigar from the box the clerk presented to him, he was handed a trimmer to cut the end off, obviating the standard bite-and-spit practice out on the street.

Then he would slide open the little door on the cylinder and light up from the gas jet burning inside. It was all very elegant for a little corner drugstore, and something not found in any literature on drugstores anywhere.

Read the second installment in this three-part series here.

This column is a submission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at: http://www.jphs.org/.

1 - 1967 Lederle Laboratory Two Millionth Prescription Award,.JPG

(Courtesy: Jamaica Plain Historical Society)

A 1967 Lederle Laboratory 2-millionth prescription award.

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