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History time: The long life of Jamaica Plain's first drug store (Part 3)

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  August 2, 2011 09:00 AM

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3 - The author, June 1950.jpg

(Courtesy: Jamaica Plain Historical Society)

This column's author, Peter O'Brien, who worked as a drugstore clerk at C.B. Rogers from 1949 to 1952.

Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the final installment in a three-part series based on 2011 interviews with Sally Donovan, the last owner's wife; several former employees; and the author's employment as a clerk from 1949 to 1952. Read the first installment here and the second here.

The 1950 Jamaica Plain Medical Community
In 1950 there were six hospitals, thirty-four doctors, twelve dentists and twenty drugstores serving them in Jamaica Plain. There was also one farrier, or horseshoer. Two of the best-known physicians were Dr. George Faulkner whose first practice was at C. B. Rogers store about 1900, just before he founded the famous hospital, and Dr. Frederick W. Beering, Jr. who practiced from his home at 61 South Street, at the corner of Custer Street, from about 1899 to 1960.

3 - Sally Donovan, ca 1952, photo courtesy Sally Donovan.jpg
(Courtesy: Sally Donovan)
A former owner's wife Sally Donovan circa 1952.
Doctor Beering was born on Oct 1, 1875. His office was like a Norman Rockwell painting. It was very dark, with overstuffed leather chairs, an ancient desk and an even older examination table, lamps, scales, etc. Doc Beering, a Harvard graduate, had a framed newspaper clipping about his touchdown against Yale around 1896, wherein he was described as "The Flying Dutchman."

In 1950 Beering reckoned he was owed about $50,000 (a princely sum then) for his pro-bono work that often went beyond the office visit, when he would note "For my account" on many of the hundreds of prescriptions he wrote. He would often kick back part of the $3 office visit fee to the kid he just examined, easing the stress of a visit to the doctor for patient and parent alike.

Beering had three or four favorite prescriptions and they were used for just about every ailment known to man, but, notwithstanding his somewhat dated methods, patients would call God's blessing upon him when handing over the prescription at Rogers. They revered him despite his less than cutting-edge medical skills that were offset by compassion and kindness. Doctor Beering died in 1965 at age 90.

The Day-to-Day Business

3 - Sally Donovan March, 2011.JPG
(Courtesy: Sally Donovan)
Ms. Donovan provided interviews & photos for this series.
The store was open six days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a split shift on Sundays. Sunday hours were from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, and then from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Shifts were devised to cover all open hours. Most of the clerks worked three days a week after school and all day Saturday. The Sunday split shift was covered with just one clerk and one pharmacist.

Filling prescriptions involved copying it and its number in a large leather-bound ledger book and then numbering and hand writing the label for the item. Those ledger books went back to day one at the store and from time to time one of the very old ones would be used in the Centre Street window display along with apothecary bottles, mortars and pestles, scales and "Show globes" filled with colored water. The purpose of show globes, large tear-shaped bottles often suspended or standing in drugstore windows, was to demonstrate the pharmacists' skill in extracting the colors from base chemicals. An unfounded myth said that the colors were a code for an epidemic being present or not present in the community.

Usually the prescription was for a specified number of pills or capsules which were counted manually and slipped into a glass vial. Occasionally, however, a prescription had to be compounded from scratch using raw chemicals and the pharmacists loved that challenge. Before the raw chemicals’ potencies were standardized in the early 1900s, pharmacists determined potency of some chemicals by determining how much was required to kill a cat, or how many flies died near a solution of the chemical.

It's interesting to note that in the 1920s, 80% of prescriptions had to be compounded or made by the pharmacist. By the 1940s only 26% required compounding and by 1971 only 1% of the prescriptions were actually made by the pharmacists.

Fifteen to twenty prescriptions a day was about average in the early 1950s; a very busy day in the “cold” season would see thirty to forty. Compare that to the hundreds of prescriptions waiting to be picked up at your local big-box drugstore today. In 1967, at its centennial, Rogers filled its two-millionth prescription as noted in a plaque awarded by Lederle Laboratories.

There was a significant impact on store traffic when Ed Hanlon moved his shoe store to the second floor directly above Rogers. Countless people would come into Rogers looking for Hanlon's and after their shoe-buying trip would stop in for cigarettes, the phone booth, or to pick up sundries. Much later a rare book dealer occupied the former Hanlon store and it continues there as this is written.

In the 1950s new health and beauty products were making major impacts in people's lives. They included VO5 hair preparations, Clairol products, shaving cream in aerosol cans and challengers to the Gillette line of shaving products where once "Thin" or "Blue” were the only razor blades available. A godsend for America's teens, Clearasil, displaced older acne cures, including witch hazel, Noxzema, Cuticura soap, peroxide, non-soap soaps and the old standby, "Drink plenty of water."

During the 1940s and early 1950s there was still a somewhat Victorian sense of modesty or at least more shyness in people. As a result, requests for male and female personal items were often whispered in hushed voices or sometimes described in a note or by hand signals. The clerks developed a quick perception of the personal items being requested, which often were pre-wrapped in plain brown paper with the contents discretely marked in small letters. Many “ just browsing” customers simply waited until no one was in the store to nervously place their order.

Rogers' Independence
Many customers thought the “Rx” printed on the prescription form stood for Rexall, a nationwide chain of drugstores. However, it simply is Latin for "take thus," followed by the prescribed medicine, dosage and frequency.

Through aggressive acquisition, Rexall grew to over 11,000 franchised stores nationwide with headquarters at 43 Leon Street, Roxbury, presently in the Northeastern University complex. The brick Northeastern University power plant building on Forsyth Street was once part of the Rexall complex.

Rogers was always independent but did package house brands of generic products like aspirin, etc. The pharmacists would dispense the bulk products into smaller, retail-size, "Rogers Drug" bottles. Once the stuff was packaged, the clerks neatly affixed the preprinted labels, then wrapped the bottles in damp glassine paper, glued the seams, and twisted and trimmed the tops and bottoms. The glassine would shrink as it dried, making a skin-tight-but-somewhat-cloudy wrapper for the bottle. Jack Lewis continued the Rogers' line of products long after they were profitable in deference to his father, Ernest G. Rogers. Ernest appeared at the store well into his 80s and Jack's affection for the old man was always very touching.

Conclusion
The store has had additional lives after Rogers Drug including Today's Bread, a popular restaurant for two decades. Today's Bread closed in 1998 and an Indian Restaurant called Bukhara's Indian Bistro continues there today. Thus, the site remains viable and continues to contribute to Jamaica Plain's culture and history.

Now, as I stand across the street and reminisce about the long-ago nights I enjoyed surveying Centre Street from the store's windows, I feel very lucky to have been part of the wonderful old drugstore that anchored that corner for so long. It, more than any other experience, is my Jamaica Plain.

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

3 - Label Under Glass apothecary bottles.jpg

(Courtesy: Jamaica Plain Historical Society)

Label Under Glass apothecary bottles.

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