Two obvious differences: there were far fewer products available back then, in part because nationwide transport was expensive in a world before motor cars and trucks.
Then, the packaging was specific to the era — usually, the potions and medicines were sold in glass bottles or metal tins, since plastic wasn’t commonly used until after WWI.
The pharmacy apothecary 100 years ago sold lots of things you can’t (legally) buy anymore
In the early 20th century, American drugstores were unlike any pharmacy or health store today. Commonly stocked were patent medicines, over-the-counter remedies boasting cures for every ailment from indigestion to “nervous exhaustion.” What made these concoctions particularly interesting was their ingredient list, which often included narcotics such as cocaine, opium, and morphine.
Making matters worse, many labels didn’t even specify what exactly was inside, and there were lots of dubious claims — especially on the bottles of patent medicines.
For starters, look at Taylor’s Oil of Life below — said to be good for humans, horses and cattle, and to cure everything from whooping cough to hemorrhoids (in people), and flesh wounds and distemper (in animals).
Regulation of these substances was lax to nonexistent. No prescription was required; one could simply walk into a pharmacy apothecary or drugstore and purchase what today would be considered controlled substances. The role of these establishments in making narcotics readily available for casual use was unquestioned, reflecting a vastly different societal perspective on drugs.
Vintage drugstores & early narcotics regulation
The first significant legislation to tackle this issue was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This law required accurate labeling of ingredients in patent medicines and was the predecessor to the modern Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
However, it wasn’t until the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 that narcotics like opium and its derivatives were seriously regulated. Cocaine followed suit, with its non-medical use being significantly curtailed by additional legislation in the years that followed.
As societal attitudes toward drugs changed, so did the legal framework. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 replaced the Harrison Act and other piecemeal legislation, categorizing drugs into five “schedules” based on their potential for abuse and medical value.
Today, what was once sold freely in vintage drugstores and pharmacy apothecaries is now heavily regulated, reflecting a century-long shift in public opinion and medical understanding.
Below, get a feel for what it was like to browse the aisles of an old-fashioned drugstore between the 1880s to the late 1910s!
For humans & horses: Taylor’s Oil of Life
A patent medicine cure-all with unknown ingredients (c1900)
Pain annihilating liniment for Man or Beast
For human flesh — Externally: cuts, burns, bruises, chilblains, frost bites, chapped hands, sore throat, diphtheria, rheumatism, piles, ear ache, etc.
For humans — Internally: coughs, colds, croup, whooping cough, phthisic, asthma and kidney affections.
For horses: It cannot be excelled for coughs, colds, horse distemper, colic, corks, galls and flesh wounds; heals and leaves no scar.
For cattle: Distemper, caked bags, cracked teats, etc.
Dr. Fowler’s Strawberry and Peppermint Mixture (c1907)
Contains 15% alcohol, also one-fifth of a grain of morphine in each fluid ounce
For diarrhoea, dysentery, cramps, colic, cholera morbus, cholera complaints and all looseness of the bowels, sea sickness, etc. (Patent medicine/OTC preparation)
Antique cocaine pharmacy apothecary bottle – Fluid Extract Coca Leaves (c1910)
Each fluid ounce contains: Alcohol (38%), Cocaine (2-7/25 gr)– The leaves of Erythroxylum coca.
Made by John Wyeth & Brother Incorporated – Manufacturing Chemists, Philadelphia
Adrenalin Chloride for Hay Fever (1904)
“WITHOUT A PEER!” Medical men say this of SOLUTION ADRENALIN CHLORIDE [epinephrine] in the treatment of Hay Fever.
This marvelous astringent and vasomotor stimulant will be widely used during August and September. We are advertising it liberally in every prominent medical journal in America. PARKE, DAVIS & COMPANY
Inside a Chicago vintage drugstore (c1907)
The Economical Drug Store, located at 84 State Street, Chicago, is one of the most beautifully decorated establishments in the country. In this view a small section only of one side of the store is shown in order that the detail may be clearly seen… The Economical Pharmacy does a daily business averaging something more than a thousand dollars the year around. – From the Bulletin of Pharmacy (1907/1908)
Compound syrup of Buckthorn and Sarsaparilla (1903)
With iodide potassium — contains 10% alcohol
Blood purifier — for pimples, blotches, etc. Being vegetable, it may be taken with safety at any season. It has no equal as a general tonic and appetizer.
What is a pharmacy apothecary?
Unlike a standard drugstore where you might find a wide range of items from toothpaste to snacks, an apothecary focuses more on the pharmaceutical aspects of healthcare.
Often run by licensed pharmacists or apothecaries, these establishments traditionally prepared and sold plant-based remedies, ointments, and tinctures. They were the forerunners to modern pharmacies, serving as centers of health and wellness where individuals could purchase remedies for various ailments.
In modern times, the term “pharmacy apothecary” may conjure up images of vintage glass bottles, wooden counters, and a more personalized approach to healthcare. Some contemporary apothecaries still embrace this traditional ethos, offering customized medication and specialized natural remedies alongside modern pharmaceuticals.
While the narcotics once sold freely are now tightly controlled, the apothecary remains a symbol of individualized healthcare, blending ancient wisdom with modern science.
Heroin Hydrochloride hypodermatic tablets
Made by Eli Lilly & Company, c1915 – Labeled “poison” (intended to be mixed by a pharmacy apothecary into a hypodermic solution that would be injected)
Briggs’ Vegetable Worm Confections (1874)
A sure, speedy, thorough and palatable worm specific.
Briggs’ Worm Confections are certain death to all internal worms which infest the stomach and bowels of your little ones. They are pleasing to the taste and will be eaten as readily as candy.
Mothers give them to your babes and drive those monsters from their system, and you will be rewarded by the rosy cheeks and brilliant eyes which Briggs’ Worm Confections are sure to give.
This antique drug vial has a label from Merck & Co., New York – Labeled with a skull & crossbones and “poison” across the top
Antikamnia pharmacy medications from 1899 with heroin and codeine
Vintage drugstore bottle: Exquisite Creme de Rose (1909)
For face and hands — Use for rough skin, chapping, sunburn and tan. Ideal for after shaving.
Ideal Astringent Lotion (1909)
Effective in closing enlarged pores and correcting a relaxed condition of the skin, holding it firm and smooth.
Antique glass bottle of Cocoanut Shampoo (1909)
Directions: Wet hair and apply shampoo — C L Hamilton Co., Perfumers, Washington DC
Balm of Tulips medicine bottles (1900s)
A reliable remedy for the prevention and cure of cold sores, cold blisters, or fever blisters upon the lips and face. Also cures band player’s tender and sore lips.
Peter Moller’s Pure Cod Liver Oil – Antique drugstore bottle (1883)
Free from all disagreeable taste and smell.
Inside People’s Drug Store – Washington, DC
Drugstore drugs: Indian Cannabis, Fluid Extract (c1910)
J. Fehr’s compound talcum baby powder (1883)
The hygienic dermal powder for infants and adults.
Exerts the full therapeutic influence of Sulphate-Quinia, in the same doses, without oppressing the stomach. Does not produce cerebral distress, is nearly tasteless, and less costly than the Sulphate.
J.B. Lancaster pharmacy prescription form (1874)
Physicians’ prescriptions accurately compounded by experienced hands.
Pond’s extract — the great family remedy (1882)
The vegetable pain destroyer. Subdues inflammations, controls all hemorrhages.
A.J. Inoles & Co.’s wholesale drug store & homeopathic pharmacy (1876)
Liniment compound cough mixture (1874)
A certain cure for Rheumatism, Neuralgia, brushes, chronic pains in any part of the body. Directions — to be well rubbed on the affected parts with the hand.
Interior of Dr McDougald’s Drug Store – Georgia (1899)
Read’s “Grand Duchess” perfume (c1880s)
Hoyt’s 10-cent cologne (1902)
Be sure that the bottle you buy looks like this! By E.W. Hoyt & Co. – Lowell, Mass.
E Rimmel’s Ihlang Ihlang perfume
Perfumer by appointment to the HRH Princess of Wales
Hoyt’s German cologne and Rubifoam tooth powder (1888)
The quality is always of the same high standard. Delicate and fragrant, Hoyt’s German cologne should be used on the handkerchief, in the bath, on the clothes, at the toilet, opera, ball and theatre, in the sick-room.
For Headache and sinking or fainting turns. It is a delicious, refreshing and most agreeable perfume…
Rubifoam is a most excellent preparation, making the teeth pearly white, the gums healthy, and the breath sweet. Rubifoam, as its name indicates, is a ruby-colored liquid, producing a fine fragrant foam when used, leaving a refreshing coolness in the mouth, and preserving the teeth.
Rubifoam can be used with perfect confidence, as it contains no grit, no acid, nor anything injurious.
Genuine Seidlitz powders (1874)
A safe and agreeable aperient — R Sprowl & Son, Druggists — Warren, Indiana
Directions — Dissolve the contents of 2 white and blue paper separately in a quarter of a tumbler of water; then mix, and drink immediately.
The New Crown Violet perfume (1896)
Distilled from the natural flowers of the Riviera. No chemicals used. The latest and finest Violet. The success of the day in London and Paris.
Makers of the universal favorites crab-apple blossoms, Matsukita perfume, Crown Lavender salts and a great variety of other articles.
Booth’s Hyomei “Dri-Ayr” antiseptic (1896)
The Australian “Dry-Air” Cure for Catarrh, Asthma, Bronchitis, Hay Fever, etc.
Hyomei is a purely vegetable antiseptic, and destroys the germs which cause disease in the respiratory organs. The air, charged with Hyomei, is inhaled at the mouth, and after permeating the minutest air-cells, is exhaled through the nose. It is aromatic, delightful to inhale, and gives immediate relief.
A.A. Hyde’s Mentholatum jar (c1910)
An external application to relieve or soothe nervous headache, burns, bruises, muscular rheumatism, nasal catarrh, colds, chapped hands, sunburn, hay fever, insect bites, etc.
Oiline Dressing shoe polish (1896)
Oiline Shoe Dressing: Finest gloss ever produced, most lasting polish ever made. Positively does not crack or parch the leather, but does soften and restore ladies’ and children’s shoes which have taken a shabby appearance to their original color.
Vintage product labels from 1875
Bouquet cologne for the toilet, Triple extract for the handkerchief, Superior Hair oil and Bears Oil.
Hall’s vegetable Sicilian hair renewer (c1880s)
“Saved Papa’s hair from turning gray, and falling off, and will save yours. Keeps the scalp healthy.”
Buckingham’s dye for whiskers (c1880s)
“Before using any dye my beard was gray… Finally, I tried Buckingham’s and now use no other… After using several inferior dyes, behold the result.”
Buckinghams’ is the gentlemen’s favorite because it never fails to color a uniform brown or black.
T. Hill Mansfield’s Capillaris for ladies’ toilet (c1890s)
It will give you a luxuriant head of hair. It contains nothing injurious, no lead, sulphur, or coloring matter. Has proven itself a positive cure for dandruff, humors and falling of the hair.
Petrie’s face powder (c1880s)
In three shades; white, pink, and flesh. Can be had at all druggists.
Elgin’s phantom toilet powder: The great London beautifier (1883)
Placed upon the market twelve years ago, without the aid of extensive advertising, and solely upon its own merits, the sales of this Great London Beautifier have steadily increased, until now it is known and appreciated by the ladies in nearly every section of this country.
Endorsed as it has been by the elite of the world, dealers may place it in stock as one of the Standard Face Powders of the Day.
Its beautifying effects are really wonderful. In this particular, it stands far ahead of all rival preparations. It is put up in neat paper boxes, with fine steel engraved labels. It is harmless to the skin, and adheres splendidly.
For every day use, it is a favorite, but for the opera, evening parties, and for all extra occasions it will be specially esteemed on account of the surpassing brilliancy and beauty it gives to the complexion.
Vintage jars of beauty creams and salves (1921)
Featuring Love’s Ideal talcum powder, Hamilton’s vanishing cream, Love’s Ideal face powder, The Hamilton Company’s Imperial household salve, Hamilton’s tissue cream, and Hamilton’s beauty cream.
Minard’s Liniment: A good thing – rub it in (c1899)
Wilbor’s Mygda Balm – for chapped hands and face
Directions: Wash and wipe the skin and apply the Mygda Balm to the parts affected. Should any moisture remain, dry with a soft towel. Frequent applications will entirely remove any roughness of the skin.
For the hair: Rub the Mygda Balm well into the scalp and brush thoroughly. It removes dandruff, keeping the head clean and the hair moist.
Old prescription pad from the 1870s
Old pharmacy store in St Louis Missouri in 1903