Businesses on Main Street: The Pharmacy

Glass globes or large bottles filled with colored water shimmering in the front windows were the trademark of a drugstore. Almost any town in Iowa in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a drugstore. And the colorful, sparkling window displays drew customers into the store.

The drugstores or pharmacies of the 1800s were usually owned and operated by doctors or pharmacists. They prepared the prescriptions in a separate room in the back of the store. Scales and weights, mortars and pestles (used for grinding), measuring glasses, a bottle capper and a pill rolling machine were the equipment used to make the medications from the raw materials, such as plants and mineral salts. Then the medicines were packaged in glass bottles and pillboxes with the druggist's name on the label in gold letters.

Not Only Medicine

At the front of the store display cases contained a variety of articles—brushes, fancy bottles of perfume, soap, pens, razors, scissors and boxed candy. Often there was a cigar case with a tip cutter and a match dispenser. Purchases were wrapped in brown paper from a long roll and tied with twine wound around a beehive shaped spool.

But you can't wrap up an ice-cream soda or a sundae. Many drugstores had ice-cream parlors or soda fountains with little round-topped, spindly-legged tables and delicate, curving, iron-back chairs. Or, maybe the cherry sodas and hot fudge sundaes were served at a long, shiny varnished counter with tall stools. Most treats cost 10 cents.

Early drugstores offered Iowans a variety of products from medicines to ice cream. They became popular gathering spots for families. Window displays often attracted attention and drew customers into the stores where adults and children were sure to find something they just had to have. Even the shiny, sparkling bottles filled with colorful medicines added a little brightness to the lives of early Iowans.


  • Lisa K. Abel, “The Pharmacy,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 3 (February 1982): 13.