This post was written by Business Reference librarian Natalie Burclaff.
Recently I received a question from a researcher wondering about the price of a commodity one could purchase in a pharmacy in the late 1800s. The question led me to the drug store supply industry at the turn of the 20th century and to our collection of price indexes published by pharmaceutical companies.
A 1905 job ad in Wilmington, North Carolina’s newspaper, the Semi-Weekly Messenger, was looking for a registered druggist who “must be single and not afraid to work.” The Roswell Daily Record in 1907 sought a druggist “with stock of drugs” for Lake Arthur, New Mexico (no storefront yet, but there was an available space to rent). Although you might be “single and not afraid to work,” it would be helpful to know the wholesale costs to stock your store during that time period – can you afford to get that toxic hellebore tincture for your customers? The go-to sources are “prices current” publications. They contain wholesale and bulk prices, advertisements for the latest personal care items, pharmacy store furnishings like display cases and scales, and recipes for making everything from lip salve to ringworm ointment.
One of the earliest druggist price indexes in our general collection is Wilson, Fairbanks & Co.’s Catalogue of Drugs and Medicines, published in 1857. Fifteen years later, in 1872, W.A. Weed & Co. published their first edition of The Yearbook of Pharmacy and Information in Chicago. A few years after that, and a few hundred miles southwest, Western Druggists’ Prices Current by Woodward, Faxon and Co. was first published in 1879 and represents prices west of the Mississippi (specifically Kansas City, Missouri).
McKesson & Robbins Prices Current is another price index publisher. We have 1883 and 1885 on the shelves, and the 1889 edition is available through HathiTrust, a free digital collection. For a more complete span of years, Whitall Tatum Company’s Annual Price List covers 1891-1897, 1899, 1900 and 1905. Both of these price indexes publishers were based on the East Coast, so prices might have been higher further west due to transportation costs. And for something that could travel in small spaces, see another index form the East Coast, the aptly named Physician’s Pocket-List from John Wyeth & Brother Incorporated (1901).
A note about Merck’s Index (later, Merck Index), which is a well-known encyclopedia of medical chemicals and drugs: each entry lists the properties, effects, uses, regular and maximum dosages, and warnings. It does not include what they call “crude botanical drugs” such as herbs, roots and seeds. According to their 1907 edition, the Index is “not intended to be a price-list” so they don’t publish prices, but, at least in their early editions, give “comparative values.”
These historical price indexes are useful for learning what were then considered the latest medicines, herbal remedies, and common customer ailments, in addition to their obvious purpose of giving supply costs – and that hellebore tincture will cost you 50 cents a pound, not including the bottles and labels you’ll need for packaging.