Boomer Comparison: Drug Stores Then and Now

In the age before the shopping mall, drug stores were locally owned and served as general stores for a variety of family needs. See if you recall your family in these Mister Boomer experiences:

Prescriptions
Then: Your doctor wrote a prescription on paper and you brought it to your neighborhood pharmacist. Mister B does recall some instances when the doctor phoned the pharmacy when his mother was ill, then he would ride his bike to the drug store and pick up her prescription. His father could always pay for it later. It was a time before the proliferation of credit cards, so, like a lot of stores, the drug store maintained a book of what people owed if they couldn’t pay at that moment.

Now: Prescriptions are still filled at neighborhood pharmacies — but chances are, these days the store is part of a national chain. Pharmacists are still licensed and can give advice on medications, the same as in early days. When we were young, though, the pharmacist probably knew the names of everyone in the family. Home centers, warehouse stores and super stores also have internal pharmacies. For ongoing prescriptions, savings can be gained by ordering in bulk from online pharmacies that ship the prescriptions directly to your home.

Then and Now: When we were young, a man had to ask the pharmacist for condoms since they were kept behind the prescription counter. It was an Urban Rite of Passage for every boy over the age of 16 to carry a condom “at the ready” in his wallet. Many a boomer boy will tell of the embarrassment they felt asking the pharmacist, especially when the man knew his family. Some rebels who had a devil-may-care attitude toward the exchange would dole out extras to his neighborhood chums or school pals, which is how most boomer boys got their wallet condom. It didn’t matter that 99 percent of them would never be used for their intended purpose.
Today, condoms are openly displayed and readily accessible in drug stores, and the variety has expanded well beyond what was hidden under the counter fifty years ago.

Also, most drug stores have expanded their services to include wellness clinic, and flu shots administered by trained medical practitioners.

Cards
Then: Mister Boomer recalls many times when the family was heading out the door to a wedding when his mother asked his father, “Did you buy a card?” Inevitably, his answer was, “No.” Mister B’s dad would drive over to the drug store. While the family stayed in the car, he’d run in for a card. The store’s cards were kept just inside the parking lot entry. Two minutes later he would return with a wedding card. The drug store had all the cards the family would need in the course of a year, from birthdays to Valentine’s Day; weddings to anniversaries; get well to sympathies.

Now: Most drug stores maintain a card area, though the stock has changed due to Internet competition. Less cards are being purchased, so much of the inventory is devoted to cards that play music, specialty shapes and papers — in other words, cards for which they can charge a premium.

Photo Processing
Then: Many boomers recall going to the drug store with their parents to drop off film for developing. A week to ten days later, you could return and get your prints and the negatives.

Now: Some drug stores have eliminated their photo processing departments, while others have greatly reduced the visibility of the services. Prints can still be ordered from some drug store/pharmacies, but now in many cases they can be ordered online and picked up in any location across the country.

Sundries
Then: In an age before large discount stores and malls, the local drug store was the closest thing to a general store in most neighborhoods. A family could pick up everyday necessities, such as toilet paper and toothpaste, but also seasonal needs like spring picnic supplies, summer beach necessities and winter snow and ice needs. For Mister Boomer, his drug store was his number one connection for car, boat and plane model kits and the Testor’s paints and glue he needed to complete the projects. All of Mister B’s monster models — Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolfman and Phantom of the Opera — came from his drug store. So did his model of PT 109, the patrol boat Lt. John F. Kennedy captained in World War II.

Now: You can still get a wide variety of items at drug stores, from needles and threads to car accessories, seasonal needs to snacks and cold drinks. It’s been a while since Mister Boomer has noticed model car and plane kits at his area drug stores, but he likes to think there are still drug stores out there that stock them for the youngsters interested in building the kits.

TV Tube Testing
Then: In an age when every father was expected to fix things around the house, TV tube replacement was among the easiest since it was tantamount to replacing a light bulb. Mister Boomer remembers his father opening the back of their black & white TV and pulling one to three tubes of varying sizes. A quick trip the drug store was all that was needed to test the tubes and buy replacements. Mister Boomer remembers the drug store’s test station that sat near the center of the store. The angled wooden top had a series of multiple-hole slots, each numbered to match a specific tube. By plugging the tube into the appropriate slot and flipping the on switch, a customer could test to see if his TV tube was still good. Replacements were found in drawers below the top.

Now: TVs with vacuum tubes were still being manufactured in the early 1990s, but have now disappeared as electronic inventions have replaced the need for them. Consequently, drug stores no longer have a need for TV tube test stations.

Soda Fountain
Then: Perhaps the quintessential defining area of every drug store in the boomer era (and the generation before) was a soda fountain. Soda jerks were the uniformed workers — men and women — who manned the counter. They served up ice cream sodas, sundaes, banana splits and in some cases, hot dogs and sandwiches. It was the ice cream that Mister Boomer remembers. His father promised him a banana split after he had his tonsils removed when he was six years old. It was the first one he had ever eaten, and it was at the neighborhood drug store’s soda fountain. It was a thing of beauty, with half slices of banana slipped on the sides of a long glass dish. Then scoops of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream were layered in, and covered with whipped cream. Hot fudge was drizzled on top of the whipped cream, followed by crushed walnuts. A cherry, centered over the middle scoop of ice cream, completed the masterpiece. Sometimes Mister B’s father would get him and his siblings a sundae while waiting for a prescription to be filled.

Now: Unless the drug store is a themed nostalgia establishment, the vast majority have eliminated the soda fountain.

A trip to the drug store could be a mundane affair, but as Mister Boomer recalls, it could also be an event. A child could experience the joy ice cream can bring, or take home a kite, model or toy while his parents acquired their needs.

What did your drug store mean to you, boomers?

Boomers Helped to Alter the Christmas Shopping Countdown

Boomers were born into the beginnings of the Consumer Age, when “buying more” equaled “progress.” Now that the Christmas shopping season is here once again, it’s time for Mister Boomer — an aging boomer Scrooge himself — to rant about how in our day it was “To everything … there is a season,” but now it’s “All about the Benjamins.”

In the boomer era the Christmas season, in most small to middle-sized towns, wasn’t “officially” started until the lighting of the community Christmas tree. The tree could be a naturally-growing one in a city park, or a twenty-to-thirty foot tall evergreen erected for the season in a town square or shopping district. In any case, it was decorated with lights and sometimes large ornaments that were wired to the branches to thwart wind gusts and mischievous hands. It was a citywide event when it came time to turn on the lights. Very often a local celebrity or political figure “flipped the switch” to illuminate the tree. Hundreds of people would brave the inevitable cold (and sometimes, snow) to come out for the tree lighting, in anticipation of the festive season’s arrival. Some Christmas carols might be sung by school kids, or, the crowd that gathered joined in singing. Local TV would be sure to get some footage for the evening news.

The thing is, the annual tree lighting was never in November; it was always held within the first two weeks or weekends of December. President Franklin Roosevelt had the Thanksgiving holiday pushed back one week in 1941 in an effort to give retail merchants a longer Christmas shopping season. The intent was to offer an economic boost to help get the country out of the Great Depression. Nonetheless, Black Friday shopping was barely a blip in most areas after the War, as the Thanksgiving holiday weekend was yet to be fully exploited the way other holidays had been (with the exception of professional football on TV, that is).

Christmas as a religious holiday always had an uneasy connection to capitalistic commerce through Santa Claus, who was depicted both as a religious figure and the bearer of toys to delight girls and boys. Santa’s arrival was often timed to coincide with the tree lighting. As befitting a prominent figure, the man in the red suit could arrive to the tree lighting by firetruck or, in some cases, helicopter. Some towns had Christmas parades planned around the event.

Our parents, a generation that grew up in the worst economic depression the country had ever seen — which was then followed by a World War — wanted very much to give their children as much as they possibly could, literally and figuratively. Consequently, the optimistic atmosphere of post-war America turned the holiday, with each passing year, into a season of want that continues to expand. As Baby Boomers we only knew the world we lived in, and not the one that came before, so more toys and gifts than our parents received as kids was only natural to us. The new national medium of TV did a lot to instill within us the desire to bug our parents for advertised products, and they obliged whenever they could. It looks like we did the same thing to our children, and they to theirs.

It seemed the more people bought in those boomer days, the hungrier merchants got, so the shopping season kick off of Black Friday gained in importance by the mid-60s. By the time the 1970s rolled around, a lot of cities abandoned the tree lighting ceremonies for several reasons, including protests over the separation of church and state, financial considerations of local governments and, in the case of Mister Boomer’s area as well as a host of others, the rise of local indoor malls, which took over the duties of creating tree lighting ceremonies of their own.

While Mister B has noticed a steady increase in the intensity of early holiday shopping through the years, he decries the frenzy foisted upon the populace by corporate-owned stores that he has witnessed over the past few years. Baby Boomers grew up in an age where by mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Day Uncle Ned had unbuckled his belt and half the family was asleep in front of the TV football game. Now some families are piling into the SUV and headed for the mall.

We aren’t going back to the Mayberry days of our youth, to be sure, but shouldn’t we have one silent night before the onslaught of a month of blaring Silent Nights?

What do you think, boomers? When should the floodgates be opened for Christmas shopping?