Items from Rudell Drugstore, in the Grand Rapids Public Museum Archives

You know how it is.

Sometimes it’s a slant of light in a dusty barn, sometimes it’s the first notes of a song, sometimes a curl of woodsmoke that sets off the fireworks of memory.
This time it was a trayful of antique bottles and packages from Rudell’s Drugstore, that existed once upon a time in the city of my youth, on the corner of Ashmun and Maple. The city was just a small town in the UP, Sault Ste. Marie, but at that time it was the whole world.
Drugstores, then as now, seemed to carry everything and then some : Rudell’s had live leeches, glass eyes and postcards as well as well as medicines mixed with mortar and pestle.

Three items in the Archive tray caught my eye:
Doo-Dabs: The new way to clean and whiten all white shoes
How do we get along without these now? About the size of a stick of gum, they have only to be moistened at one end to release the charge of white polish onto your sooty white bucks, scuffed up the night before at the dance.

Old House Orange Bitters
30% alcohol! Caffeine, Angostura! These are over-the-counter ingredients to home remedies and creative cocktails. Remarkably, they were legal during Prohibition, and probably quite popular. And the label, reassuringly conservative (“Importers since 1794”), but done in a bold tangerine and silver, gets it all right.

Japanese Refined Camphor
Camphor was widely used for achy muscles or to clear the congestion that comes with colds. It provides the signature smell of Vicks Vapo Rub. It was also used around the house to repel rodents and to keep the moths at bay. It came from the wood steamed off the camphor laurel trees of Japan and Asia. All in a handy green tin.

These are a few of the 13,000 catalogued artifacts from Rudell Drugstore, where I would repair with my hot dime, to buy a ten cent comic–Aquaman, Donald Duck, something compelling–but only after creating a little misdirection by wandering through the dark and dreamy store, past the cherrywood fixtures, the brass lamps, the stuffed cases and counters deep in shoe whiteners, camphor tins and strange bottles.
It was a wonderful place, a museum of a drugstore, standing still in time since the early 1900s. Disney and the Smithsonian competed with our museum for it, so rare it was.
And it still, in a very material way, exists. First, in a miniature version in the Public Museum, and then, gloriously, but hidden, in the Archives.

Bill Hill

Bill is a long time Grand Rapids librarian, currently retired, with roots in the UP, and too many interests for the time available.