That Villainous Drug Trust
George Bartell opened his first drugstore in Seattle in 1890 at 2911 Jackson Street, and opened a second store, known as "Bartell's Owl Drugstore," at 506 2nd Avenue in 1898. In 1900, he closed his Jackson Street location and for the next few years the Owl was his sole drugstore. That would change, but not until after he took on the Seattle Drug Trust.
The first mention of this trust that is known today (2012) appeared in an ad in the June 11, 1901, Seattle Times. Between then and the beginning of 1905, more than 130 such ads were published, and a few more may have run, as not every single issue of the paper between 1901 and 1905 is available today. In addition to listing the bargains of the day, the ads told the classic tale of the little guy standing up to the big bullying behemoth and winning. (While most of the ads were Bartell ads, some of them were on behalf of another Seattle drugstore battling the trust, the Quaker Drug Company. Later, the Seattle druggist G. O. Guy briefly joined the fray. More on that follows.)
The majority of the ads ran during 1902, and many detailed the story of Bartell's struggle against the villainous drug trust, said to be 40 to 50 Seattle drug stores all in it together to fix prices and drive Bartell Drugs out of business. The trust notified wholesale drug companies on the West Coast that if they caught these companies selling to Bartell Drugs, they would no longer buy from these wholesalers. In response, the wily George Bartell found wholesalers both in San Francisco and on the East Coast who would sell to him.
Drama and Humor
Some of the ads were dramatic. "It's some forty against one ... . Detectives are employed by the Seattle Drug Trust to see who keeps us supplied," reported an ad on January 2, 1902. An ad from later that month trumpeted: "The trusts declared to be grave evils" (The Seattle Times, January 28, 1902, p. 2). Others had a patriotic appeal: "[The trusts are] against the teachings of American liberty," argued a February 6 ad. On March 10 another ad declared that trusts "are cowardly and un-American."
And they were all out to get Bartell Drugs. The ads said that the trusts had detectives trying to find where Bartell got his supplies, even sending these hirelings to Portland, Tacoma, and Everett on a wild goose chase. The ads also claimed that the trusts encouraged local doctors to discourage their patients from going to Bartell Drugs, and suggested that the doctors received a commission on their prescriptions that were filled by trust members.
By the spring of 1902, the ads were taking a more humorous bent. "Every time the Bartell Drug Co. receives a carload of medicines the trust druggists become nervously excited," explained an ad on April 26, 1902. Four days later another ad announced, "A train that brought tears -- the train that brought the carload of medicines to the Bartell Drug Co. yesterday from the East caused agony among the Trust Druggists."
The Quaker Joins In
In May 1902, another local druggist joined Bartell in his duel with the trust. The Quaker Drug Company, located in the new Globe Block down on 1st Avenue, began running its own ads (remarkably similar to Bartell's) decrying the evils of the trust. Its ads -- complete with the company logo of a seventeenth-century Quaker accurate down to the knee breeches -- likewise used a liberal dose of humor; one predicted: "Some of the 14-ounce druggists will be wearing asbestos suits before the Quaker dies" (The Seattle Times, July 28, 1902, p. 3). In 1904, a few anti-trust ads also appeared on behalf of the Seattle druggist G. O. Guy. Guy and the Quaker contributed perhaps two dozen ads between them; the remaining 100-plus came from Bartell Drugs.
An article in The Seattle Times on November 26, 1902, shed light on who was behind the drug trust. P. J. Tormey (ca. 1847-1903), president of the Quaker Drug Company, explained in an interview that the boycott had been initiated by the National Association of Retail Druggists, but that it was actually controlled by patent medicine providers (who in the early twentieth century did a huge volume of business in the country) and by the wholesalers themselves. He further explained that the Seattle Drug Trust -- also referred to in a Quaker ad as The Seattle Retail Druggists Association -- was a local branch of the National Association of Retail Druggists.
But their nefarious plot to drive the little guy out of business failed. Bartell's ads disappeared after the summer of 1902, but he ran a handful two years later, perhaps in response to Guy's ads. "The Trust Is Busted," announced a Bartell's ad on June 27, 1904, and while this may have been a little premature, it wouldn't be for long. In 1906, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the National Association of Retail Druggists and numerous other defendants for the specific practices that Bartell had successfully resisted. The druggists appealed directly to President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who declined to intervene. In May 1907, the court issued a permanent injunction against the National Association of Retail Druggists and 96 other defendants prohibiting them from further such actions.
Bartell Drugs would go on to grow into a thriving chain that would overcome even bigger challenges as it moved through the twentieth century. Today (2012) the Bartell Drug Company enjoys the distinction of being the oldest drugstore chain in the United States.