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George Bartell Sr. opens the first Bartell Drug Store in Seattle in June 1890.
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In June 1890 George Bartell Sr. (1868-1956) purchases his first drugstore in Seattle. By the 1920s he will have grown his business from a small fledgling enterprise to a thriving chain of pharmacies scattered throughout the city. By 2010 Bartell Drug Company will have 58 stores throughout the Puget Sound region. It will enjoy the distinction of being the oldest drugstore chain in the United States, and will have remained in the Bartell family during its 120-year history.
George Bartell Sr. was born in 1868 in Kansas, and at age 14 moved to Lincoln, Kansas, and found work in a drugstore. By the time he was 17 he was the assistant manager of the store, and at 18 he became a licensed pharmacist after completing a year’s apprenticeship.
In 1887 he moved to Seattle, and late in March 1890 began work at the Lake Washington Pharmacy at 2911 Jackson Street (later renumbered 2711 Jackson Street) in what later became known as the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. In June he was hired full time, and two weeks later he bought the store.
Belladonna, Ipecac, and Horse Medicines
Drugstores in the 1890s were considerably more primitive than what they are today or, for that matter, than what they would be just a few decades later. Bartell sold crude drugs extracted from plants, such as bloodroot, belladonna, and foxglove, as well as bark from cascara and cinchona trees. He also sold oils and medicinal chemicals such as calomel, sulfur, and ipecac. The store carried a stock of herbs and spices (drugstores typically sold these items in the late nineteenth century), and in an era before the automobile, the store sold horse medicines.
In the 1890s prescription capsules were not yet in common use, which created challenges as to how medicine should be dispensed. Bartell handmade various medications into pills and powders, and folded some of the more unpleasant-tasting medicines in onion skins to try to hide the taste. When capsules later came into use, he had to warn his customers not to open them before taking them.
To the Gold Rush and Back
Bartell took a breather from his pharmacy in 1897 to join the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. But he returned to Seattle in 1898, and late in the year opened a new drugstore, named Bartell’s Owl Drug Store, at 506 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle. In 1904 the Bartell Drug Company was incorporated, and later that year Bartell opened a second drugstore downtown which became known as the Red Cross Annex.
In 1914 Bartell established company headquarters on Boren Avenue, and the following year opened a candy factory, which successfully operated for about 20 years, next door to his headquarters. In 1917 Bartell Drugs opened a photo laboratory in its headquarters building, which quickly became a staple of Bartell’s business.
Cameras, Clocks, and Cosmetics
The 1920s were boom years for the company. Ten new locations opened, and by the end of the decade Bartell Drugs had 15 stores operating in Seattle. By this time Bartell’s was offering a broader array of retail products, such as clocks, cameras, pens, stationery, exercise equipment, and a broad range of cosmetics. Soda fountains were also a feature in all of Bartell’s new stores.
The company continued to thrive during the 1930s, despite the economic shock brought on by the Great Depression of that decade. In 1939 George Bartell’s son, George Bartell Jr. (1916-2009) became president of the company, though the senior Bartell remained a presence for most of the next 17 years, until his passing in 1956.
By the 1950s changing times made it necessary for Bartell Drugs to reorganize its operations. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the company closed many of its downtown stores, but it also began expanding into the suburbs, opening a store in Bellevue in 1954 (its first Eastside location) and another in 1966 in Edmonds (the first Bartell store outside of King County). The interiors of the stores changed too, and by the 1970s their layout, with their well-lit, wide aisles and lower shelves to provide merchandise within easy reach of the customer, began to resemble the Bartell stores that we know today.
Bartell Drugs Today
In the late 1970s rapid growth returned to Bartell Drugs, and during the 1980s and 1990s this growth accelerated. In 1990 George Bartell Jr. stepped down as president (though, like his father before him, he remained a presence in the company for many years after) and was succeeded by his son, George D. Bartell (b. 1951).
The company’s growth continued during the first years of the twenty-first century, and in May 2010 Bartell’s had 58 stores in operation in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties, with approximately 1,700 full and part-time employees.
HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Bartell Drug Company” (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org/, website accessed June 28, 2013; “Our Stores,” Bartell Drug Company website accessed May 2, 2010 (http://www.bartelldrugs.com/stores/index.jsp).
Note: This essay was revised on June 28, 2013, to specify that it was in June of 1890 that George Bartell bought his first drug store.
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