Let’s start with Walgreens, the ubiquitous drugstore chain that now boasts 7,600 outlets in all 50 states. Before it was a corporate behemoth, Walgreens was a just a tiny string of stores Charles Walgreen operated on Chicago’s South Side. (A replica of the first Walgreens, in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood, is on display at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry.) During the first two decades of the 20th century, the inventive Walgreen slowly expanded his operation, adding to each emporium elements -- an efficient prescription department, for example, and the milkshake -- that would become popular staples over time. The company’s creed was nothing if not earnest: “We believe in the goods we merchandise, in ourselves, and our ability to render satisfaction. We believe that honest goods can be sold to honest people by honest methods.”
During Prohibition, the druggist experienced explosive growth, opening over 500 stores by 1929. “Walgreen’s expansion strategy was very simple,” his plaque reads at the American National Business Hall of Fame. “He would duplicate his basic store model whenever and wherever the company’s cash flow would permit.” That stream was certainly bolstered by the popularity of his lunch counters. By organizing a buying cooperative with other independent local outlets early in his career, Walgreens outlets always offered affordable prices, too. But booze almost certainly gave the pharmacy additional, um, liquidity.
How? The Volstead Act, the legislation enabling enforcement of the 18th Amendment, contained four major exemptions: alcohol that was stored in one’s house on the day the law went into effect, “fruit juices” brewed by small farmers (the same folks who made up the base of support for the crusading Anti-Saloon League), wine produced for sacrament, and liquor distilled for “medicinal” purposes. People found a myriad of ways to abuse all four exceptions, but druggists and doctors were arguably the most aggressive. Every 10 days, for about three dollars a pop, any “sick” man could get a “prescription” filled for a pint of whiskey by a pharmacist looking for a little stipend on the side. “The cash flow from few enterprises gushed with quite the velocity that Prohibition brought to the drugstore business,” Okrent notes.
Walgreens adamantly claims the high road. “True, certain unethical customers (in concert with unethical doctors) might have slipped a Walgreens pharmacist an occasional prescription for “medicinal whiskey,” wrote a sympathetic company historian in a 2004 book, “but there is no indication such behavior was countenanced by the company, which kept its sterling reputation throughout the era.” Still, several hints suggest otherwise. In an interview from the same book (that Okrent excerpts), Walgreen’s son admits that any store fire nearly gave his dad a heart attack. “He wanted the fire department to get in as fast as possible,” he remembered, “because whenever they came in we’d always lose a case or two of liquor” from the back. On top of that, Al Capone, “like so many other Chicagoans … was a regular.”
These days, alcohol is a standard (and legal) offering at most Walgreens branches. Indeed, the company just began selling its own house brand lager at just $.50 a can. Reviews suggest that consumers, like their Prohibition-era forefathers, might be better off brewing their own suds.