Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wets and Dries

It wasn’t quite a forest anymore. More like a garden of botanicals. Exotic with rhizomes and roots, excrescence on some trees. Leaves macerating. Acacia slightly rancid in the glue bottle. It was those arcane names that drew me in and their intoxicating breath.

They asked me, what’ll it be? You’re seventeen. Who are you? I only knew who I wasn’t. My brother, four years older, with a tool box, tinkering under the hood. Never owned a library card. No. I would become my father.

I entered his world of pharmacy as it was withering. 1950, still with ancient vapors I had inhaled as a kid. Apothecary jars on the shelf labeled podophyllin, glycyrrhiza, aqua hamamelidis. The glossary became a second language.

Four years later I was licensed but the Edenic garden was nearly gone. It had become bottled alphabetically. The aromatic elixirs had vanished or fallen into disrepute. Squibb, Parke-Davis, Upjohn, Eli Lilly, Burrough-Welcome claimed the space, now deodorized. But we still had the Wets and Dries.   

That’s what we called it. Compound tincture of benzoin and oil of eucalyptus were some of the wets. The stuff put into a vaporizer whose mingled odor in the steam certified a sickroom. Bicarbonate of soda was one of the dries. They were a part of a section dividing the prescription area from the front.

The front was where customers stood. Back in the day the Rx compounding area was raised so the pharmacist was looked up to as he presided between globes of colored water. My father was on that pedestal for me but now I was eye to eye with a man faking a cough to get his hands on a bottle of Terpin Hydrate with Codeine, aka G.I. Gin, which was among the wets. His signature in the registry book was required; today it was Joe Smith, tomorrow Bill Blotz. Poor guy. If the codeine didn’t get you, the alcohol did.

Wets and Dries are the last gasp of early pharmacy. Old preparations or chemicals so long in use they couldn’t be patented and sold as proprietaries still hang on. Iodine would be another one.  Epsom salts, in five pound boxes remain, usually filling the bottom shelf of the section. Flowers of sulfur (brimstone) used for acne, no longer. The wets included cascara sagrada (laxative), spirits of ammonia (smelling salt), peppermint water (mild carminative) and Stokes expectorant (demulcent and suppressant). Those names still get me.

In the 1970s, the FDA required proof of efficacy and safety for all items sold having a therapeutic effect. There was no pharmaceutical company to bear the expense of an approval process. Old standards such as Mercurochrome fell away along with dozens of others. I also fell away but that drugstore air remains in a corner of my lungs, pungent, floral and earthy in a special proportion I can conjure with any number of old-world words…cimicifuga, asafetida, opodeldoc.


  1. Norm
    I never tire of your memories. And you are spot on with our sad state of affairs.

  2. I don't know where we're headed so I take comfort in what I see in the rear-view mirror.