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  • Writer's pictureNLPB Pharmacy Museum

100 Years of NLPM

2024 is a big year for the NLPM; it marks 100 years since the construction and subsequent opening of Apothecary Hall! We have a lot planned for this year, but we thought it would be best to start with a bit of a retrospective.


First, we will delve into the ownership and intended uses of Apothecary Hall and its preceding structure, 46-48 Water Street. Following that will be a discussion of the influences and construction of Apothecary Hall, and why it looks the way it does. Finally, we will have a third post discussing our plans for the future and how that may - or, may not - change the way we interact with the physical space of Apothecary Hall.


Overall, this milestone is a large one. There is 100 years of history in this building waiting to be celebrated, and this is only the beginning! We hope you enjoy this deep-dive into local industry and pharmacy history.


 

Black and white photo of one man and three boys in 1920s style suits standing in front of an antique storefront. Tallest man is wearing a long white apron. Words on the windows behind them reads "Branch Post Office / Peter O'Mara Druggist".
An existing photo of Peter's original storefront.

Peter O’Mara’s first pharmacy was located, according to McAlpine’s St. John’s City Directory, at 46-48 Water West. In today’s St. John’s, this location is, apparently, one door to the right of our current location! According to newspapers of the time, Peter simply bought the land next door and built out the area, extending both his shop and ensuring that he and his family had ample space to live.


The beginning of a 1924 article which has been digitized. Black text on white background.,
A 1924 article in The Evening Telegram on the opening of Apothecary Hall.

This pharmacy first opened in 1899, and Peter himself was the main compounding pharmacist in addition to running the administrative parts of the business. As you can see, at some point Peter’s pharmacy also operated as a post office. In 1910 Peter helped to found the Newfoundland Pharmaceutical Society, which exists today as the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board (NLPB).






Black text on white background, 1924 newspaper article which has been digitized.
Another article detailing the opening of Peter's new storefront.

In 1922 Peter purchased the land to build Apothecary Hall at 488 Water St, but it wasn’t until the 1924-25 season that it truly opened. This new store allowed Peter and his family to live in an apartment above the storefront, and was in close proximity to doctor’s offices and a fire hall.





The pharmacy itself operated under variants of the name “Peter O’Mara’s Drug Store” or “Peter O’Mara; Druggist”; brand recognition wasn’t as important at this point, as for local business-owners it was them, rather than their business, that brought in the customers. Peter’s prominent place in the local and pharmaceutical communities of St. John’s was incredibly important for the longevity of his business.


Eventually, Peter retired. Apothecary Hall itself was owned and operated by his branch of the O’Mara family until 1986, when it was turned into a museum by then-owner, James J O’Mara. James, Peter’s cousin, turned ownership of the building over to the NLPB when he turned the shop into a museum, and a museum it has been ever since!


Photo which is split down the middle. Left is a black and white image of 1920s 488 Water St, with men lingering by the left side. Right is a modern, coloured photo of the same squat, square building.
1920s Apothecary Hall vs (relatively) modern Apothecary Hall

As mentioned above, Apothecary Hall was meant to be a combination shopfront and living space. Before moving into Apothecary Hall Peter and his family lived away from the shop - combining those into one space helped cut down on commutes and allowed Peter to pursue other important parts of his business, such as liaising with harbour-workers and accompanying firefighters to fires as an emergency medic. 



While Apothecary Hall was truly not that far away from his first location at 448 Water St, keeping to this area of town was extremely important for Peter. Most importantly, this was a busy part of Water Street at the time. Maintaining his business in this area - so close to both the train depot and the harbour, which were both high traffic areas - showed that Peter’s business was established enough that he could afford to own and operate a home and business in one of the busiest spots in St. John’s. Even more, he could afford to have multiple employees, and sometimes apprentices, under his care.


A small cardboard box propped slightly up. Box holds white prescription labels with his name at the top, and room for prescription information underneath. Text is blue on white paper.
Being close to the train depot was important enough to his business that he included it on all his advertising!

This location also kept Peter close to his established clientele, with whom he had developed a good rapport and reputation. For example, being so close to the harbour meant that Peter had the first opportunity to work with incoming ship-workers; the ship’s medicine chest we have on exhibit at the museum is proof of this! Peter was a first stop for these workers, and first-hand accounts say he often gave medical care and – on occasion – cash advances to workers who had not received their paychecks or were behind on their payments. Peter’s reputation for charity extended to providing emergency healthcare; as mentioned, he used to have a direct line to the nearby firehall installed so that he could ride with them in order to provide medical care to anyone hurt in local fires. 


In addition, this location in Water West helped Peter stay close to the doctor’s offices he had already built a rapport with. Things like vaccines were, at this point in time, held by pharmacists who had the facilities to safely keep them before they were transferred to doctors who had requested them. Creating a close relationship with local doctors was also essential for maintaining a high standard of patient care, as the pharmacist was the most consistent form of healthcare for your average person. Peter would have known his patient’s allergies, preferences, and illnesses better than nearly anyone else, and it would have been a team effort between him and any doctor to effectively treat their patients. 


 

More practically, we can look at the internal structure of Apothecary Hall to tell us how the building itself was used and designed, and how Peter operated as a pharmacist one hundred years ago. Though we will talk about the design of the building in more detail in the next blog post, it is important to know that Peter styled his pharmacies very purposefully in the British style - under the umbrella of the British Pharmacy and Poisons Act of 1868, as well as the tradition of apprenticeship - and operated his business that way as well.


A small interior space with white pressed tin ceilings, wood plank floors, wood counters, and wood shelves. The counters are lined with pharmacy paraphernalia, and the shelves are lined with matching clear glass bottles.
A relatively recent look into how the museum is laid out.

The shopfront is where the main museum space is now; this space would likely have counters all the way around the outside of the room, with space in the middle for customers to wander and gather. There was a soda machine in the shop that encouraged people to linger, fostering a sense of community and allowing customers to build relationships with each other and the establishment. This front area was also where popular, patent, over-the-counter remedies were advertised, which would have been a huge draw for both those walking by and for those waiting for the latest remedies to hit their local shops.


The current layout of the museum is our best approximation of how the shop would have been organized, but we are aware that we are missing at least one set of counters based on the historical wear-and-tear of the floors. Above, you can see a picture of our museum as it is now. Below, we have provided our only known photo of the interior of Peter O'Mara's pharmacy in approximately the 1940s. See that pressed tin on the wall, and the glass bottles on the shelf? They're still there today!


While these spaces are obviously curated for different purposes - a museum is fundamentally different from a pharmacy, after all - you can see the similarities.


Black and white photo of a cluttered pharmacy corner. There are many bottles and containers on the tall shelves, a chair pushed into the corner, and many hip-height counters in frame.
The interior of Peter O'Mara's pharmacy when he was still in charge of the business,c.1940.


While the main area of the building was intended as a customer-facing area, the space directly behind the dispensary door was just that, the dispensary. This is where the doctor-prescribed remedies would have been made. Pharmacists would have gone back and forth between the front and back to deliver orders, take prescriptions, and address patient concerns. Gas was hooked up to the building for the express purpose of servicing the dispensary rooms, allowing pharmacists to work with Bunsen burners to heat and cool dangerous chemicals while still ensuring the safety of their customers. Truly dangerous things would have been kept downstairs in the steel-door vault, while moderate chemicals would have been kept in the dispensary, and simple things - like baking sodas, syrups, and oils - would have been kept in the front space near the customers. Peter would have had one to two other licensed pharmacists working at the shop at any given time, alongside himself, as well an apprentice, and a front-of-house worker. In 1923-1924 Peter employed two professional pharmacists - John J Roache and Fred O’Leary - as well as himself.


The basement was solely for overstock and product storage. As mentioned above there is what we call The Vault - a large concrete room with a thick steel bank door - where the caustic and dangerous chemicals and drugs would have been kept. Things like vaccines would have also been kept in this room, due to the stable cool temperature and lack of light exposure. Around the corner from The Vault is the general storage, with large built-in wooden shelves. This space is utilitarian, with wood and concrete walls and enough floor space to store bulk-sized orders that would have been shipped overseas from Britain. This space is hugely indicative of its time; interestingly, the shelves are obviously handmade, with a shelf height of anywhere from 7 to 14”, and a shelf depth of anywhere from 8 to 8.5”. Modern shelves are about 10” deep, for reference.



Finally, the upstairs of the building is where Peter and his family would have lived. It’s a relatively small space that has since been converted into office-space. Originally, there would have been one or two small bedrooms, a bathroom, a living space, and a small kitchen. One of the original fireplaces still exists; this is how the building would have been heated top to bottom, where the gas connection would have been reserved only for the dispensary. Peter would have lived here with his family, as well as any apprentices that would have been under the care of the family at the time.

Unfortunately we do not have any original photos of this space, nor do we have any written records of how it would have been laid out. We can make guesses, of course, but unless we are able to find the original architectural plans we have no idea!





Thank you for your time today! I hope this insight into the creation and historical uses of Apothecary Hall was an interesting look into a hundred years in the past. In the next blog post we will be looking at the construction of Apothecary Hall: namely, who designed it and what were the inspirations behind the choices that were made? After diving into the past we’ll be looking into the future and talking about projects and construction that we’d like to see happen to make Apothecary Hall last for a hundred years more.


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