George Bartell Sr. (1868-1956) opened his first drugstore in 1890 in Seattle, and grew his business from a small fledgling enterprise to a thriving chain of pharmacies that by the 1920s were scattered throughout the city. Bartell Drugs continued to prosper into the 1940s, but subsequent changing times made it necessary for the company to reorganize its operations and resulted in the closing of some of its stores. Rapid growth returned by the late 1970s, and today (2010), the Bartell Drug Company has 57 stores throughout the Puget Sound region. It enjoys the distinction of being the oldest drugstore chain in the United States, and has remained in the Bartell family during its long history.
George Bartell Sr. was born in 1868 in Dickinson County, Kansas. He spent his early years on his family’s farm in Junction City, but even at an early age knew farming was not his calling. At age 14 he left the farm, went to Lincoln, Kansas, and began looking for work. Explained Bartell in an interview late in life: “A friend of mine advised me to enter the drug business when I was very young, and I got acquainted with the president at that time of the state pharmaceutical association and he took me under his wing” (Bartell Drugs: A Company History). Bartell’s mentor -- who owned a drugstore in Lincoln -- saw the young man’s potential and trained him well. By the time he was 17 Bartell was the assistant manager of the drugstore. At 18 he became a licensed pharmacist after completing a year’s apprenticeship.
But like many in the late nineteenth century, Bartell was lured by the call of the West. In the summer of 1887 he moved to Seattle, where he did some occasional pharmacy work but was actually more active in real estate. In the late 1880s he briefly moved to Whidbey Island to recuperate from typhoid fever (which he believed he had contracted from Seattle’s water system), but soon returned to Seattle. Late in March 1890 he began part-time work at the Lake Washington Pharmacy at 2911 Jackson Street (later renumbered 2711 Jackson Street) in a then lightly developed area that later became the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. In June he was hired full time. Opportunity knocked when he learned that the pharmacy owner, Horace Hall, was more interested in his medical practice than his drugstore. Two weeks after starting full time at the Lake Washington Pharmacy, Bartell bought the store for $3,000, most of which he had to borrow. He remarked in a 1950 Seattle Times interview, "That first store might have had trouble, except that a cable car ran right by the door. Persons going to Lake Washington and back to Seattle had to go right by the door" ("Bartell to Celebrate ...").
Bartell's First Drugstore
Bartell hung red and green globes in his storefront windows to identify it as a pharmacy, a common practice of drugstores in the late nineteenth century, and in the store’s earliest years traveled to San Francisco to buy many of his supplies. 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. In his 15-by-30-foot store, 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.
Bartell lived in the back of the store building, and worked 12-hour days (sometimes longer) seven days a week. He was essentially on call to fill prescriptions whenever he was needed, and his prescription blanks read “Prescriptions Carefully Compounded At All Hours.” But he also found time to pursue pharmacy studies at the University of Washington during the first half of the 1890s, when the college was still located in downtown Seattle. His business steadily increased as the decade of the 1890s progressed, but eventually the hard work and long hours began to take its toll on his health. In 1897 Bartell hired an assistant, A. E. Casey, but accounts differ on whether he hired Casey to help him with his workload or to run the store while he went to the Yukon to join in the Klondike Gold Rush, which commenced in July 1897.
Pharmacies, Photos, and Bartell Peanut Brittle
Bartell did relatively well in his adventures in the far North, managing to nearly break even after factoring in the steep expenses required for the trip. But after a year or so he returned to Seattle, and this time he had a plan -- to open several drugstores downtown. He opened his first new store late in 1898 at 506 2nd Avenue, and named it “Bartell’s Owl Drug Store”; the “owl” came from the all-night hours that the store stayed open. (The store remained open until 1911, when it was razed to make way for the Smith Tower.)
In 1900 Bartell sold the original Lake Washington Pharmacy to an associate, Bert Weed, and focused his efforts on the downtown store. He named his growing business the Bartell Drug Company, and it was formally incorporated on January 23, 1904. Later that year he opened a second store a block north of his owl drugstore, at 610 2nd Avenue. This store became Bartell Drugs’ headquarters for the next 10 years, but it was actually known by two names: the “main store” and the “Red Cross Annex.
In October 1908 Bartell opened a third store on the southwest corner of 1st Avenue and Pike Street, next to the entrance to Pike Place Market. He continued to expand his base of operations over the next few years, opening three new stores in the early 1910s, including one in Ballard. In 1914 Bartell established Bartell Drugs’ headquarters at 1906 Boren Avenue in Seattle. In May 1928 he moved the offices to a new building next door at 1916 Boren, and this location served as the company’s headquarters until 1985.
About 1913 Bartell opened a candy factory in the building at 1906 Boren, which operated until about 1938. It became well known for its Bartell Peanut Brittle and hand-dipped chocolate cherries; by 1930 Bartell’s was selling a ton of candy daily. He also established a laboratory in the building to produce and re-package medicine. And in 1919 the company opened a photo laboratory at 1906 Boren, which soon was capable of developing and returning prints to its various store locations within five hours by motorcycle courier -- a real feat in those days.
From its earliest years the company numbered all of its stores, and most of the pictures of its store signs from the early twentieth century show a store number, such as “Drug Store No. 3” at the Pike Place Market location, and “Store No. 11” at the store’s University Way location. Today Bartell’s continues this tradition of numbering its stores, although the numbers are no longer displayed on its signs.
The 1920s and 1930s
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. Bartell’s was also offering a broader array of merchandise by the 1920s. Various retail products, such as clocks, cameras, pens, stationery, and exercise equipment, were all being offered by the end of the decade. Bartell Drugs also began offering a wider range of cosmetics, as well as additional medicinal products (there was a particular emphasis during this period of American history in promoting regularity, and Bartell’s stocked a variety of laxatives to meet the demand). And all of the Bartell stores added in the 1920s had soda fountains. Though soda fountains were not new in the 1920s -- the owl drugstore had installed one of the first ones in Seattle about 1902 -- they had become immensely popular by the beginning of the decade, adding a social component that had been eliminated when saloons closed after Prohibition took effect in Washington state in 1916.
The company was financially secure enough to withstand the economic shock brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s, particularly since it sold many essentials that people needed despite the Depression’s severity. In fact, the company added five new stores in the first half of the decade. In July 1935 Bartell leased a site at 401 Pine Street (where Westlake Park is today) in downtown Seattle for another new store, which was built later that year. The two-story, fireproof building had a marble exterior and non-rusting metal trim, and a distinctive triangular shape which soon earned it the name “the triangle store.” Over the next half century this store would be known as Bartell Drugs’ flagship store. A tea room was on the top floor, and a soda fountain was on the first floor. Merchandise was sold on both the first floor and in the basement. The store was closed in 1984 and the building demolished as part of construction of the Westlake project.
In 1935 George Bartell Jr. (1916-2009), dropped out of college at the University of Washington and joined Bartell Drugs that August as a warehouseman. This was at the request of his father, who was then 66 years old and thought it was a good time for the younger Bartell to learn the business. On September 27, 1939, George Bartell Jr. became president of the company, though the senior Bartell remained a presence for most of the next 17 years, until his passing in 1956.
In 1941 the United States entered World War II, and George Bartell Jr. was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for four years before returning to the company. The war and resulting social changes had a notable impact on Bartell’s operations. Though Bartell Drugs had always been progressive in hiring women -- George Bartell Sr. hired one of the first women pharmacists in Seattle early in the twentieth century -- the company hired more women during the first half of the 1940s as the result of the labor shortage brought on by the war, and some of these women stayed on when the war ended. But it was additional social changes that came after the war, as well as a new law known informally as the “fair trade law,” that had a more profound effect on the Bartell Drug Company as it moved into the second half of the twentieth century.
The 1950s got off to an auspicious start for the Bartell Drug Company. In the spring of 1950 the company celebrated its 60th anniversary. A Seattle Times article in March of that year reported that Bartell Drugs had filled five million prescriptions during its 60 years, while another article added that Bartell stores had in stock slightly more than 40,000 items. In May 1951 the company opened a store in the Northgate Shopping Mall in Seattle. And in 1954 Bartell’s opened a store in Bellevue, its first Eastside location. By 1956 Bartell Drugs had 23 stores operating in the greater Seattle area, and the company also did a brisk mail-order business, receiving orders from as far away as Sweden, Turkey, and India. But by this time various issues that the company faced, many brought on by changing times, were intensifying.
In 1937 Congress passed the Miller-Tydings Fair Trade Act, which gave manufacturers the ability to control the minimum price of various products purchased from the manufacturer for resale. This included certain cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs. Though the law eventually came to be largely ignored -- and was repealed in 1975 -- it was having a significant impact on Bartell Drugs’ business by the 1950s, because it prevented the company from lowering its prices on items subject to the law in order to meet competition from other retailers who ignored the law. There were also other issues. Parking was limited at many of Bartell’s downtown locations, and though this hadn’t been much of a problem in earlier years, it became a problem as car ownership rose after World War II. An upsurge in the number of drive-in restaurants in the 1950s began to reduce Bartell’s soda fountain business. The number of self-service drugstores also began increasing, threatening to make Bartell’s traditional full-service operation obsolete. Finally, although all of the store managers were registered pharmacists, they lacked the time and experience to handle the changes that needed to be made in their stores’ operations and merchandising.
Bartell’s retained an independent firm to evaluate the issues and make recommendations for changes, but these efforts were ultimately not successful. During the late 1950s and early 1960s the company closed nearly half of its stores, including six locations between August and October 1961, and by the end of 1961 had only 12 locations still in operation. More changes followed, including several changes in key company personnel in the early-to-mid 1960s. Although stability was returning to Bartell Drugs by the end of the 1960s, the decade overall was a difficult one for the company. Only one new store was opened between 1959 and 1973, although several existing stores moved to new locations during this time. But the new store that did open was a noteworthy one: In October 1966 the company opened a Bartell Drugs in Edmonds, making it the first Bartell store in Snohomish County.
In the midst of these difficulties, the Seattle World’s Fair arrived in 1962. The southern terminus of the newly-built monorail was next to Bartell’s triangle store downtown, which gave the store a big -- and exciting -- boost in business during the fair. Gordon O’ Reilly, who was an assistant store manager at the triangle store in 1962, recalled in a 1997 interview: “That was probably the single greatest experience, that six months [that the fair was open]. We had customers coming in the store like Elvis Presley and George Burns and all kinds of celebrities. We were open from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, seven days a week, for six straight months” ( Bartell Drugs: A Company History).
In 1965 the company promoted Bellevue store manager Val Storrs to Operations Manager and Ballard store manager Gordon O’Reilly to Merchandise Manager. Storrs and O’Reilly understood what was needed to move the company forward and gradually made the personnel and merchandise changes necessary to adapt. By the late 1960s the company was also working with a new supplier who provided lower prices to Bartell’s for its pharmaceutical and over-the-counter items, and had increased its newspaper advertising in order to boost sales. Bartell Drugs also introduced electronic order transmission in its stores in the early-to-mid 1970s, enabling the stores to write their own orders instead of relying on the by then outdated method of having a supplier’s salesman prepare orders for the stores. The soda fountains and large, elaborate window displays -- made by Bartell’s own staff of artisans -- disappeared (except at the triangle store), and by the 1970s the interior layout of Bartell drugstores, 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.
By the late 1970s Bartell Drugs was adding new stores at an increasing pace, and during the 1980s this growth accelerated. Bartell’s opened five new stores in a single day on September 7, 1984, as the result of an acquisition from Shopper’s Drug Mart, including three new locations in Snohomish County. This expansion into Seattle’s suburbs continued through the 1980s, with locations opened in Sammamish in 1987 and in Kent in 1988. Bartell Drugs closed the 1980s with 31 stores in operation, an increase of 14 stores from the beginning of the decade.
Nineteen ninety was a big year for the Bartell Drug Company. On April 1, 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). George D. Bartell had begun his career with the company in 1968 as a clerk and cashier at the downtown triangle store, and by the 1980s was taking a more active role in the company’s operations. Bartell Drugs also celebrated its centennial in 1990. It was a year-long celebration, complete with birthday cakes served periodically at its stores during the year and, in August, a drawing at each of the stores for an 1890 silver dollar. The company headquarters also moved in January 1990 from its home of five years at 4930 3rd Avenue S to its present location at 4727 Denver Avenue S.
Bartell stores moved into their second century with updated computerized cash registers and microphoto labs (and in 2003, digital photo processing). In 1998 the company joined the Internet age when it introduced its first website, and by the end of 2000, you could shop online at the Bartell Drugs website. The rapid growth and expansion that the company enjoyed in the 1980s continued through the 1990s, and at the end of 1999 Bartell Drugs had 45 stores in operation. This included a store opened in October 1991 in Gig Harbor, Bartell’s first in Pierce County. In 1995 Bartell Drugs also opened Seattle’s first modern 24-hour drugstore at 600 1st Avenue N in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood.
Bartell Drugs Today
The company’s growth continued during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Annual revenues in 2005 were reported to be more than $300 million, and in December 2009 Bartell’s had 57 stores in operation and approximately 1,700 full- and part-time employees. Bartell Drugs also received significant community recognition during the decade of the 2000s. In July 2004 the Bartell Drug Company was awarded the Washington State Century Corporation Award by Secretary of State Sam Reed in a ceremony timed to coincide with the opening of a new store at 4th Avenue and Madison Street in Seattle. One hundred years after its incorporation, Bartell’s was one of only 43 businesses remaining from the 800 incorporated in Washington state in the year 1904. And in November 2006 Bartell Drugs was awarded the 13th Annual Best in the Northwest Washington Family Business Award in the Large Business category by the Family Enterprise Institute of the Pacific Lutheran University School of Business.
Bartell’s has the distinction of being the oldest drugstore chain in the United States. Jean Bartell Barber, Vice Chairman and Treasurer of the Bartell Drug Company, explained the formula for the company’s success in a 2006 Puget Sound Business Journal interview. “Our brand hasn’t changed. If you go back and look at ads of ours from 80 years ago, you’ll see some of the same themes. What we stand for hasn’t really changed ... . You are honest to a fault and you treat your customers right. At the end of the day, that should see you through. And if it doesn’t, that’s life, because you can’t go back on those principles.”