G. O. Guy Drugs

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 3/10/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10753
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G.O. Guy (1846-1927) opened his first drugstore in Seattle in 1888, but it wasn't his first store -- that came in Chicago in 1874.  After his death, his sons Albert (1892-1983) and George (1881-1968) took over the business. Under their management it grew to a peak of 12 stores, and G. O. Guy Drugs was a steady presence in the Seattle-area pharmacy market during the middle of the twentieth century.  Its heyday had passed by the 1970s and it was sold to Pay 'n Save in 1987, less than a year shy of its centennial in Seattle.    

The Ice Cream Soda Is Born 

George Omar Guy was born on April 23, 1846, in Chenango, New York. His parents were George Guy (1808-1893) and Rebecca Brown Keith (1810-1863). He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1870 and by 1872 was in Philadelphia. He attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (later renamed the University of Sciences in Philadelphia) and worked in a local drugstore. It was there, Guy claimed, that he discovered the ice cream soda. 

He was working the drugstore's soda fountain one day when two men came in. One asked for a dish of ice cream, the other a glass of vanilla soda water. As Guy prepared the orders, he inadvertently dropped the ice cream into the soda water. He was preparing to toss out the concoction when one of the customers asked if he could try it. Viola! The ice cream soda was born. It's a great story, and one that was regularly repeated in the Seattle papers over the years. Was it true? A quick Internet search shows there are at least two others who claim to have first created the ice cream soda, and one of these claims seems to be widely accepted. We'll probably never know for sure if Guy was the guy, but a lot of people thought he was. 

Guy Comes to Seattle 

Guy graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and moved to Chicago, where he opened his first pharmacy in 1874. On June 17, 1878, he married Luella Blakeslee (1852-1919). They had three children:  Laura (1879-1955), George, and Albert. In 1888 he and his family moved to Seattle, where they lived in a tent at 9th Avenue and James Street until they were able to move into a new house at 208 8th Avenue S. That same year he opened his first pharmacy in Seattle, on the corner of Occidental Avenue and Main Street. 

On June 6, 1889, Seattle's Great Fire wiped out nearly all the city's business district, including Guy's drugstore. But he was not daunted. He was able to save his drugs and soon set up shop in a tent to dispense them. He operated out of the tent for a time and later moved into a newly built building at 4th Avenue and Main Street. In 1893 he moved his pharmacy to a building on the southwest corner of 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way. This location also served as the drugstore's headquarters until 1942 (when the office and warehouse were moved to 87 Lenora, though the drugstore itself stayed put). For its first 50 years, the pharmacy proudly remained open 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. 

Drugstores in the 1890s were considerably more primitive than what they would be just a few decades later. There were few retail products, and soda fountains hadn't arrived yet in Seattle drugstores. The rise of manufactured drugs was still several decades away, and most pharmacists compounded prescriptions on the spot. Guy also kept hundreds of different roots, herbs, and barks on hand for those who wanted to make their own remedies. One popular example was cascara bark, as his son George explained in a 1950 interview: "We used to keep always on hand a ton and a half of cascara bark -- people used to buy from 10 cents to 25 cents worth at a time and make a tea of it for a laxative. Now a few pounds of it satisfies the demand" ("George H. Guy..."). 

Gold and Guns 

The store was also a popular gathering place for Seattle's movers and shakers. Guy served as a Seattle police commissioner in the 1890s and some commission meetings were conducted at his store. Other meetings of influential businessmen to raise money for various city projects also took place there. And it was ground zero when the Klondike Gold Rush erupted in 1897. Guy designed a medicine chest that accounted for the primitive conditions the prospectors would face. All medicines were made in tablet form (capsules were not yet in common use) and put in wooden bottles. The bottles were packed in paraffin wax to prevent water damage and sealed in a compact box. With input from local health authorities, he also wrote Klondyke (or Klondike) Doctor, a book full of practical self-help medical tips for those going to the Yukon. 

In June 1898 Guy's 17-year-old son George began working at the drugstore, first as a bottle washer, then as a delivery boy. He was at the store on June 25, 1901, when disgraced ex-police chief William Meredith (1869-1901) confronted John Considine (1868-1943), a well-known box house owner. (A box house was a live theater that served liquor and had gambling; many of its waitresses also offered more personal services on the side that were often provided in small rooms that lined the inside walls of the theater.)

Meredith, who had been forced to resign three days earlier because of accusations of corruption made by Considine, was armed and looking for revenge. He shot at Considine and wounded him slightly, but Considine's brother Tom (1857-1933) grabbed Meredith's revolver and struck him several times in the head, dazing him; John Considine then shot Meredith to death. G. O. Guy himself was nearly struck by a shotgun pellet during the melee, "which came unpleasantly close to my head and smashed a bottle on the shelf next to me," he described later ("Ex-Chief of Police"). It was a huge story in Seattle, and for years people came into the store to see the bullet holes in the ceiling. 

Albert and George Guy 

Guy opened a second store at 3rd Avenue S and Main Street in 1903 and another store in 1909 at 4th Avenue and Union Street. Neither was permanent, and by 1916 he was again operating a single store at 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way. He didn't begin expanding again until the mid-1920s.  In the meantime, his sons began taking a more active role in store operations. George Guy had risen to business manager by 1907, and some may have speculated that his brother Albert would come to work for the store after he graduated from Broadway High School in 1910. Albert went to college instead, and after graduating from the University of Wisconsin served in the United States Navy during World War I. Shortly after the war's end he joined his father and brother, starting first in the laboratory, but quickly becoming the store's buyer and merchandiser.  

G. O. Guy's wife, Luella, died in 1919, and during the 1920s he traveled extensively around the world. Yet when he was in town he remained an active participant in his store's affairs. In the mid-1920s he began adding new stores downtown, and at the time of his death on January 31, 1927, G. O. Guy Drugs had three stores in downtown Seattle.

That soon changed. The chain grew to eight stores by 1930 and to 11 by the end of 1933. It expanded out of downtown, opening stores in Ballard, lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, the University District, and West Seattle. This was no small feat during these years. By 1930 the country was spiraling into the Great Depression, and the Guy brothers also faced formidable competition from another popular Seattle druggist, George Bartell. Bartell not only had more stores (15 as the 1930s began), but he too was able to continue adding new stores at the same time the Guys were adding theirs. 

Sales and Contests 

A look at a G. O. Guy ad from 1935 shows many of the products you would’ve expected to find in any big-city drugstore in the 1930s. Its stores had long since expanded (as did all successful drugstores in the early twentieth century) to include retail products. You could buy light bulbs, electric sandwich toasters, heating pads, and Elmo Cleansing Cream at a G. O. Guy drugstore. You could buy a Baby Brownie camera for a dollar. You could get a turkey lunch or a banana split at any of the store's soda fountains, and if you wanted an Alka-Seltzer or a cigarette afterward you could buy that too. 

The chain's store count touched 12 in the early 1940s, but for most of the years between 1933 and 1976 it fluctuated between seven and 11. Albert served as president while George served as secretary and manager for many of these years. A 1950 Seattle Times article described the business as a "family partnership" that included the brothers' sister Laura, though she otherwise received scant mention in other articles about G. O. Guy Drugs.  Its slogan was "to serve the most of the best for the least money," and the enterprise soldiered on during the middle decades of the twentieth century, closing stores occasionally but opening new ones in other locations throughout Seattle.    

Like many successful retailers of the era, G. O. Guy's brought in customers through sales and contests. One 1935 contest offered a free bicycle to the boy or girl who wrote the best letter of 100 words or less explaining why he (or she) liked Our Mother's Cocoa Malted Milk best. A 1956 contest was more enticing. The drugstore offered two prizes to its lucky winners -- either an expense-paid trip to Hawaii for two or a new color television set. (In 1956 a color TV set was a big deal. Most televisions were still black and white, and most stations still broadcast in black and white.)  Even better, no letters or any other literary effort were required. All participants had to do was come in to the store and leave their name and address. They would receive a "Lucky Number" card in the mail, but they then had to go back by a G. O. Guy drugstore to compare their numbers with the two winning numbers that were posted at store locations daily.  If they happened to buy something while they were in the store, so much the better. 

G. A. Guy 

By the 1950s Albert's son, George Albert ("G. A.") Guy, was taking an active role in the family business, which during these years jazzed up its name and became G. O. Guy Super Drugs. (This lasted about 15 or 20 years.) As had his father, Albert, in World War I, G.A. Guy served in the navy during World War II, and he obtained a pharmacy degree from the University of Washington.  By 1956 he was merchandise manager and by 1962 he'd risen to vice-president. 

G. A. Guy oversaw the chain's modernization and expansion. In October 1956 it opened a drugstore in Seattle's new University Village shopping center. The store carried more than 25,000 products, offered a soda fountain and lunch counter, and in a nod toward the slowly expanding trend away from full-service pharmacy, offered self-service shopping to its customers. G. O. Guy (Super) Drugs expanded out of Seattle in 1959 when it opened a store in Riverton Heights (later part of the city of SeaTac). In 1962 it opened a store in Lynnwood (Snohomish County), its first store outside of King County. Products offered in its drugstores were also updated. A new store that opened in December 1965 in Burien offered automotive equipment, hardware, pet supplies, party supplies, and records. 

Fade Away 

G. O. Guy drugstores began to close more frequently during the 1970s. The landmark store at 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way closed about 1974, though the building still stands today. Albert Guy retired in 1976 and shortly after the business was sold to Bonanza Stores, a chain of variety stores based in Renton. G. A. Guy stayed on as secretary, and the G. O. Guy name remained on the storefronts. A March 1977 Seattle Times ad proclaimed the stores were "under new management ... (with) newly renovated, bright, clean stores" ("G. O. Guy Drug Stores"). Maybe so, but the stores continued to fade away. Two more closed between 1977 and 1979, and the Lenora Street office and warehouse likewise closed about 1978. 

Pharmacy expanded in the 1980s, but G. O. Guy Drugs did not. Drugstores grew, with bigger and bigger stores offering an expanding array of products and services. Pharmacies opened in previously unlikely locations such as grocery stores, while other drug chains fiercely competed for dominance in the Seattle-area market. It was one of those chains, Pay 'n Save, that bought G. O. Guy's six remaining stores in the summer of 1987. By this time the little drugstore was 113 years old, and was less than a year from celebrating its centennial in Seattle. But the sale seems to have occurred with little fanfare or nostalgia, and the G. O. Guy name was soon replaced with "Pay 'n Save Limited." Even that didn't last long; within a few years, Pay 'n Save too was history. 

The G.O. Guy name disappeared from Seattle streets, but not from its memory. Those of a certain age still remember shopping at their local G. O. Guy drugstore, participating in its contests, or visiting one of its soda fountains. Others have stories of working at one of the stores. And even when they're gone, the G.O. Guy name will live on in Seattle history.

Sources: W. Johnson, "History of Pharmacy In The State of Washington," The Washington Historical Quarterly, April 1929, p. 96;  "Ex-Police of Police W. L. Meredith Shot and Killed by John W. Considine," Seattle Post-Intelligencer,  p. 1-2, June 26, 1901; "G.O. Guy Dies In Harness At Age of 81," Ibid., February 1, 1927, p. 5; "G. O. Guy, Veteran Druggist, Succumbs," The Seattle Times, January 31, 1927, p. 3; "G. O. Guy Drugs," Ibid.,  November 1, 1933, p. 28; "Old Guy Drug Store Has Been Open 40 Years," Ibid., February 28, 1934, p. 10; "Eleven Units Join In Three Day Program," Ibid., May 31, 1934, p. 12; "It Was All a Mistake -- But It Made Guy Famous!" Ibid., May 31, 1934, p. 12; "G.O. Guy's 61st Anniversary Celebration," Ibid., February 27, 1935, p. 28;  "G. O. Guy Firm is a Family Partnership," Ibid., May 31, 1950, p. 10; "George H. Guy Recalls Seattle Old-Timers," Ibid., May 31, 1950, p. 11; "New Drugstore For University Village," Ibid., November 6, 1955, p. 47; "Lucky Winner of G. O. Guy Contest," Ibid., August 7, 1956, p. 2; "New Drugstore to Open In University Village Tomorrow," Ibid., October 3, 1956, p. 41; "New Store to Offer Soda Special," Ibid., June 22, 1959, p. 34; "Investment Firm Buys Lynnwood Project," Ibid., April 8, 1962, p. 28; "New G. O. Guy Store to Open Near Burien," Ibid., November 30, 1965, p. 37;  "[illegible] ... For George H. Guy," Ibid., October 30, 1968, p. 50; "G.O. Guy Drug Stores," Ibid., March 16, 1977, p. D-8; "Albert Guy, Retired Head of Drugstore Chain, Dies," Ibid., June 11, 1983, p. D- 8; "Business Digest," Ibid., July 28, 1987, p. E-1; "A Stroll Down the Power Aisle -- Drugstores Use New Strategies to Stand Out," Ibid., November 23, 1987, p. F-1; Ada Lou Wheeler, "Historic Drugstore," The Seattle Times Magazine, March 20, 1966, p. 7; Polk's Seattle City Directory, 1927 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1927), 721; Polk's Seattle City Directory, 1940 (Seattle:  R. L. Polk & Co., 1940), 665; Polk's Seattle City Directory, 1974 (Seattle:  R. L. Polk & Co., 1974), 354; Polk's Seattle City Directory, 1978 (Seattle:  R. L. Polk & Co., 1978), 323;  "George Omar Guy," U.S. Census, 1870, 1900 and "Samuel Blakeslee_2012-02-22", Ancestry.com website accessed January 25, 2014 (http://www.ancestry.com);  "George Albert Guy," Legacy.com website accessed January 24, 2014 (http.//www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?pid_162697424).

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