Waterville’s Apothecary Museum Feels Like an Old-Timey Pharmacy

An archive of 19th-century cure-alls, the LaVerdiere Apothecary is a main attraction of the recently reopened Redington Museum.

Waterville Historical Society president Jay Violette at the counter in the LaVerdiere Apothecary
Waterville Historical Society president Jay Violette in the apothecary.
By Nick Thomas
Photos by Séan Alonzo Harris
From our December 2023 issue

The Maine druggist who prepared this concoction in 1872 — mix 1 ounce of wormwood, 1 ounce of pink root, and 1 pint of gin, and let stand for 40 hours — instructed his patients to imbibe it by the ounce before every meal to relieve indigestion. Whether it worked by genuine medicinal action or numbing intoxication is anyone’s guess: pink root is an herbal laxative that targets intestinal worms, wormwood is the purported hallucinogenic that got absinthe banned in the United States in 1912, and gin needs no explanation.

The ledger that contains this and many other such prescriptions is among thousands of artifacts that the late Reginald LaVerdiere amassed in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was aggressively buying up drugstores around the state to expand the LaVerdiere’s Super Drug Stores chain. A forerunner of the mega-pharmacies that eventually subsumed it, LaVerdiere’s stripped its acquisitions of their distinctive features in favor of a modern, standardized appearance, but Reginald was sentimental about the cast-offs: His family’s business had sprouted from one such small, independently owned drugstore, Waterville’s Variety Shop, opened by his father, Evariste LaVerdiere, in 1922. Reginald’s salvaged mortars and pestles, scales, and display cases grew to be one of the largest privately owned antique drugstore collections in the country. In 1976, he donated the whole lot to the Waterville Historical Society and built a replica antique apothecary, modeled after one in Rumford, to house it in.

Today, the LaVerdiere Apothecary is a main attraction of the historical society’s Redington Museum. It’s a modest, white-clapboarded addition to one of Waterville’s few surviving early-19th-century houses, the former residence of Asa Redington, a Revolutionary War veteran of George Washington’s elite Commander-in-Chief’s Guard. The interior is richly furnished and evocative of a time when drugstores were neighborhood gathering places — a “historic gem,” says Robert McCarthy, a professor and former dean at University of New England’s pharmacy school, who has led field trips there. 

The floor-to-ceiling, hand-carved mahogany cabinets and mahogany display cases are polished to a gleam. Their shelves are lined with hundreds of bottles, many never opened and still holding elixirs, oils, syrups, and tonics. Along one wall is a rare Tufts soda-fountain console with an ornate mirrored backdrop that was once used to serve milkshakes and ice-cream floats to customers at the E.W. Moore & Sons drugstore, in Bingham. Sitting on the display cabinets’ counters are several large show globes of various shapes and sizes filled with emerald, turquoise, and red liquids. (Another brims with candy-colored pills collected from pharmacy floors.) For centuries, these glass vessels served as symbols of the druggist’s trade, much the same way striped poles identify barbershops. One story holds that they originated as community-alert systems — a globe filled with red liquid hanging in the window, for example, might have warned travelers of a local epidemic. Another theory is that druggists were merely showing off their chemical-mixing skills.

Mortars and pestles are still closely associated with the pharmacy practice, both as business icons and as tools for breaking down substances. LaVerdiere’s cases house dozens of examples in wood, ceramic, stone, metal, and thick glass. Also on display are antique medical implements, including microscopes, embalming instruments, precision scales, and a doctor’s portable leather pill kit holding two dozen stoppered vials for house calls.

A pharmacist’s work area is tucked at the back of the main room, behind a one-way window. It’s stocked with bulk ingredients bearing labels — Brimstone (sulfur), Rochelle Salt, and Borax, to name a few — and has a small library. Formula books, some more than 200 years old, contain detailed notes about prescriptions that doctors scribbled onto used envelopes, newspaper fragments, and other scraps of paper they grabbed off their desks.  

The Redington Museum reopened in October, after the historical society took advantage of a nearly four-year pandemic closure to renovate the building, add a new research library, and reorganize collections on commerce, agriculture, manufacturing, and the social lives of Watervillians over the past two centuries. But the apothecary remains largely unchanged, offering a rare glimpse into a time when, as Reginald LaVerdiere’s son, Mike, put it in 1976, drugstore displays had to be not just functional “but beautiful — and also last a lifetime.” 

The LaVerdiere Apothecary is open Fridays, 2–6 p.m., and by appointment. 62 Silver St. 207-872-9439.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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