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Although Charles™s daily schedule was naturally jam-packed, he found
time to take a course to improve his memory and got it down well
enough to entertain his friends by memorizing the sequence of a deck of
cards, which they then took with them, and reciting the correct order of
the cards a month later. Any salesman can tell you how valuable it is to
have a sharp memory, especially one for names, and Charles honed that
In his remaining free time, Charles liked to spin bedtime stories for
Chuck and Ruth. During the national influenza epidemic of 1918, when
the Walgreens were quarantined in their beds for three weeks, Charles rose
to the occasion by telling long stories every night, many of which Chuck
can still recall today, in his late nineties.
On Walgreen™s bedside table, he kept a rotating stack of books. A vora-
cious reader, Walgreen loved popular history and biography”the preferred
genres, it seems, of successful executives, generals, and football coaches”
but he had a weakness for Robinson Crusoe and its lesson of “the middle
way.” “The middle station of life was calculated for all kinds of virtues
and all kinds of enjoyments,” Daniel Defoe wrote in 1719, “that temper-

the s tar t of something special 61

ance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions,
and all desirable pleasures were the blessings of attending the middle sta-
tion of life.”23
“It means,” Walgreen explained it to his children, “that if you™re too
poor, you can™t be what you want to be nor do what you ought to do, and if
you™re too rich, you get worried about losing your money and belongings.”24
By following the virtues extolled by the book, ironically, Walgreen
would break his own rule and become “too rich””though it must be said
the family has, on the whole, handled it much better than have other
American dynasties.
At the dawn of the new decade, the Walgreen Company owned and
operated 20 stores in the Chicago area, all but one on the South Side; but
even that impressive growth, accomplished in just 10 years, was about to
be dwarfed in the next decade by an explosive expansion program”one
fueled by milk shakes.

chicago in the roaring twenties

To anyone who lived through the 1990s, a thumbnail sketch of the
Roaring Twenties will sound very familiar, indeed: a decade of unprece-
dented peace and prosperity, fun and frivolity, which came crashing down
at the decade™s close. The landing in the 1920s, however, was a lot rougher
than that in the 1990s.
Fatigued by the drudgery of farm life and worn out by the horrors of the
Great War, young Americans moved to cities like Chicago by the millions.
There they discovered hair bobs and hip flasks, jazz clubs and ball clubs.
The decade marked the Golden Era of Sports. Fans flocked to see Babe
Ruth, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, and Jack Dempsey. A brand new circuit,
the National Hockey League, started a franchise in Chicago called the
Blackhawks, in honor of the tribe Abraham Lincoln™s unit fought outside
Dixon, Illinois, in 1832.25
The public™s immense interest in college football justified the con-

62 america™s corner s tore

struction of colossal stadiums at Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame,
Northwestern, the University of Chicago (which was a charter member of
the Big Ten under Amos Alonzo Stagg), and the University of Illinois,
where Red Grange ran wild before signing with the Chicago Bears to play
in sparkling new Soldier Field, which many believe saved the embryonic
National Football League (NFL) from extinction.
It was an era when anything seemed possible, from Lucky Lindbergh™s
trans-Atlantic flight to Hollywood™s first “talkie” (Al Jolson™s Jazz Singer)
to a fundamentally new form of literature”direct, spartan, and scan-
dalous for its adult themes”ushered in by Oak Park, Illinois, native
Ernest Hemingway. Margaret Sanger introduced the diaphragm to the
public, while drugstores like Walgreens began selling condoms, the only
thing proven during the Great War to stop the epidemic spread of vene-
real disease.
The Twenties acted like a flask of bootleg whiskey on the American psy-
che, reducing inhibitions and inciting silliness, but also creating a climate
that cultivated misconduct”not to mention spawning the national hang-
over that followed.
The Harding administration™s troubles only confirmed the public™s feel-
ings of betrayal, which peaked in 1922 when investigators discovered
Harding™s Secretary of the Interior had been selling drilling rights on fed-
eral lands in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, in exchange for hundreds of thou-
sands of dollars in kickbacks, stock, and cattle.
Nothing encouraged widespread lawlessness, however, like the Nine-
teenth Amendment: Prohibition. Even average, otherwise law-abiding cit-
izens, including Charles Walgreen himself (he definitely broke this law),
found it impossible to follow this edict every day. Terms like “moonshine,”
“bootlegging,” and “organized crime” all entered the American lexicon.
People would go to incredible lengths to get their lips on a few sips of al-
cohol, in just about any form they could get it. The production of legal
sacramental wine, for example, increased by hundreds of thousands of gal-
lons, suggesting either an amazing upturn in the number of church-goers
or an epidemic of illicit alcohol use among everyday Americans.26

the s tar t of something special 63

And they became increasingly creative in finding and exploiting loop-
holes, including prescriptions for the “medicinal use” of alcohol, particu-
larly whiskey. This naturally led to pervasive abuse of the law in
drugstores, many of which popped up as mere fronts for selling liquor, often
with counterfeit prescription blanks.27 The State of Illinois tried to stop
these manipulations in 1925 by requiring people who owned and operated
drugstores to be licensed pharmacists. Walgreens kept its nose admirably
clean; but like all drugstores, it still had alcohol in every store, and it was
not the pharmacist™s job to judge the customer, only to fill his or her pre-
scription. And sometimes the problems occurred after hours. Charles Jr.
remembers that whenever there was a fire in one of the stores”which al-
most always started in the kitchen, far from the pharmacy in the back”
his father “wanted the fire department to get in as fast as possible and get
out as fast as possible, because whenever they came in we™d always lose a
case or two of liquor” from the back.28
Chicago found itself at the epicenter of the Roaring Twenties, from its
unequaled reputation as a sports-crazed town to its central role in the ille-
gal alcohol trade. When infamous Chicago mobster Al Capone was ac-
cused of smuggling whiskey from north of the border, he replied, “Canada?
I don™t even know what street it™s on.”29
Like so many Chicagoans, Capone was a Walgreens regular. He lived
near the Hotel Woodlawn, which had a Walgreens on the first floor.
According to Charles (Cork) Walgreen III, the store had a secret passage-
way through the pharmacy department that went down into the stock-
room and from there “out somewhere.” Capone apparently found it to his
liking and used it more than once.30
For his part, Charles Walgreen was not a teetotaler, but he was no faux-
pharmaceutical rum runner, either. Walgreen liked to shoot billiards at the
pool hall across the street from his second store, to bet at the track, and to
play poker with friends. Like virtually every other resident of Chicago”
arguably the world™s most thoroughly corrupt city in the 1920s”Walgreen
enjoyed an occasional drink, and he wasn™t going to let Prohibition
change his habits much. He had a recipe for a drink called the

64 america™s corner s tore

“Thunderbolt,” which consisted of the remains from all the bottles on the
bar, some ice, and a little champagne, “and that™s it,” Cork said. “If you
have two of them, you™re on the floor!”31
Around this time, Walgreen bought a cruising boat, the Dixonia, on
which he had installed a secret bar”one designed to flip over, out of sight,
if authorities happened to board. On the boat, Walgreen also had what
looked to be a large, brass handbell; but instead of a hollow center for the
clapper to do its work, the bottom was sealed to store a couple fifths of
whiskey. The wooden handle screwed off to allow filling or emptying the
container as needed.
Walgreen™s personal life, which was otherwise above reproach, is one
thing. His professional life was another. True, certain unethical customers
(in concert with unethical doctors) might have slipped a Walgreens phar-
macist an occasional prescription for “medicinal whiskey”; but there is no
indication such behavior was countenanced by the company, which kept
its sterling reputation throughout the era. When a devil™s brew of dubious
practices was washing over the city, there was never a whiff of institutional
impropriety surrounding Walgreens, in this or any era.
It also simply wouldn™t make business sense for Walgreens to become in-
volved in the common “side business” of phony pharmacies. At the start of
Prohibition, Walgreens was already one of the biggest chains in Chicago;
and by the end of it, Walgreens had become the biggest chain in the coun-
try. The growth of Walgreens was partly due to its uncompromising ap-
proach to its pharmacy, the most professional around in an era rife with
quackery. Risking a bust just didn™t bear cost-benefit analysis. More impor-
tant, Walgreen™s demand for discipline among his troops was legendary. It
seems highly unlikely for a CEO famous for stressing honesty above all in
his troops to want to get involved in running whiskey on the side. Further,
as we™ll see, it wouldn™t make sense for Walgreens to put so much effort
into attracting customers through its marketing, its products, and its soda
fountains to earn honest profits if it intended to use the store as a front for
rum running.
Walgreen struck a blow for morality when he changed the design of his

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stores because of an impromptu visit he made. At the time, pharmacists
had the luxury of working in privacy behind a tall partition. One day,
Walgreen stopped in one of his stores and found the manager sitting on a
stool behind the partition, with the cashier on one knee, the cosmeti-
cian on the other, and a bottle of “medicinal whiskey” being passed
among them. Walgreen left without a word, but he fired the manager
the next day and ordered carpenters to cut the partitions in half at all
their Walgreens stores. “Everyone copied us,” Cork said, “but they didn™t
know why!”32

on the lighter side

True to the spirit of the decade, Walgreens set up an endless series of
promotions to dazzle and attract customers, giving them a reason to re-
member their visits. These promotions included Goldfish Giveaways,
One-Cent Sales, and Surprise Package Sales of some secret merchandise.
These marketing tricks caught the public™s attention while moving a lot of
unwanted inventory in a most clever manner.
“One reason for my dad™s success was his belief in controlling inven-
tory,” Charles Jr. said in an interview, still lucid at age 97. “He™d get all his
leftover merchandise and put on a One-Cent Sale or wrap it in a nice box
and have a Surprise Sale. He™d sell it to the customer for a dollar, with the
guarantee that whatever was inside was worth at least five dollars. You
couldn™t return it, but we never had any complaints, because it was always
a surprise. This worked great for merchandise we were trying to get rid of.
Everyone was happy.”33
The Goldfish Giveaway worked just as well. Walgreen set up large
aquariums filled with colorful fish in each store, which naturally drew peo-
ple to the display, and offered them a free goldfish with every purchase of
a dollar or more. “You™d get a goldfish in a little paper carton,” Charles Jr.
recalled, “and that worked out great, because then they™d want to buy a
goldfish bowl, and that covered the cost for the goldfish.”34 The additional

66 america™s corner s tore

supplies customers bought for their new fish put Walgreens in the black for
each Goldfish Giveaway.
Charles Walgreen Sr. caught the decade™s economic boom, too, though
only on Chicago™s South Side at first. He had long sworn off starting
stores inside Chicago™s glamorous but pricey Loop, but ultimately he
couldn™t resist.
Walgreen made the leap in 1921 and located his first Loop store at 17 E.
Washington, in the Venetian Building. To ensure the store™s success, he
sent a handful of his best people to work at the new branch, including
fountain manager Ivar “Pop” Coulson. Walgreen™s belief in the power of
soda fountains to give a store personality and charm ran deep, indeed. As
he told Chain Store Age (now Drugstore News), “Fountains are the magnets
drawing customers into the stores.”35
A key to Walgreens™ success was a two-pronged approach: (1) The phar-
macy gave the chain credibility, which explains why Walgreen was such a
stickler for integrity behind the counter when others were selling snake
oil and why he insisted on having the best pharmacies in town even
when they were losing money. The pharmacy was always the foundation of
the business, Walgreens™ soul. (2) The soda fountain, however, was
pure fun. If most drugstores of the day couldn™t match Walgreens™ reputa-
tion for professionalism, those that could surely could not match
Walgreens™ soda fountain excitement”the heart of the business, the side
that reached out to customers and made them feel welcome. While the
pharmacy fostered trust, the soda fountain generated warmth. It was a
tough combination to beat.
This explains why Walgreen spared no expense on his soda fountains.
When you entered a Walgreens in the 1920s, you™d walk along the im-
maculate wooden floors to the booths built from sturdy hardwood, or to
the tables in the middle of the room covered in white linen, or to one of
the stools lining the long, gleaming, white marble counter (including a 78-
footer in Milwaukee). You™d see another white marble counter running
along the wall for the clerks to do their work, with a seemingly endless sup-
ply of confections neatly ordered on mahogany shelves and in glass cabi-

the s tar t of something special 67

nets, rows of bright lights suggesting a dressing room mirror, and even
vaulted ceilings, with ornate carvings and tiles trimming the work.
A Walgreens soda jerk”dressed in white pressed pants, an apron, white


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