Rexall Drugs: Our Most Iconic Pharmacies by David Kelly:
When I was born, my dad owned a Rexall Drug Store in the Bay Area. He had worked there during summers in college & after graduating from pharmacy school, he bought into a partnership with his boss. He eventually sold his share & went to work for one of the big chains in Oregon, which was timed well, as Rexall was rapidly being overtaken by the many large national & regional chains. Here is a photo of his Rexall store about the time he was first working there – (next to the shoe store on the right)
Rexall was a chain of North American drugstores and the name of their store-branded products. The stores, having roots in the federation of United Drug Stores starting in 1902, licensed the Rexall brand name to as many as 12,000 drug stores across the United States from 1920 to 1977. (The “Rex” in the name came from the common Rx abbreviation for drug prescriptions.) Most of the stores were in small towns and when the big chains with big stores began moving into small towns, that was the end of Rexall’s domination
Rexall was the brainchild of Louis Kroh Liggett, a Detroit patent medicine salesman who created a manufacturing cooperative for franchised drugstores at the turn of the 20th century. Liggett’s marketing genius enabled independent druggists to profit from enhanced store and product identity combined with national advertising. While the cooperative venture endured for decades, the brand name survived even longer. Today, many bright orange and blue Rexall Drug signs remain on buildings across the US because of their iconic appeal.
My favorite part of the Rexall history is the 1936 Million Dollar Rexall Streamlined Train.
“The Depression is over!,” declared Louis Liggett. And with that, he put the most fantastic promotional train ever conceived on the rails to the four corners of the nation. From March to November 1936, the 12-car streamlined, air-conditioned billboard-on-wheels toured the length and breadth of the United States. In 1935, it occurred to Liggett that rather than asking thousands of cash-strapped Rexall druggists to come to a national convention — he could simply take the national convention to them!
From that, the Rexall Train was born.
With the US economy far from recovered, finding surplus railroad equipment was a snap. Twelve heavyweight Pullman cars were found that could quickly be converted to exhibition cars, lecture cars, and support cars. Each car received a new roof and diaphragms that made the train the longest ‘streamlined’ train yet fielded. The locomotive was leased from the New York Central. Their decidedly un-streamlined locomotive was given a thorough makeover based on the styling of the railroad’s own Commodore Vanderbilt, the first streamlined steam locomotive in America. The entire train was painted Rexall blue and white with black roofs (orange didn’t come into the corporate palette until years later).
The front half of the train was planned for public exhibition. To that end, four Pullman cars were outfitted with displays of virtually every product Rexall offered. The hottest products lent their names to the cars of the train. Kantleek, Firstaid, Ad-Vantages, Research, Bisma-Rex, Cara Nome, and six other star-product names adorned on the sides of the cars.
In 109 cities the train was scheduled to host druggists’ conventions. This is where the next four Pullmans came in handy. The Klenzo, Symphony, Adrienne, and Mi-31 were all converted to the standards of a topnotch convention hotel. Klenzo and Adrienne were lecture cars connected by a PA system. Between them was the dining car Symphony — suited for serving hundreds of conventioneers a mouthwatering buffet lunch or dinner anytime, anywhere. (Pullman had provided three master chefs.) After a day of seminars, the Mi-31 offered two bars and a lounge area for relaxation. Taking the folding chairs out of the lecture cars, conventioneers had room to mingle and dance the night away — to the tunes of the train’s 4-piece orchestra. Bringing up the rear of the train were the cars Joan Manning (staff sleeper) and Puretest — Mr. Liggett’s private pullman observation car.
When the Rexall Train came to town, people would stop by their local Rexall store to get free tickets before heading down to the station. When the train arrived, a big ‘Rexall Drug’ sign was hoisted on the side of the Ad-Vantages — and the entrance doors flung open on the Research. Some display cities saw over 2500 people per hour pass through the four exhibit cars! Good thing the entire train had the newest of luxuries — air conditioning.
As the train made its way from east to west, its popularity with the public grew. Large newspaper ads announcing the train’s visit became the norm. What started out as mostly a convention train became a PR tour de force. As the train moved into its third month, Rexall druggists along the train’s path began to angle for attention. With enough pull, Liggett could be persuaded to stop the train for a morning or afternoon display in the hometown of an impassioned Rexallite (as they were called).
The tour made its way from Boston through the Midwest, Southwest, and north up the Pacific Coast. Zigzagging across Canada and the US Northwest, the train descended into Chicago for a 3-week refurbishment half way through its tour. Back to the east coast it went before heading south, west, southeast, and north again — finishing up on November 24, 1936 in Atlanta, GA. In the end, the train visited every state except Nevada.
Final tally: 29,000 miles, 47 states and Canada, 2.3 million visitors for the Million Dollar Rexall Streamlined Train.
It was the United Drug Company’s finest hour.
In Canada, Rexall maintained a better reputation than it had in the United States. The Rexall family of pharmacies are operated by Katz Group Canada, and includes 1,700 stores across Canada.
Across the United States, there remain some former franchise retailers still using the Rexall name. The current owners of the Rexall brand are again manufacturing products in several categories, including over-the-counter medication, dental care, vitamins and supplements, foot care and first aid.
Photos by David Kelly, vintage postcards, Matterhorn1959.blogspot.com and the Livermore Heritage Guild.