Billings and Stover: Leeches, Bleaches, and Drugs

Circling the Square

More than 40 years ago, when Eleonora Duse was making her long faces and Weber and Fields their happy ones, a different sort of team was approaching its half-century mark with a very untheatrical announcement. "If you don't know Billings and Stover," said the notice, "this will introduce them." But there was no need to be theatrical for this partnership was as familiar to Harvard students as the pump in the Yard and the new lecture hall across the way. Too familiar, perhaps, for countless men would pull the bell out front to see if there really was a nightman ready to fill prescriptions. The nightman has since left, but little else about the store has changed.

Now advertising itself as "a drugstore, first, last and always," Billings and Stover started in 1854 to roll pills and three wars have not stood in its way. Over 1000 prescriptions were filled that first year--the same number are packaged now in a week. An all-around pharmacy from the first, the store initially provided "foreign louches of recent importation" to take care of black eyes in the days when John Harvard had no green bag to swing. Swelling eyelids didn't keep pace with the swelling business, however, and that exotic item was dropped.

Yet the past is very much a part of Billings and Stover. One wall is lined with duplicates of every prescription filled since 1854, and pictures of the namesakes are over the door. The past also saw a prosperous soda business, and barrels of coke syrup were stored in the basement, alongside other essential philtres. A new fountain was installed in 1908, the first soda shop in the Square. But the owners made little concession to the straw-sucking customers, for no stools stood in front of the fountain, and soda and candy were primarily a sideline. Two years ago, the prescription business was so overwhelming that the fountain was forfeited. Billings and Stover became apothecaries in the strict sense of the world.

The vanishing fountain is only one indication of how great the drug line has become. Almost a million prescriptions have been ordered and mailed to Roosevelts, Longfellows, and such in the States; to less well-known patrons in Siberia, Greenland, and even Tibet. Techniques of compounding potions have changed little since the customers wore string ties and bustles, but the products are somewhat different. Patent medicines are less in demand now, and if there are any home remedies in stock, they are dwarfed by a modern refrigerator that holds biological scrums and penicillin. Business is strictly ethical, and though students may use the store telephone to schedule a rendezvous, they know better than to ask for benzedrino.

Tradition is piled heavily on the back counters and pulls in more customers than would any flashy window display. Back in 1934, the manager decided to feature the store itself, not individual drugs, and now the front is marked only by a mortar and pestle. Hanging over the door is a signboard with the number 1360, which some think is the date of construction. But Billings and Stover, though one of the oldest stores in the Square, makes no pretense of antedating Ponce de Leon. His over-sought youth-restorative is one drug they still don't have in stock.