The Upjohn Pharmacy in Disneyland

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Stephen Hall, curator of the History of Pharmacy Museum at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy. In it, Hall tells the fascinating history of a special exhibit at the original Disneyland. 

In the summer of 1955, Disneyland opened its doors to the public for the first time. As tens of thousands of wide-eyed visitors entered the Magic Kingdom on opening day, one of the first sights they saw was a small, unassuming apothecary shop at the corner of Main and Center Streets. This was the Upjohn Pharmacy, a company-sponsored store that told the tale of the drug industry then and now.

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The Upjohn Pharmacy came to be through a string of fortuitous circumstances. Jack Gauntlett, The Upjohn Company’s advertising manager, recognized Disneyland’s unprecedented potential for brand promotion, and he approached the director of the company, Donald Gilmore, with the idea for the store. Unbeknownst to Gauntlett, Gilmore was close friends and part-time neighbors with Walt Disney (both men owned homes at the Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, California). Disney had been seeking corporate sponsorship as a means to help him fund his theme park, and with an existing connection to the head of The Upjohn Company, the groundwork for the Upjohn Pharmacy was laid.

Disney’s vision for Main Street, USA was to recreate what he described as “the America of 1890-1910, at the crossroads of an era.” Given his strong childhood nostalgia and the fact that he hailed from a midwestern anytown in the early 1900’s, this time period comes as no surprise. What was particularly convenient about it, though, was that The Upjohn Company was founded in 1886, so Main Street provided it an opportunity to tell the story of its own early years within the context of a larger American history narrative.

Disney architects created the Upjohn Pharmacy’s original concept design, but when it was presented to the Upjohn team, they rejected it, saying it was not a faithful representation of an old-time apothecary shop. Taking over the creative process, the team decided to make their own design. Gauntlett began with historical research, visiting three New York City apothecaries from the 1890’s to get a firsthand look at how they were designed. Meanwhile, Dr. A. Garrard MacLeod, the editor of Upjohn’s Scope magazine and an avid collector of medical antiques, traveled the country in search of historical items to be displayed in the store. His colleague, the now-famous designer Will Burtin, was Scope’s art director, and he was put in charge of the store’s planning and design.

(Items on display at Disneyland’s Upjohn Pharmacy)

The Upjohn Pharmacy consisted of two exhibit spaces: the main apothecary shop and a smaller, back-room exhibit showcasing present-day Upjohn. Burtin had designed this modern exhibit to be in stark contrast to the warmly familiar atmosphere of the apothecary. It bore a space-age look, with kinetic displays and lighted transparencies featuring Upjohn’s headquarters and manufacturing process. As part of the company’s branding, two licensed pharmacists worked in the store full-time. Visitors would receive a promotional postcard and a small sample bottle of Unicap vitamins.

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The main apothecary at Disneyland’s Upjohn Pharmacy
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The modern exhibit at Disneyland’s Upjohn Pharmacy

Disneyland’s opening day went notoriously awry, later coming to be known as “Black Sunday.” The Upjohn Pharmacy was largely unfinished, with construction going on past midnight on the night of July 16, 1955, just hours before the gates opened. In an article published shortly thereafter, Upjohn’s Overflow magazine predicted that the store would be truly complete around September of that year. (Understandably, the company waited until this time to take promotional photographs.)

Like America had been at the turn of the century, in 1955, the field of pharmacy was at a “crossroads” of its own. Following World War II, the industry had seen an explosion of research and innovation. Retail drugstores were quickly becoming “big business,” and manufacturers were releasing new, cutting-edge drugs at an unprecedented rate. While the Upjohn Pharmacy’s antiques exhibit provided a lens into history, its modern exhibit offered the parent company the chance to present itself as the bellwether of change in a rapidly-shifting field.

The Upjohn Pharmacy remained in operation until September 1970. When it closed, its items were given to the California Museum of Science and Industry. This museum’s plan was to display the collection in a projected community health building, but it seems this exhibit never came to fruition. In 2008, the museum donated the collection to the History of Pharmacy Museum at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, where it resides today (the author is its caretaker).

The Upjohn Pharmacy storefront in Disneyland reopened as the New Century Clock Shop in 1972. This store closed in 2008 but was soon reopened again under its current name, the Fortuosity Shop. To this day, the building’s high, corner windows bear the names of several Upjohn employees who were responsible for the creation of the Upjohn Pharmacy.

Today, many of the artifacts from the store’s apothecary exhibit are housed in the History of Pharmacy Museum, in a replica of the Upjohn Pharmacy’s original backsplash. Sadly, a number of the items were lost or discarded between 1970 and 2008, most notably half of the store’s leaded-glass pendant lamps and all the pieces from its modern exhibit. Additionally, though a handful of relevant documentation still exists, many records of the Upjohn Pharmacy were likely lost as well during the crude dissemination of the company’s records near the end of its life.

With each passing year, the Upjohn Pharmacy becomes an increasingly obscure part of Disney’s history. However, with help from the community, the History of Pharmacy Museum hopes to use its beautiful artifacts to keep its memory alive for future generations.

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