Baby Boomer Memories | Liggett's was the home of lime rickeys, flaming sundaes and more
I can't remember the last time I had a lime rickey, but I surely do remember the first time. It was in the early 1950s at the Liggett's Rexall Drugs store at 41 North St. in Pittsfield.
A lime rickey is simply a combo of lime, sugar and carbonated water, but was rarely found on menus in the Berkshires. As a teen, I used to stop in Liggett`s frequently to buy Pittsfield postcards or souvenirs. Truthfully the main reason I went there was for the great soda fountain and tasty lunches. Soda fountains like Liggett's are not found in today's chain pharmacies.
Liggett's was a national company that got its start in 1902 when a Bostonian entrepreneur, Louis Liggett, persuaded 40 independent drug stores to invest $4,000 each in a retailers cooperative called United Drug Stores. The organization sold patent medicines, spices, cosmetics, toiletries and pharmaceutical products under the moniker of "Rexall," which was derived from the abbreviation for prescription or "Rx."
In 1916, under Liggett's leadership, the cooperative acquired a chain of 107 drug stores, including one located at 123 North St. at Depot Street in Pittsfield. This store soon became one of 152 carrying Liggett's name, and was officially owned by the then-7,000 members of United Drug Stores.
After World War I, the United Drug Store group formed a franchise arrangement whereby independently owned retail outlets could adopt the Rexall trade name and sell Rexall products. Rexall became a household name, and by 1928 the annual revenue of Louis Liggett's creation was over $68 million.
In 1924, Liggett's opened a second store in Pittsfield at 37 North St. In 1948, this store was recognized as being the second-highest income earner of 1,200 members. Both Pittsfield stores remained open until 1949, when Liggett's consolidated and moved to a brand new Liggett's Rexall Drugs store at 41 North St. It was one of the largest stores in the organization.
The new store had a state-of-the-art soda fountain and restaurant with seating for 80, and it was the first of the stores to have a television set for patrons — with a 16-inch screen. The store had a staff of 65 people.
In 1955, Liggett's opened another store in the Allendale Shopping Center, and the chain also had a store in North Adams.
North Street's Liggett's kept up its stance as leader of the pack with numerous promotions like contests for young people with prizes such as $500 savings bonds and new bicycles. The store carried an increasing variety of products like cosmetics, food, snacks, hosiery, small appliances and more. Perhaps the most famous promotion was in 1951 when the North Street store offered a 29-cent flaming hot fudge sundae that was made with a half pint of ice cream, half ounce of hot fudge, one marshmallow, one cube of sugar, three drops of lemon extract, plus nuts. The lemon was 70 percent alcohol and when the sundae was served, it was ignited and would burst into flames.
In no time Pittsfield's fire chief ruled the concoction a fire hazard and prohibited it, saying that is was dangerous to women wearing fur coats, sweaters or cotton dresses. Although the manager was upset with the chief's decision, he quickly put an ad in the newspaper conceding, but offering the hottest sundae in town cold!
Over the years the United Drug Store membership had grown to over 12,000 members. But as larger drug store chains grew in the 1970s, Liggett's and the other franchisees could not match prices and the size of newer chain stores like CVS, Thrifty Drugs, Walgreens and others.
On Jan. 10, 1976, Liggett's closed in Pittsfield. At the time it was one of six stores remaining in what had become the largest chain of independent drugstores in the U.S. The remaining stores located in the Boston and New York areas closed soon after Pittsfield's.
In 1977, the declining Rexall business was sold to private investors for $16 million. Although franchisees could continue to buy Rexall products, more and more of them sold their businesses to national chains or just closed.
A few independents still have the Rexall name and Dollar General stores carry the Rexall products. The North Street location was soon taken over by CVS before it built a new store on West Street.
For Pittsfield, the days of lime rickeys and flaming sundaes have long passed.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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