Our Iowa Heritage: Boerner & Sons – Iowa City’s Prussian Poppa of Pharmacy.

The Boerner Family (H. W., Emil, Edwin, and Frederick) ran their pharmacy on Washington Street in Iowa City for sixty-three years (1883-1946).

Iowa City Drug Stores – A Family Affair.

J.H. Whetstone opened his drug store in 1880, with his son, Robert H. Whetstone, and grandson, Robert Whetstone, carrying on the business into the 1970’s. William Edwin Shrader opened Shrader Drug Company in 1899. He is the oldest son of Dr. J.C. Shrader, who was one of the founding doctors of the University of Iowa School of Medicine in 1870.

At the turn of the century, there were a number of successful drug stores (pharmacies) in Iowa City. Whetstones opened on the corner of Clinton and Washington (32 S. Clinton) in 1880, while Shrader Drug opened in 1899, just down the street (132 S. Clinton). Both were family affairs.

1876 – The Boerner Family Pharmacy is Born.

In 1876, Emil L. Boerner, son of German immigrant, H.W. Boerner, opened Boerner’s Pharmacy in Iowa City. Like Whetstone’s (1880) and Shrader’s (1899), Boerner’s drug store was a family business, employing three pharmacists, Poppa H.W., and his two sons, Emil and Edwin. In later years, the pharmacy included H.W.’s grandson, Frederick, as well.

This official State of Iowa publication from 1890 lists all three Boerners (H.W., Edwin, and Emil) as “registered pharmacists” in Johnson County. Note W.E. Schrader and John H. Whetstone are listed as well.

The Boerner Family – From Prussia to Iowa City – 1867.

Poppa Henry William (H.W.) Boerner was born in Siegen, Prussia (Germany) on November 9, 1822, marrying Carolyn Boecking (b-1827) before having their first son (Emil Louis) in 1855. Trained as a druggist, H. W. moved his small family to America in 1858, having their second son (Edwin) in 1861, before finally relocating to Iowa City in 1867.

Their oldest boy, Emil, went back east to study at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, graduating in 1876 with a successful thesis that explored the commercial potential of castor oil. His production ideas went on to earn millions of dollars for manufacturers, but for Emil, he came back to Iowa City with only a diploma and a dream.

Boerner’s Pharmacy – 113 E. Washington Street – 1940.

Undeterred, Emil, along with his proud poppa, took their expertise and opened one of Iowa City’s first pharmacies (1876), moving it to 113 E. Washington Street in 1883. From this location, the Boerners filled prescriptions for Iowa City residents and out-of-town health care providers for the next sixty-three years (1946). Early prescription records indicate that medicinal preparations ranged from cocaine, morphine sulfate, morphine pills, and belladonna, to quinine, sarsaparilla syrup, and strychnine!

Speaking of SUI, allow me to tell you about Emil Boerner’s side job…

In 1880, Emil Boerner and George Schafer, the first president of the Iowa Pharmaceutical Association, urged SUI officials to establish a pharmacy education program in Iowa City. Five years later (1885), the idea came to fruition with Emil becoming the College of Pharmacy’s first dean and the sole faculty member, teaching his first class of 13 students – twelve men and one woman.

The Chemistry Lab and Pharmacy Building opens in 1892. Located on Iowa City’s original City Park, this building was one of the most controversial construction projects on The Red Brick Campus. Click here for more info.

Under Boerner’s leadership, the College of Pharmacy was a big success, moving into the new Hall of Pharmacy and Chemistry (Chemistry Laboratory) on the corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue in 1892.

SUI’s Park Place – read more here.
Dean E.L. Boerner and his SUI 1893-94 Senior Class.

The Boerner-Fry Company – 1897-1916 – Toilet Articles, Perfumery, and Flavoring Extracts.

(M-0119) A 5-ounce Boerner-Fry extract bottle from the early 1900’s.

Emil successfully served as the dean of the College of Pharmacy until 1903, when he tendered his resignation to the Board of Regents so he could devote more time to his growing business venture, The Boerner-Fry Company. This new business was a natural outflow from both Boerner’s Pharmacy and the College of Pharmacy, focusing on the production and marketing of varied pharmaceuticals, toiletries, perfumes, and vanilla extract.

Boerner-Fry first started in 1897 when Emil partnered with Johnson County Savings Bank cashier William A. Fry and a “number of energetic businessmen with abundant capital,” according to an 1899 Gazette story. In August of 1899, Emil and William hired local contractor, Jacob J. Hotz, to construct a new factory building two blocks east of Boerner’s Pharmacy – 332 E Washington Street – the corner of Washington & Gilbert Streets.

The building housed a fully-equipped, state-of-the-art pharmaceutical laboratory for producing a line of toiletries that included products imported from Ceylon, France and other exotic locations throughout Europe.

Here’s a rare tin container of Odontine Tooth Powder, made by Boerner-Fry.

From 1900 to 1915, representatives from Boerner-Fry traveled the country, purchasing pure vanilla beans from growers, and selling finished products to clients. Their building on Washington Street housed huge tanks that held more than 250 gallons of vanilla extract, plus tiers of barrels containing thousands of gallons of processed oils to supply to the company’s growing list of customers.

Emil L. Boerner – The Return of the Inventor.

Emil, who first displayed his keen interest in pharmaceutical marketing with his college thesis, went back to the drawing board, filing for a patent on a device for cooling and dispensing beverages in August 1908. According to his patent application, which was approved in 1910, Emil envisioned a device…

…comprising an outer receptacle whose wall is provided with a filling of non-conducting material, a base having a concentric groove in which said receptacle rests, and a conical pipe seat or support, an inner concentrically arranged semi-cylindrical receptacle of slightly less diameter than the interior of the outer receptacle, a conical volute coil of pipe communicating with the bottom of the inner receptacle and the pipe support.

Wow, Emil – apparently you were right there in the earliest days of the great American “ice-less” soda fountain!

(L-0083) This is a 1904 business letter from Boerner-Fry in Iowa City to The People’s Bank in Pratt, KS, looking to collect $9.50 from the Hodgin Ice Company. Looks like they got $9.25 in November. I love the company’s by-line: Toilet Articles, Perfumery, and Flavoring Extracts.

Sadly, business for Boerner-Fry waned when Emil’s partner, William, died of pneumonia on April 8, 1916. Without the support of their key financial backer, the company closed within a few months of Fry’s death.

Emil, age 61, went back to tending his family business while the Boerner-Fry building was eventually purchased by Iowa City businessman Hayes Carson (1922), who converted it into the 46-room Washington Hotel. In 1952, it became known as the Davis Hotel (1952-1972), and because of its age and its unique uses, the building still stands today, added to the National Register of Historic Places in January of 1983.

The Boerner Family – the story continues…

The Prussian poppa, Henry William Boerner (b-1822) died in 1906, at the age of 84. His wife, Caroline Boecking Boerner (b-1827) died in 1918, at the age of 91. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

In Our Iowa Heritage collection, we have three postal covers addressed to H.W., dated from 1889-1890, when H.W. was in his latter years of life.

(C-0048) This cover is postmarked July 9, 1889 in Lester Prairie, MN and arrived in Iowa City on July 11, 1889 and is addressed to H.W. Boerner, Iowa City, Iowa.
(C-0269) This cover is postmarked February 5, 1890 in New York City and arrived in Iowa City on February 8, 1890 and is addressed to H.W. Boerner, Iowa City, Iowa.
(C-0270) This cover is postmarked December 30, 1890 in Peoria, Illinois and arrived in Iowa City on December 31, 1890 and is addressed to H.W. Boerner, Iowa City, Iowa.

H.W. and Caroline’s oldest son, Emil Louis Boerner (b-1855) died May 28, 1933 at the age of 78, and is buried with his parents, and his wife Helen Louis (1859-1948) at Oakland Cemetery. Their younger son, Edwin Arthur Boerner (b-1861) died in 1934 and is buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, California.

In 1946, Emil’s son, Frederick W. Boerner, took over the business, moving it to 15 S. Clinton Street and adding a soda fountain. In the 1950’s, Boerner’s Pharmacy made its final move, ending up at 1004 Melrose Avenue in University Heights, a stone’s throw from Iowa (Kinnick) Stadium. Frederick (b-1893) died on May 12, 1981 at age 87. He and his wife Sarah (1909-2004) are buried at Oakland Cemetery as well.

Here’s to the Prussian-born Boerner family – three amazing generations of Iowa City pharmacists. Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Prussia, Britannica.com

Siegen, Prussia, Wikipedia

Boerner’s Pharmacy Poster by Dave Rheaume, FineArtAmerica.com

Boerner (Emil L.) pharmacy manuscript ledger, Online Archive of California

Our History – College of Pharmacy, University of Iowa

List of Registered Pharmacists-Johnson County, Legislative Documents – Vol. 4, 1890

Boerner’s Drug Store Dose Glass, WorthPoint.com, circa 1900

Boerner-Fry Building, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa – Volume 2 – Clarence Ray Aurner, 1913, p 1106

Whetstone Drug, Iowa City, IowaHeritage.org 1922

Whetstone’s Pharmacy, Iowa City Public Library

Boerner Pharmacy (Iowa City, Iowa), SNAC

The Davis Hotel, Diane Langton, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 5, 2014

Boerner-Fry Company/Davis Hotel, Wikipedia

Boerner Family Glass-Plate Negatives Collection, Archives Space University of Iowa

Senior Pharmacy Class – 1893-94, University of Iowa Digital Library

Hall of Chemistry & Pharmacy Building, 1890, University of Iowa Digital Library

Henry William (HW) Boerner, Find-A-Grave

Carolyn Boecking Boerner, Find-A-Grave

Emil L. Boerner, Find-A-Grave

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