Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Osco Drug - Out of the Past

This late 40’s scene from downtown Rockford, Illinois looks like it could have come straight out of a film noir classic. The photo is part of an intriguing series of night shots taken by Rockford native Bob Anderson, who now resides in Beijing, China.

The store pictured is very typical of Osco Drug stores opened during the first twenty-odd years of the company’s existence. Founded as Pay-Less Drug in Rochester, Minnesota in 1937 by Lorenzo L. Skaggs, scion of one of the Safeway Stores founding families, the company was dubbed Owners Service Company (later shortened to “Osco”) following mergers with a few other small drug chains.

By 1960, Osco had 30 drugstores operating in six Midwestern states – Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota and Iowa. Their success (and favorable geographic locations) had caught the attention of Chicago-based Jewel Tea Company, which was about to embark on a series of diversification moves.

On February 16, 1961 through an exchange of stock, Osco became a wholly owned subsidiary of Jewel Tea. The most obvious advantage that Jewel gained from the merger was the fact that they now had both pharmacy experience and a well-known regional drugstore nameplate in-house, which enabled Jewel to implement its long planned “combination store” strategy, the key to Jewel’s success in the both the sixties and the decades that followed. Jewel was one of the early adopters of the “combination store” format, essentially a supermarket and drugstore under one roof, with or without shared checkstands. Jewel-Osco would prove to be a powerful brand combination, enduring to this day.

Jewel would initially split Osco into two separate operating groups – the first known as the “Main Street” Osco stores, those stores located near the outside limits of the Chicago area (in the downtown areas of such cities as Elgin, Joliet, Waukegan and Rockford, for example), along with downstate cities such as Bloomington. The Main Street group also included all Osco stores outside of Illinois. The second group was known as the “Chicago Osco Drug” group, which of course was made up of the Chicago metropolitan area stores, including those combined with Jewel Food Stores.

Pictured below in a scene of very different character from the first one (but still pretty cool looking) is Rockford’s “new” Osco store in an early 1960’s postcard view. The store had moved some years earlier to a new location directly across the street from the original Osco, the edge of which can be seen to the far right of the photo. Also of interest is the Carson Pirie Scott store, which had replaced the original Block & Kuhl store in that location.


  1. Great pictures, as usual! :o) I love film noir and that black and white shot fits in perfectly with some classics I know. Interesting history on Osco. I never knew where exactly they came from until now.

  2. Didi - If you haven't already, click on the link and look at the rest of Bob's night photos. Amazing stuff. Rockford's downtown changed quite a bit within only a few years of those photos.

  3. It's amazing to see a downtown of a city the size of Rockford going past dark. For most if not all of my life downtowns of cities in the 50k-150k become ghost towns after dark, with the exception of "touristy" cities. The last picture seems reminiscent of downtown cruising in "American Graffitti, only its Illinois and not Stockton, California. Viable downtowns are mostly relegated to memories and movies these days. And without the Skaggs family much of American food and drug retailing would be a very different world. Imagine no Safeway, Osco, Longs Drugs, Albertson's, Skaggs, Skagway, and American Stores various post Skaggs operations.

  4. Ken - Thanks for your comment. It really does evoke the "American Graffiti" era, both in appearance and the date of the photo - "Where were you in '62", the movie ads said, if I remember right.

    And you're right about the Skaggs family. They were giants in American retailing and would own Osco again with American Stores' Jewel buyout in 1984.

  5. Nice pics of the Rockford, IL store. And since I used to go to Illinois State University, I still kick myself to this day that I didn't get around in time to photographing the sign of the downtown Bloomington, IL Osco, before it was converted to a CVS. I'll also note the Bloomington store had an upside-down white colored T-sign, like the one shown in the 2nd pic of the Rockford location.


  6. Allan - There's a link on the post (the word "Bloomington")that references an article about the fate of that sign, with a picture.