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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Almost Lost in the Slipstream: The Life of E. N. Boynton

Sarah and her son with the E. N. Boynton bottle.

by Stephanie Grohs and Lauren Coodley

It began with a message about a bottle from Sara Courtney:

I was one of your students at NVC 20+ years ago. I loved your class! You used a photo of my grandfather and aunt in one of your textbooks about California history. I’m wondering if you know anything about a 19th century drugstore in Napa called E.N. Apothecary. I pulled a small, old bottle out of the mud by the Napa River today. It had “E.N. Boynton Apothecary Napa City Cal” embossed on it.

Sara explained:

We were fishing in the river last weekend and saw the bottle partially exposed in the mud along the bank. This was along the West side of the river a little way past Moore’s Landing. We have found old bottles along that portion of the river before. My partner usually says where there are old bottles. It’s likely folks used to back up to the bank and dump, or sometimes the bottom of the river would be dredged with a clamshell bucket and the mud would be dropped on the bank along with bottles and other debris. A lot of the bottles found around there are old medicine bottles.

Our research reveals that Edwin N. Boynton was born on July 14, 1822 in Elmira, New York. He studied medicine and graduated in 1843 from the Medical College at Geneva, New York. He practiced his profession there successfully till 1850, when he emigrated to California. He crossed by way of Santa Fe and Arizona and arrived in San Diego in September. After working as both a physician and miner on the Feather River near Auburn for about three years, he arrived in Napa County in 1853 to practice medicine in Napa and Lake County. Next, he moved to Vallejo in 1855, establishing himself as an apothecary and physician.

Early American pharmacies were referred to as apothecaries, and pharmacists were often called druggists or chemists. The role of the pharmacist then included preparing and dispensing remedies and counseling patients. By the 19th century, Edward Parrish of the APhA standardized the name “pharmacist” for all pharmaceutical practitioners. Until the 1950s, pharmacists prescribed, made, and dispensed medicines and provided patient counseling.

Boynton married Winifred (Winnie) Morrison, ten years his junior, on April 25, 1859, and the new couple moved back to Napa, where he formed a partnership with Dr. W. W. Stillwagon. Soon after, they purchased the stock of medicinals of L.J.Walker.

Napa Register Advertisement:

E. N. BOYNTON, DRUGGIST, 95 Main St, - Napa, TF.EPS constantly on hand a fresh and complete assortment of Drugs and Chemicals. PERFUMERY of unsurpassable quality, in quantity to suit. (Orange Flower Toilet Extract, A most delicious addition to the bath) Toilet Soaps of ad grades and prices. Physicians’ prescriptions accurately compounded.

Boynton made his mark on Main Street. He stood high in the ranks of the Oddfellows, listed as a member as a past Grand in 1872. Early historian CW Menefee notes that he was “considered one of the most zealous laborers to get the Oddfellows building erected across the street on the west side from the Opera house.”

Boynton‘s store at 95 Main Street stood on the east side, among a district of medical practitioners including pharmacists, physicians, and a homeopath. Dr. Dodge had an office right next door to Boynton, and the homeopathic Doctor Angel had an office on the corner of Main and First Street. Pioneer Drugs was the competition across Main Street. Both stores had doctors with offices in the building, Dr. Stillwater in Boynton’s and Dr. Ponds in Pioneer’s.

The legend on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1886 shows Boynton‘s drug store colored pink denoting that it was built of brick; behind it was a wooden storage area and laboratory shown in brown. On the bank of Napa Creek stood a wooden platform directly facing the Joss house (temple) on the south end of the Chinese community.

Common medicines used in 1800s included antipyretics (for fever) such as willow bark and meadowsweet, along with cathartics from various plants as a cleanser of the lower gastrointestinal tract; Opium to combat diarrhea and cough; Cocaine to relieve toothaches or oral pains; Camphor to soothe itchy skin; Arsenic and mercury to treat venereal diseases, primarily syphilis, and Disinfectants such as carbolic, chlorine, lime, charcoal, and sulfur.

Dosage methods included powders, pills, tablets, gelatin capsules, pastilles, lozenges, mixtures, tinctures, and emulsions.

What do we know about the actual bottle that Sara found? E.N. Boynton Apothecary Napa City, CAL was embossed on the front along with a mortar and pestle logo. The style of the bottle is known as a Philadelphia Oval. This style ranges from 1/2 ounce through 32 ounces.

In the decades immediately following the Revolution, American glassmaking flourished because of restrictive tariffs and rising domestic need. In 1806, the parent firm of Whitall Tatum began to produce both window glass and bottles in Millville, New Jersey. The families were devout Quakers and refused to produce liquor bottles; they were most famous for colorless “flint” glass apothecary bottles. In 1857 the company, which produced the bottle found in the Napa River, was named Whitall Tatum and Company.

Beginning in 1806, at the first Glasshouses in Millville, bottles were still completely hand blown as they had been for centuries. A workman gathered a globe of glass at the end of a hollow rod; he next smoothed it by rolling it over a flat, metal plate or stone, meanwhile blowing into the rod to form a bubble of the molten glass. Finally, he shaped the bottle by swinging and swirling his blow pipe. Such hand-blown bottles were produced in fairly large quantities by Whitall Tatum and other companies up until the Civil War. The name Whitall & Tatum and Co. was used from 1857 to 1901.Flint (clear) glass bottles that were embossed with Company name and decorative design likely came after 1862.

In 1861, Dr. Boynton was elected County Coroner, and in 1869 he was elected County Supervisor of District 1, serving Napa and Lake Counties for three years. He died on June 19, 1876, aged 53. He is buried at Tulocay Cemetery.

The Corning Journal, New York - June 29, 1876:

We have received from Miss R. M. Stacey, now of Napa, California, a copy of the Napa Daily Register, in which is announced the death of Dr. Edwin N. Boynton, formerly of Elmira. He was one of our near friends. He was a son of Dr. Nathan Boynton, deceased, of Elmira. He left for California twenty-seven years ago. He was a very skillful physician and surgeon, but mainly relinquished the practice, and became a druggist at Napa City twenty years ago, but his eminent skill made him to be often called in counsel. He was at Elmira on a visit in 1869. We have only time now to say that he was one of the most amiable and genial men of our acquaintance, beloved by intimate friends, and esteemed by all who knew him.

Winifred Morrison Boynton lived almost a half century longer and passed away in l920. Their eight children, two of whom died in childhood, included Winnie M Boynton 1861-1878, Edwin A Boynton 1862-1932, John Morrison Boynton 1865-1929, Harry L Boynton 1865-1876, Ella Sarah Boynton 1868-1958, Charles S Boynton 1870-1909, Lillian Emily Boynton 1871-1954, and Daisy M Boynton 1872-1955.

Dr. Boynton’s bottle would have remained in the Napa River if not fished out by Sara Courtney. Lauren Coodley was entering kindergarten when his daughter Daisy died. History is so easily lost in the slipstream; thanks to Sara Courtney for restoring some of Napa’s past.

For further reading:

The History of American Pharmacies,

Dr. Boynton’s plot at Tulocay: Lot 25-26; Memorial #31610525

CW Menefee, Historical and Descriptive Sketchbook of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino, 1873 Hardcover - reprinted 1994

Map courtesy of Library of Congress

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