Eighty-one-year-old Helene Sirota Edwards can’t drink root beer. She developed an aversion to it after she mixed the soda with castor oil for one too many customers at her father’s pharmacy.
Today we go to the pharmacy to buy medicine and sundries like cleaning supplies and greeting cards. But in the past, pharmacies were destinations where customers spent more time.
Sirota’s, which operated on the corner of Third and G Streets NW, from 1921 to 1957, was one such pharmacy. Pharmacists mixed not only medicines, but also ice cream sodas—handy when customers needed to mask their castor oil.
Unlike other pharmacies with soda fountains, Sirota’s didn’t have a full counter, just a table with a few chairs, where customers could enjoy their sodas or ice cream.
The pharmacy’s founder and owner, Irving Sirota, immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in the early 1910s. During World War I, he served as a medic in the famous “Lost Battalion” in France’s Argonne Forest and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. Upon his return home, he attended pharmacy school in Brooklyn and eventually came to Washington.
For 14 years, Sirota lived above the store with his wife, Esther, and their daughters Emily, Mildred, Joan and Helene. In 1935, the family moved to Columbia Heights.
Every morning after the move, Irving Sirota took a taxi to Third and G Streets at 7:30 am to open the pharmacy. He tended to customers all day, filling their prescriptions, soda glasses and ice cream cups. After the Sirota children came home from school, their mother packed a hot dinner and drove downtown to the pharmacy. Esther and Irving then worked together until closing at 9 pm.
Esther and Irving weren’t the only Sirotas who worked at the pharmacy. Over the years, all four girls did as well.
Esther and Irving Sirota sold the pharmacy in 1957 and retired to Miami Beach. The pharmacy became a liquor store until the entire block was demolished to make way for Interstate 395 in the late 1960s.
In 1969, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington saved and moved the historic Adas Israel synagogue to the corner where Sirota’s once stood, by then, a small triangle of land next to a freeway entrance ramp. The former synagogue has been the Society’s Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum since its 1975 rededication.
In 2011, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington was proud to erect a commemorative sign about the homes and businesses, including Sirota’s, that once graced the corner where the historical museum stands today.
Top photo: Helene Sirota Edwards, daughter of pharmacy owner Irving Sirota, dancing in front of her father’s pharmacy in 1935 (left) and in 2010 at the site of the pharmacy, now the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. Edwards gave the Jewish Historical Society a DVD of film her father shot from 1935 to 1954, providing a valuable look at Washington’s past. JHSGW Collections, Gift of Helene Sirota Edwards and Joan Sirota Gurevich.