News & Politics

If You Want to Understand Early American Life, Visit This Pharmacy

Undated photo via Library of Congress.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum on the corner of South Fairfax and King Street in Alexandria first started dispensing housemade remedies in 1796 and continued to serve the community for over 140 years. Famed clients included Martha Washington, James Monroe, and Robert E. Lee. When the apothecary finally closed in 1933, the doors were simply locked, leaving behind a treasure trove of herbs, detailed records, natural remedies and organic compounds. Amazingly, much of it has preserved, giving historians a fascinating glance into one of the most important occupations in early American history: the neighborhood pharmacist.

The town of Alexandria was quite bustling at the turn of the 19th century. It was one of the busiest ports in the young country and a center for the export of flour and hemp. It was also part of the District of Columbia, thanks in no small part to the backroom dealing of George Washington. The town was in the middle of a population boom, and many of its new residents were Quakers. In 1792, the young Quaker Edward Stabler arrived in Alexandria. He had apprenticed at his brother’s apothecary in Leesburg and was ready to open his own business. Stabler rented a space in Alexandria and opened an apothecary. The site of that first shop is lost to history, but four years later, in 1796, he rented 107 South Fairfax Street. Nine years later, with his business going well, he purchased the building and, in 1829, the adjoining one at 105 South Fairfax.

Stabler became a pillar in the community, providing supplies, services and remedies to the residents of Alexandria. Many of his clientele were quite prominent in the town, including the mayor and Dr. James Craik, George Washington’s personal physician. Some historians believe that Dr. Craik purchased the supplies and equipment from Mr. Stabler that he used for the bloodletting of George Washington that contributed to his death in 1799. The most famous confirmed order came from Mrs. Washington, though. Upon her own deathbed in April 1802, she placed an order for the shop’s best castor oil. Back in the early 19th century, castor oil was thought of as a catchall medicine. Today, we now know it as a laxative and a lubricant for car engines. Either way, Mr. Stabler’s castor oil could not save Mrs. Washington and she died a month later.

When Edward Stabler died in 1831, the business was handed over to his son, William Stabler. Having no kids of his own, in 1844 he brought his brother-in-law, John Leadbeater, into the family business. When William died in 1851, John officially purchased the business from William’s wife and renamed the apothecary after himself. He was the owner when in 1859, legend has it, future Confederate General Robert E. Lee was purchasing paint for his house, which was on top of a hill that later would become part of ArlingtonNational Cemetery. Upon finishing up the transaction, he was approached by a messenger who told him that he needed to go to Harper’s Ferry to put down John Brown’s raid.

The Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum today. Photograph by Ben Fink, via Visit Alexandria.

It was during Leadbeater and his son’s ownership that the apothecary’s business reached its greatest heights. On the eve of the Civil War, the business started branching off into wholesaling. By 1865, they were selling supplies and remedies to nearly 500 pharmacies across the D.C. area. Eventually, they employed salesmen who sold their wares to shops as far as West Virginia and North Carolina.

But the apothecary struggled as the new century approached. The rise of mechanization, industrialization, and mass production made it cheaper and more efficient for local pharmacies to buy in bulk from large companies. The Great Depression finally sunk the apothecary, which at the time was still in the Stabler-Leadbeater family and run byJohn’s grandson Edward Leadbeater Jr. In 1933, the shop declared bankruptcy and the Leadbeaters closed up, leaving behind jars upon jars of herbs and remedies and boxes of records that dated back to Edward Stabler.

Alexandria could not just let the apothecary go. Only months after the Leadbeaters left, a group of concerned citizens and the American Pharmaceutical Association bought the entire collection and archives of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary. A year later, the newly formed Landmarks Society of Alexandria purchased the buildings. From 1934 until 2006, the buildings and collections remained as a museum and in the hands of this nonprofit. To honor the history that went on there, it was kept mostly intact and looking as it did when the apothecary closed in 1933. In 2006, the museum was officially gifted over to the city of Alexandria, after a large-scale renovation that the city mostly financed.

Today, visitors are welcome to visit one of the oldest still-existing apothecaries in America and “one of the most important historic pharmaceutical collections in the United States.” The apothecary still feels like it is in another era, with darkened liquid in old-fashioned jars, the flecks of dried herbs on the wooded floor and the smell of dragon’s blood permeating throughout.

Undated photograph via Library of Congress.

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Washingtonian.