Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
Drugs Are Nice

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
105-107 South Fairfax St.
Alexandria, VA

April through October:
Sunday and Monday: 1pm to 5 pm
Tuesday through Saturday: 10 am to 5 pm
November through March:
Wednesday to Saturday: 11 am to 4 pm
Sunday: 1 pm to 4 pm
Monday and Tuesday: Closed
Closed: New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas
Adults : $4.00
Children ( Ages 11-17): $2.00
Children under 11: FREE!
Groups of 10 or more: $3.00 

Passing through the Federal style front entrance of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, you literally enter a place frozen in time. When the apothecary shop was closed in 1933, after over 140 years of business, everything was left as it had been--medicinal herbs, corks and labels left in their drawers, bottles still on the shelves, giant glass show globes still in the windows. Since its reopening as a museum in 1939, over 8,000 historical objects have been found, including pill rollers, mortars & pestles, drug mills, and hand-blown medicine bottles with gold-leaf labels. The bottles still contain drug powders left there in the 1930s. All the papers and artifacts of over 200 years were preserved in the building, including shop ledgers and day books that spelled out the accounts. Apparently, the owners--descendents of the founding Stabler family, were serious pack rats who had a clear vision of history.

The place is steeped in history of a personal sort, as well. On display is a note sent by Martha Washington requesting a bottle of castor oil "and the bill for it." There's a plaque that marks the spot where Robert E. Lee received orders to travel to Harper's Ferry to quell John Brown's Rebellion. Lee is known to have bought paint for his Arlington house at Stabler's shop. Among the shop's other customers were James Madison (who bought turnip seeds), George Washington's surgeon, and Nelly Custis. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun waited at the shop for the ferry to Washington.

"It's priceless when you take the collection as a whole," says Museum Manager Paula Spitler. "We have the original products and papers�the first order from England in 1792, the original deed�everything down to the last paycheck. You could find out what [medicines]  your family was using at the time."

The original shop was founded in 1792 by Edward Stabler, a Quaker who was also a staunch abolitionist and who served as the first elected librarian of Alexandria. He located the business in its present location in 1796. Ralph Waldo Emerson mentioned Stabler in his journals as a profound influence. The business eventually passed to Stabler's son, and then to his son-in-law John Leadbeater. In addition to dispensing medicines, the shop also sold dye for cloth, drinks, candy, paint, musical instruments, and spices.

The Leadbeaters built up the business to include manufacturing and wholesaling patent medicines and a plethora of other products, including Seidlitz Powders, Stabler's Furniture Polish, Stabler's Cologne Water, Tooth Powder, Shaving Cake Soap, Stabler's Lubricating Linament, Black Berry Brandy, Stabler's Worm Destroyer, Bay Rum, Indelible Ink, and Turkish Check for Hair. Many of these products were manufactured and bottled on the premises, which accounts for much of the junque (that is, antique debris) on the second floor. A highlight of this work area is the series of wooden drawers, darkened with age and labeled by hand; among the goodies are black pepper corns, pokeberries, Job's tears, aloes barb, gum ammoniac, and even "Powdered Dragon's Blood." Antique remnants of each substance still fills its respective drawer.

Standing close enough to smell and touch this kind of history can be a little awe inspiring�even for the staff. "I consider myself an herbalist," Spitler says, "so when I walked in the shop for the first time, my jaw just dropped. I learned how to use the old implements to make all these products. Coming here, this was part two of my herbal education." You may start to feel you�re about to meet Harry Potter on the set of the Hogwarts' herbal storehouse. (Just don�t tell the DEA about the drawer full of antique "Cannabis Indica" samples, as they may want to confiscate this historically valuable marijuana.)

One of the Leadbeater's biggest products was Quybon, a patent medicine advertised as a cure for chills, fever, constipation, and many other ills. They even sold stock in the company. But when the depression hit, business at the apothecary and sales of the medicine slacked off, making it difficult to pay stockholders and suppliers, and contributing to their closing.

The first floor of the shop is lined with antique bottles�and that's not quite as boring as it may sound. They have hand-blown glass bottles for Mount Vernon cologne, medicine bottles with gold labels under glass from the 1860s, and some bottles embossed with a woman holding a pitcher of water. These last items once contained Buffalo Lithia Spring Water from the Virginia/North Carolina border; the product included natural lithium, a mood enhancer used in psychiatric treatments today. There�s even beautiful cobalt blue bottles for poison--poison bottles were usually blue or green, often with bumps or ribbons or other tactile warnings of the dangerous contents

Just as in the apothecary's heyday, the museum windows display large "show globes" filled with colored water. Originally symbols of the alchemists, these giant glass bottles functioned as purely visual markers for the apothecary, much as striped poles did for barber shops, in a day when most people were illiterate. The color of the water in the globes was also significant: if both globes in the windows were red, it mean there was a medical emergency in town, like an epidemic; two blue globes meant things were fine. The museum plays the middle ground with one blue and one red show globe.

Happily reopened after being closed for renovations from February 2004 to November 2006, the apothecary museum is better than ever. Not only was the building brought up to contemporary building codes, the structure was repaired and stabilized, and for the first time since 1939, the second floor manufacturing room is open to the public. And you can now look up through the holes cut in the ceiling to the massive dumbwaiter once used to haul goods to the upper manufacturing floors. It's a great time to travel back to the "good old days" and see how Washington and Lee cured their ills.