When Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart found Colonel Robert E. Lee at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop on Oct. 17, 1859, he ordered Lee to suppress the insurrection of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
First Lady Martha Washington sent several notes to the Apothecary Shop to have her medicines and herbs sent to her. One written in 1802 requests castor oil.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop in Old Town Alexandria was once the oldest operating pharmacy in the United States, opening its doors to the Virginia and D.C. communities in 1792 until its closed in 1933 during the Great Depression.
The shop was bought in 1939 by a non-profit organization called The Landmark Society of Alexandria and has become a gift shop and small museum.
Much history lies within the shop’s walls, as museum shop manager Paula Spitler points out. In the ledgers, many of the clerks would write down the events of the day.
A clerk wrote in his ledger on May 24, 1861, of the seizure of Alexandria by Union troops. In fancy cursive writing it reads, “Alexandria taken by U.S. forces this morning at 5 o’clock: Ellsworth killed, great excitement, stores generally closed.”
Spitler said many people in the Alexandria community remember shopping at Stabler-Leadbeater before it closed. Many of the apprentices who worked at the shop have come to visit. Family members of the Stablers and Leadbeaters pass by every now and then.
Edward Stabler came to Alexandria after an apprenticeship in Leesburg as an apothecary in his brother’s shop. He opened his own shop, which grew into an important business over the years. The store was passed on to Stabler’s eldest son William Stabler, then to his son-in-law John Leadbeater.
Over the years, the one-room shop expanded into 11 buildings. The first floor of the main building was the retail shop where drugs, herbs and extracts were sold.
The stuffy smell of herbs and medicines accompanies many of the original bottles and drugs that are lined up along the walls of the room. Some of the date books and ledgers are also on display.
The corner by the window shows many of the tools apothecaries used to make remedies. They would grind the different herbs with a mortar and pestle while following a recipe. Then a glass funnel would filter the mixture through water and alcohol, later put into an evaporating dish to get rid of the liquids.
Many of the herbs and drugs that were used as remedies are still in use. The drug digitalis was used and is used today for heart related illnesses. Lavender cured headaches and was often purchased by Robert E. Lee. Tooth powders, sassafras and vanilla for flavor and henna leaves were in common use.
The second floor was for wholesale and bottling, where drugs and herbs were stored, bottled and labeled. Many old pharmacy books are stored there and so are the archives. After the reconstruction in a couple of years, the second floor will be open to the public.
After 209 years, medicine has come a long way, but many remedies have stayed the same over the years. Spitler said that alternative medicine therapies, such as homeopathic medicine, herbal remedies and phrenology were in wide use 200 years ago and are still used today as an alternative to chemical drugs.
Scientists know more today about diseases, microbes and the human body and have learned to use a little bit of everything to cure illnesses, Spitler said.
“We look back and ask, `What were they thinking100 years ago?,'” she said. “But 100 years from now they’ll be thinking the exact thing about us.”
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop is at 105-107 South Fairfax St. in Old Town Alexandria. A good 10-12 blocks from King Street Metro on the Blue Line, it is an interesting spot, among other boutiques and historical sites to visit in Old Town. Shuttles are available from the Metro and are free on weekends.
The shop is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission for adults is $2.50.