Before CVS offered a customer the services of a personal pharmacist, Martha Washington already had one. His name was Edward Stabler and he ran a small pharmacy in what is now Old Town Alexandria. Robert E. Lee also depended upon Stabler for his medicines. Remarkably enough, the apothecary has been preserved, frozen in time, allowing us to see what a drug store looked like beginning in colonial times, through the Civil War, until the descendants of the founders closed up shop in 1933.
Stabler apprenticed as a pharmacist in Leesburg, Virginia, before coming to Alexandria in the late 1700s. Besides medicines, Stabler’s apothecary sold farm equipment, surgical and dental instruments, perfumes, paints and artist supplies, even ice cream. William, Edward’s son, eventually came into the business, along with his brothers and brother-in-law John Leadbeater. After William’s death, in 1852, Leadbeater bought the business from William’s widow and changed the name from William Stabler & Co. to John Leadbeater.
After passing through a small gift shop in the front of the museum (don’t miss the pens shaped like syringes) visitors enter what was once the apothecary. Hard blown glass jars, with gold labels identifying the contents, sit on shelves. Many of the jars still hold the various ingredients, even many substances that would be considered poisonous today.
One case houses medicines and devices that can only be termed primitive. There are implements for bloodletting, once thought to restore balance to the body, glass baby bottles that look difficult to clean and were probably very unsanitary, and nipples for those bottles made out of rubber that we now use for tires. A round tin held a remedy used to treat melancholia that was 60 percent mercury. Even Abraham Lincoln took this prescription until those around him noticed a marked chance in his moods and urged him to stop.
The second room looks like something out of Harry Potter, cabinets with drawers labeled with their contents, everything from carrot tops to dragon’s blood. A table is filled with glass jars that would hold whatever mixture the pharmacist created from the ingredients at his disposal.
During the Civil War, Alexandria was soon overrun with Union troops, many of them lining up at the apothecary for something called “Hot Drops,” a cough syrup that contained paprika and alcohol. Even though the drops sold for only one penny, the concoction was in such demand that the pharmacy made more than $1,000 in one day.
At its peak, the apothecary was supplying more than 500 pharmacies throughout the Washington D.C. area. By the 1900s, however, the business felt the competition from commercial pharmacies that were opening. The depression didn’t help. In 1933, the owners walked out, leaving the pharmacy much as it appears today. The Landmarks Society of Alexandria worked to preserve the space and open it as a museum.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
105-107 South Fairfax Street