The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, similar to a modern-day pharmacy, is one of the oldest apothecaries in the country. Located in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, it was founded in the early days of the Republic and was continuously operated by the same family for 141 years. Step back in time and tour this unique museum furnished and stocked with its original contents. If you’re into antiques, American history, early medicine or Harry Potter, you and the kids will enjoy this fascinating bit of history.
In 1792, Edward Stabler had opened his apothecary at a turning point in American history. The U.S. Constitution had been ratified in 1789, local hero George Washington was serving as the first U.S. President, and the federal government was setting up its permanent home across the Potomac River in Washington, DC to be ready by 1800.
Stabler opened his shop in what we today refer to as Old Town Alexandria, selling what we would typically find in a pharmacy and hardware store, such as medicines, herbs, glass, paints, toiletries, and garden equipment. He built the location of the present-day museum in 1805. His clients included included George and Martha Washington, and Robert E. Lee.
Upon his death in 1831, he passed the business to his son, William, who partnered with his brother-in-law John Leadbeater. By 1965, John’s son Edward had taken the business wholesale, operating out of 11 buildings in Alexandria and supplying almost 500 pharmacies in the mid-Atlantic region. With the industrial revolution, the growth of larger pharmaceutical companies and the Great Depression, the company went bankrupt in 1933. They closed the doors and left all the contents inside, including the its historic records.
Seeking to preserve its history, concerned citizens and organizations worked together to purchase the property and contents, and reopened it as a museum in 1939. In 2004, it was turned over to the City of Alexandria, renovated for safety, and reopened to the public in 2006.
The museum offers guided tours only, which last 30 minutes. The tour begins on the lower level of the museum, which was the retail space where goods were sold. You’ll see the original sales counters, shelves filled with antique tins and handblown glass jars with their original contents inside. It’s interesting to see the remedies that were offered before modern medicine.
Herbs, perfumes, dry goods are still on the shelves, including products branded with First Lady Martha Washington. Busts of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin emphasize the shop’s historic foundations.
The tour continues upstairs in the manufacturing room where the proprietors mixed their remedies and paints. Wooden boxes and drawers containing herbal and medicinal ingredients are labeled with hand lettering. Products packaged under the Leadbeater name are on display.
Harry Potter fans will recognize ingredients like dragon’s blood and mandrake root. Wooden beams, vintage hardwood floors and exposed brick add to the architectural character. Take a close look at all the curiosities that were commonplace remedies back then. It’s quite fascinating!
Specialty tours, group tours, special programs, birthday parties and events are also available. Thew museum is also available for rent. Check the website for details.
Old Town Alexandria holds many charms, with its eclectic mix of shops, foods, and art with a American history tucked in between. After completing the short tour of the Apothecary, walk a few blocks to the Torpedo Factory, have a meal on the waterfront, or take a boat cruise on the Potomac River in the warmer months. It’s an enjoyable day.