A Passport Back in Time: The Stabler-Leadbeater Museum


There is a memorable scene in the classic movie Its a Wonderful Life when the pharmacy delivery boy, George Bailey, saves the life of a child. George does not deliver a bottle of medicine after he sees the distressed, distraught, inebriated pharmacist he works for accidentally fill the childs prescription with poison pills.  Whether one is a pharmacist today or an apothecary from centuries ago, the duties are exacting and stressful. 

Here at home, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum on South Fairfax Street provides visitors with an inside look at the daunting role of Alexandrias first apothecary. During the 141 years the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop was in business (1792-1933) there were certainly some pressure-filled moments when a pharmacist had to manufacture or adjust some concoction of medicine in an effort to heal a patients illness.  While those days are now a time of the past, the shop appears almost exactly as it did when it ceased operations in 1933.

Upon entering the Apothecary Shop, visitors feel as if they are in the 18th or early 19th centuries.  The 21st century museum gift shop, which is also the museum entrance, is full of tasteful gifts that are actually a modern interpretation of the goods that would have been sold in the apothecary during the 141 years it was open.  The historic shop and the manufacturing room look exactly as they did when the Stabler-Leadbeater doors closed for the last time.

Once you enter the apothecary shop museum, time seems to slow down and visitors have the feeling of being instantly transported to another century. Even visitors without vivid imaginations can imagine what it would have been like to stand in the shop and explain an ailment to the apothecary. 

When the Stabler-Leadbeater Shop was open, a wide variety of people came in for medicines. Doctors came to get medicines for patients before they made their house calls. Wealthy customers such as George and Martha Washington sent servants with lists of what they wanted to purchase or a description of what was ailing them. The museum has a letter on display that was written by Martha Washington just a few weeks before she died, and in it, she requests a quart of castor oil. 

Alexandrias last apothecary would feel at home if he were to visit the museum today because the walls are lined with shelves of old bottles full of untouched ingredients from the 1920s and 1930s.  The Manufacturing Room, above the historic shop, has drawers filled with herbs that are still unused and waiting for the past 75 years to be made into some medicinal concoction. Also on the second floor is a warehouse that is full of goods that were made and ready to ship or sell.

The apothecary building and its modest warehouse room are only two of the 11 Old Town buildings that once housed the retail, production and warehouse facilities for the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop in its prime. The Stabler-Leadbeaters buildings were all within a two-block area of each other in Old Town. 

The Stabler Apothecary business was started in 1792 by Edward Stabler, a devout Quaker and avid abolitionist. He produced, wholesaled and dispensed medicines for the entire area, says Jenny Reisner, the museum site manager.  When he was alive, there wasnt much wholesaling going on, but when his son-in-law joined the business, they expanded the apothecary shop into product wholesaling. Around 1900 they were supplying 500 drug stores in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Every day at the height of their business, they sent out five supply wagons for deliveries of shipments to the ferryboats, and the train station.

Stabler got his apothecary business up and running and its longevity was in part secured when his son, William, joined him in the shop. William and his eventual brother-in-law, John Leadbeater (after Stabler died), expanded the manufacturing and wholesaling of medicines. Meanwhile, Stabler was busy helping run the business and caring for his 15 children. His first wife had five children before she died, and he then remarried and had 10 more.  Clearly a kind-hearted man, Stabler also dedicated himself to the anti-slavery movement and purchased many slaves in order to free them.

The business expanded and thrived in the 19th century under the leadership of William Stabler and then Leadbeater, however the 20th century brought new challenges.  There was more competition in Alexandria from national chain drug stores and new drug regulations to adhere to if they were to remain in business.

When last owner died in 1933, the Depression had driven him so far into debt that the contents of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop were put up for auction.  The newly formed Landmark Society of Alexandria bought the entire contents of the museum intact with the help of the American Pharmaceutical Association.  The Landmark Society ran the apothecary shop as a museum through the rest of the 20th century. The museum closed in 2004 for a renovation (which they paid for), and then the Landmark Society gave the museum to the city of Alexandria in 2006.  Two years ago, on November 11, 2006, the city re-opened the museum after a major overhaul.
Reisner was quick to explain that the Stabler-Leadbeater Museum is work in progress. She says, we are cataloging over 200 boxes of original documents that belonged to the family including the business ledgers, as well as family correspondence and recipes books. These original documents are at the Alexandria library being scanned.

Another yet-to-be cataloged collection is of miscellaneous objects from the warehouse. There are tons of boxes of medicines, eyeglasses, sewing machines, and of course bottles and bottles of medicine that were never emptied or even unpacked. Thousands of objects are being inventoried and thousands more remain unpacked. We are learning something new everyday; we are always changing and updating what you hear about the shop and what is in the shop. There are always new old objects being put on display, said Reisner. She continued, saying that, We are also doing some conservation projects. There were two statues of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington that were once on display in the shop, and they are being restored and should be back soon. Visitors can now see glass advertising panels that were conserved earlier this year. While striving to preserve the past, we are trying to making sure that the museum is open for the future.

There are very few places one can visit where every item on display is the original and not a reproduction; the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop is worth stopping in for a trip back through the centuries and to appreciate how far our medicines and medical care has come in 200 years. 

Please note that the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop is the second place on our tour of the nine Alexandria Passport locations; the first stop was the Alexandria Archeology Museum. All nine locations have free passports for children to get stamped or stickers to use to commemorate their visit.

For more information visit www.apothecarymuseum.org.