- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Nearly 200 years ago, Martha Washington sent a message to Edward Stabler's Alexandria apothecary shop. It read: "Mrs. Washington desires Mr. Stabler to send by the bearer a quart bottle of his best castor oil and the bill for it."

The order had been brought from Mount Vernon, and the date was April 22, 1802. Mrs. Washington died one month later.

"You needed a certain fortitude in those early days," explains Sarah R. Becker, director of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Old Town Alexandria. "In the early 1800s, you communicated with the pharmacist by letter. Then the pharmacist would make a compound they couldn't have them ready-made because they wouldn't keep. It could take a week."

By that time, of course, it might be too late but that didn't prevent the Stabler Apothecary Shop from serving as the center of daily life in Alexandria, offering its powders and potions to regular townsfolk as well as such famous patrons as Robert E. Lee, George Mason, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Ms. Becker says.

The business was opened in a brick building on Fairfax Street in 1792 under the hand of a young Quaker pharmacist named Edward Stabler. He decided the business was viable after several years, Ms. Becker says, and purchased the current building and resettled the business.

The Stabler and Leadbeater names were linked in 1852, when Edward Stabler's daughter Mary married pharmacist John Leadbeater, who became the apothecary's sole proprietor.

"Stabler had 16 children by two wives," Ms. Becker explains. "The youngest daughter was next to get the shop, but it was felt it should go to a gentleman."

The business ran continuously until 1933, when the Depression forced its closing. The shop doors were locked, and the owners and customers walked away. Six years later, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum opened to the public, with the interior and contents intact. The shop feels less like a museum than a true piece of history.

The small ground-floor shop is nearly as it was left. The marble counter tops date to 1805. Multitudes of drawers, many still filled with powders and herbs, are adorned with porcelain drawer pulls.

The thin glass counter tops are turn-of-the-century. "We have the receipts for them," Ms. Becker says. Even the hardwood flooring is a mixture of original (the wide planks) and 1950s (the narrower pieces) material.

The large pharmacy bottles filled with potions are spaced carefully on the shelves, Ms. Becker explains, because "in a pharmacy you had to be able to get your hand around it to get it off the shelf." The bottles date from the 1860s; the products they contain date from about 1930 and represent the remaining inventory.

There is a collection of glass baby bottles and several porcelain gruel feeders, used to administer mush to senior citizens or those without the means to chew their food. Even the impossible-looking 19th-century breast pump with one end curving up to be sucked by the mother is a reminder that nothing came easily back then.

"Our history spans 141 years," Ms. Becker says. "This shop survived four wars, two of which the War of 1812 and the Civil War were fought on Alexandria soil. With each war came medical advancements."

One such advancement came in the form of toilet soap, a most popular ware around 1860.

"One probably thinks of bullets and death during the Civil War, but the absence of sanitation was a major problem," Ms. Becker says. "It caused a lot of communicable disease. One way to fix this was by washing the hands. Toilet soap could fit into a soldier's pack."

Perhaps the most fascinating artifacts in the museum, though, are found on the second floor of the building. This floor houses the manufacturing room, currently open to visitors by appointment only but to be included in general admission when a renovation planned for this year is completed.

In the manufacturing room, the pharmacy products were gathered, mixed and packaged for sale. Drawers still hold hundreds of original labels, brown and crackling, to advertise camphor and cod liver oil. There are collections of corks of various sizes and ancient pharmacy books.

There also is a mass of archival information. "There's not a lot of supposition in our interpretation. We have original documents here from letters to bills to newspaper ads," Ms. Becker says.

Donning a pair of clean white cotton gloves, she opens a container and removes a folder filled with yellowed papers.

"I ask children, 'Have you ever held freedom in your hands?' " she says, holding a weathered document of manumission. Signed by abolitionist Edward Stabler and dated May 11, 1837, it records Mr. Stabler's intent to purchase a slave named Jenny for $50 to set her free.

"It's a very sobering kind of reality," Ms. Becker says.


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