- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

For years, even centuries, a cold was relieved with a mix of herbs and an ache was soothed by a mixed-on-the-spot salve.

There were no over-the-counter remedies. There weren’t even prescriptions as we know them today, just a doctor’s written orders about what ailed the patient.

This mixture of science and commerce has a well-preserved home at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Old Town Alexandria. The museum, operated by the city of Alexandria, reopened in November after being closed nearly three years for renovations. It formerly was a private nonprofit operation.

The bricks have been repaired and the floors smoothed, but the original fixtures, bottles and bins that give this place its historic charm are the same as they have been for generations.

A young Quaker pharmacist named Edward Stabler opened his apothecary at 105 S. Fairfax St. in 1792. For 141 years, the shop helped cure the maladies of local residents, including, legend has it, George and Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee.

“Robert E. Lee used to come here to get lavender seeds for his headaches,” says museum manager Paula Spitler. “They didn’t call it aromatherapy back then.”

Ms. Spitler leads tours of the apothecary every half hour. She gets behind the counter and explains the process of making a tincture, salve or potion. In the first-floor retail shop, the marble counters are still in place, as are the dozens of apothecary drawers and the cork press that would seal a jar of medicine.

Visitors will get a kick out of some of the old advertisements behind the counter, such as the one for Rice’s Worm Destroying Drops.

“Actually, pumpkin seeds would help expel a tapeworm,” Ms. Spitler says. “Not taken straight, though.”

Ms. Spitler says that remembering the traditions of old-fashioned medicine are important because many people are interested in natural medicine and herbal alternatives. Herbs and plants made up the bulk of remedies in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The tradition is still alive,” she says. “Go to the other end of King Street, and you’ve got the health-food store. People want natural medicines. The pendulum is swinging back.”

Visitors can purchase potpourri and penny candy in the museum gift shop, but actual natural medicine is not for sale here.

However, on the second floor of the museum, visitors can glimpse the manufacturing room, where Mr. Stabler’s descendants were very busy. (He had 15 children with two wives; all seven sons worked in the apothecary.)

By the end of the Civil War, the apothecary was manufacturing and selling products to more than 500 stores in the mid-Atlantic region, Ms. Spitler says.

The room features mortars and pestles, bottles for liquids, handwritten labels and other items necessary for producing medicine.

Dozens of drawers bear labels reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie’s potion class. Drawers are marked “Dragon’s Blood” (a plant, not part of a dragon), “Poke Berries” and “Rose Petals,” among others.

The room is almost exactly as it was in 1933, when slowing business during the Depression caused the owners to close the store suddenly.

They left the supplies as well as the fixtures. All these years later, many herbs and seeds remain tucked into the drawers. Ms. Spitler pulls out the herb Job’s-tears, hanging together on a string.

“They were used to make baby teething rings,” she says. “Nowadays they would never let us do such a thing.”

When you go:

What: The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Where: 105-107 S. Fairfax St., Alexandria.


• November through March — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays.

• April through October — 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays and Mondays.

• Closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Admission: $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 11 through 17 and free for children younger than 11.

Parking: Street, meter and garage parking nearby.

Directions: Take the George Washington Parkway south into Alexandria. The parkway becomes Washington Street. Turn left on Cameron Street and right on Fairfax Street.


• The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum preserves the tradition of the pharmacy that operated there from 1792 to 1933. Visitors can see how medicines were compounded from herbs and other natural ingredients and see how far medicine has come since then.

• The best way to see the small museum is by guided tours, which are given at 15 and 45 minutes after the hour.

• The second floor of the museum is not handicapped-accessible.

Information: Click on https://oha.alexandriava. gov/apothecary/ or call 703/838-3852.

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