Updated on May 9, 2023 by Julie McCool
Tour the strange and unusual Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and step into the fascinating history of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Bizarre tinctures and medicines, some funny and some horrifying, fill the store. Upstairs, wooden boxes of unicorn root and dragon's blood make you feel like you've stepped into a Harry Potter story. In 2021, the museum was designated a National Historic Landmark.
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Tour the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary
Entering the Apothecary Museum is like stepping back in time, but into a time you likely know little about. Glass bottles line the shelves, many containing the same exotically named medicines and herbs they contained when the business suddenly closed in 1933. Glassware, furnishings, fabric, and even the contents of the containers are all original.
Imagine turn-of-the-century shoppers tempted by the odd sign advertising, “Tanglefoot for Fleas.” Or stepping up to order Rice's Worm Destroying Drops and Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills.
Upstairs, bins of Unicorn Root, Dragon's Blood, and Mandrake Root stand near containers of barks, gums, powders, herbs, and more.
Back on the first floor, one case displays bizarre tools used for blood-letting. Nearby, a collection of lovely blue bottles stand ready to hold poisons. Since many customers at the time did not read, a skull and crossbones mark dangerous containers. Large colorful bottles in the window let passersby know that this was a shop where they could buy medicines.
A Historic Apothecary and its Historic Customers
Edward Stabler opened his apothecary in 1792 and quickly built a successful business in busy Alexandria. The shop was frequented by local leaders and average citizens. Here they could purchase medicines, household supplies like paints and cleaners, and even cooking supplies. Anything requiring chemical knowledge would be sold in an apothecary shop.
Several artifacts tell the story of famous customers. One case holds a reproduction of Martha Washington's order for “a quart bottle of his best castor oil.” Just weeks after the order was filled, Martha died of fever.
Another document lists purchases by Robert E. Lee and his family. Orders from the Mansion House Hospital, the hotel turned Civil War hospital featured in the PBS drama, Mercy Street, are also on display. Alexandria was occupied by the Union throughout the Civil War, and the Apothecary's records note soldiers standing in line to buy a cough remedy called “Hot Drops”.
The apothecary was the longest continuously running business in Alexandria. It operated in its current location from 1805 to 1933, when it abruptly closed due to bankruptcy. Just days later, owner Edward S. Leadbeater Jr died leaving the store in limbo.
Fortunately, concerned Alexandria citizens immediately began efforts to preserve the historic business as a museum. Today, visitors can view thousands of artifacts, exactly as they were when the store closed.
Find more NoVA history, hikes, and parks in our guide 20 Must See Northern Virginia Hidden Gems Rich in Nature and History.
Visiting the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
The excellent and informative tours of the Apothecary Museum are $5 for adults, $3 for children 5 to 12. Purchase a Key to the City pass if you plan to make multiple historic stops in Alexandria. For $20, you can tour the Apothecary and 8 other museums and historic homes. The pass also includes a 40% discount to George Washington’s Mount Vernon and other offers.
The Apothecary hosts special events including the Attics and Alleys tour in May when groups are allowed into the third floor. In July, there are two very popular events for Harry Potter fans. Check the Visit Alexandria website for special events.
Check the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum website for additional information and special events. The apothecary is located at 105-107 South Fairfax Street in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia 22314.
We were provided a Key to the City pass by Visit Alexandria to research this article.