Edward Stabler came to Alexandria after apprenticing in the apothecary business with his brother in Leesburg, Virginia. A devout Quaker and savvy businessman, he rented space in 1792 at the corner of King and S. Fairfax to start his business and by 1796, he began renting 107 S. Fairfax. Nine years later, he took ownership of the building and turned it into a bustling apothecary business. By 1829, he had purchased 105 S. Fairfax and incorporated the building into his operation.
Edward Stabler sold to a variety of city and country residents – from Martha Washington to Robert E. Lee, the local doctor to the local farmer. The typical products Stabler sold included medicine, farm and garden equipment, surgical instruments, dental equipment, soap, perfume, Buffalo and Bedford mineral water, cigars, window glass, paint and varnish, artists’ supplies, combs and brushes. Much of the medicine he sold was created on-site, using plant and herb materials.
By 1806, Stabler began traveling extensively to Quaker church meetings throughout the region, leaving oldest son William to run the business in his absence. After his father’s death in 1831, the business passed to William. Keeping with the family-run tradition, William brought several of his brothers and also his brother-in-law, John Leadbeater, into the business between 1832 and his death in 1852. John Leadbeater, a trained apothecary and dentist, purchased the business from William’s wife, as the couple had no children, and changed the name of the business from William Stabler and Co. to John Leadbeater.
Once the Civil War erupted, Alexandria was quickly occupied by Union troops – a fact noted in the Leadbeater business’ daybook. After the First Battle of Manassas, Union troops poured into Alexandria and the Apothecary’s books reported that many soldiers stood in line to buy “Hot Drops,” a cough expectorant containing paprika and alcohol. The drops sold for a penny each and sold over $1,000 in one day!
In 1865, the business was operated by John’s son Edward and soon supplied to nearly 500 pharmacies throughout the Washington DC area. At its peak, the Leadbeaters employed 12 salesmen throughout Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina to promote their wholesale and mail order businesses. The company operated in 11 buildings in Alexandria, including the two main buildings on Fairfax Street, offices on King Street, warehouses on Lee and Prince Streets, and an office in Washington, D.C.
By the turn of the century however, the family business was beginning to feel the effects of the growing commercial pharmacies and synthetic drug companies, as well as the downturn in the economy, and the business declared bankruptcy in 1933, just days before the death of its owner, Edward S. Leadbeater, Jr.
Spurred into action to save the historic collection for future generations, a plan was crafted by concerned Alexandria citizens and the American Pharmaceutical Association to purchase the collection and archives with private buyers. The majority of the contents and archives were purchased at auction on July 19, 1933 by L. Manuel Hendler, a Baltimore ice cream merchant with an affinity for the history of pharmacy. The following year, the newly formed Landmarks Society of Alexandria purchased the buildings at auction. Hendler then donated the contents and archives to the Landmarks Society.
With the buildings and collection secured, the structures were conjecturally returned to their 18th century appearance by noted restoration architect, Thomas Tileston Waterman. The museum was officially re-opened in 1939, free of charge thanks to the financial support of the American Pharmaceutical Association. After an extensive renovation adding a fire suppression system, and re-stabilizing the structure, the Landmarks Society donated the museum and its important contents to the City of Alexandria in November of 2006.