History of the Apothecary Museum

The Apothecary, a family business founded in 1792 and operated in the same location from 1805 until 1933, represents one of Alexandria's oldest continuously run businesses that combined retailing, wholesaling, and manufacturing.

Page updated on Mar 28, 2018 at 4:15 PM

The Apothecary Museum

The museum boasts a vast collection of herbal botanicals, hand-blown glass, and medical equipment.  It also has a spectacular collection of archival materials, including journals, letters and diaries, prescription and formula books, ledgers, orders and invoices. The names of famous customers appear in these documents, including Martha Washington, Nelly Custis and Robert E. Lee.

Since 2006 when the buildings were donated to the City of Alexandria, the Museum continues to evolve as new research is uncovered and as the staff expands its understanding of the medical and business history captured by this unique historic site.

The Stablers

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum image

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 near the corner of S. Fairfax and Prince Streets to start his business. In 1805, Stabler purchased the land at 107 S. Fairfax Street and built the present day 3 story brick building for his thriving apothecary business. By 1829, he had purchased 105 S. Fairfax and incorporated the building into his operation.

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, Congress mineral water, cigars, window glass, paint and varnish, artists’ supplies, combs, and brushes.

By 1806, Stabler began traveling extensively to Quaker church meetings throughout the region, often leaving his apprentices and 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. After William’s death in 1852, John Leadbeater, a trained apothecary and dentist, purchased the business from William’s widow, as the couple had no children, and changed the name of the business from William Stabler and Co. to John Leadbeater. 

The Leadbeaters

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, DC.

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. 

The Museum

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 reopened 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 restabilizing the structure, the Landmarks Society donated the museum and its important contents to the City of Alexandria in November of 2006.