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 Aug 16, 2021 at 9:22 AM

History of the Apothecary Museum 

An apothecary is like a drugstore or pharmacy. The word apothecary refers to both the business itself and the person trained to make medicines. In addition to medicine, the apothecary sold a variety of chemical products, including cleaning supplies, dyes, and bug exterminators. Until the 1930s, a doctor’s prescription was not required for any drugs. Patients often skipped the doctor and described symptoms directly to the apothecary, who determined treatment.  

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.

The typical products Stabler sold included medicine, farm and garden equipment, surgical instruments, dental equipment, soap, perfume, Congress mineral water, 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 Brother 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 7 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. 

The financial strain of new regulations and competition from chain drug stores caused the business to seek bankruptcy protection in 1916. Despite reorganizing, the shop again declared bankruptcy in May 1933. The business closed amid the financial collapse of the Great Depression and the death of its final owner, Edward Stabler 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 18thcentury 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 contents to the City of Alexandria in November of 2006. 

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The Museum Collection of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum includes 20,0000 objects from hand-blown glass bottles to herbal botanicals. Each tells the story of this unique family business through the centuries. The Archival Collection is comprised of letters, invoices, account books, and ledgers of the apothecary and pharmacy business owned by the Stabler and Leadbeater families from 1792-1933. The names of famous customers appear in these documents, including Martha Washington and Nelly Custis.