Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum: Dragon’s Blood, Anyone?

Its entrance lost somewhat among the many whimsical storefronts of Old Town Alexandria’s South Fairfax Street, just off the bustling King Street, a wonderful place is waiting to be stumbled upon: the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum.

A family-owned business from 1792 to 1933, the apothecary played part in Alexandria’s history from the Revolutionary War (filling orders for the Washingtons in nearby Mount Vernon) to Civil War (Robert E. Lee was at the apothecary when he was called off to suppress the Harpers Ferry rising) to the Great Depression, when the family was forced to close, unable to compete against the Peoples Drug chain (itself later consumed by the CVS).

One of the treasures of the museum is this note from Mount Vernon, asking for a delivery of castor oil for Martha Washington. She died about a month after this note was written.

Meticulously preserved, this place is especially fascinating because, just as its doors closed in 1933, the apothecary and everything in it–tinctures, elixirs, and concoctions–left exactly as they were under the Leadbeaters, became a museum. As you wander through the store and the pharmacists’ workshop above, the rooms feel paused, mid-sentence, frozen in time–and, in a way, they are.

A guide leads you through the museum (two $5 tours are offered each hour: a quarter after and a quarter to the hour). There are a number of special exhibits on the store floor, showcasing some of the more colorful “cures” once sold at the apothecary: mercury pills like the ones that almost drove Lincoln crazy, blood-letting equipment for neck and arm applications, baby bottles, shaped just right to breed bacteria. But the best part of the tour, I think is upstairs, in the pharmacists’ workshop.

There, you wander among shelves lined with boxes and cans, many still filled with seeds, roots, and decidedly toxic substances, dimly lit with early-20th-century bulbs. The pharmacy also sold its own brand of perfume, so there are many dried fragrant flower parts and mixtures of medicinal plants, from poke weed to foxglove and belladonna; cans announce dragon’s blood (a tree in Africa), mandrake root, and, naturally, opium.

Whimsical, despite itself

Dragon’s Blood and its friends

Occasionally, there are demonstrations or special events–like a celebration of Harry Potter’s Birthday in July (the setting is perfect), but the museum is worth occasional visits with or without them: each guide has different areas to highlight, and the displays (opened boxes, arrangements on the table, sales-floor vitrines) change.

How pills were made, not that long ago.

On the way out, don’t miss the dried turkey foot in the doorway, still a mystery to the docents–a good-luck charm?

For a lovely brunch or lunch before or after the tour (I would recommend before, to set the tone), try the Sang Jun Thai Restaurant around the corner at 300 King Street (http://www.sangjunthai.com/): the food is delicious, and the restaurant has done a good job of preserving the feel of the original space–in 1790s, this was where Stabler first opened the apothecary, renting the building. Business flourished, so he was able to buy the building where the apothecary is housed now. And the rest was history.

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