That Old Time Medicine

That Old Time Medicine

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop re-opens its doors after major renovations.

The herbs have been dried, the prescriptions have been filled and the bleeding instruments have been sharpened. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary is open, and city leaders made it official on Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the steps of the historic old building on South Fairfax Street.

"There were times when this seemed like an impossible dream," said Councilwoman Del Pepper. "The apothecary shop needed to be under the protection of the city if it was going to survive the long run."

Pepper told the assembled crowd how she approached the city manager last year about the possibility of the city acquiring the three-story brick building that was originally build in 1792. At that time, it was rented by a young Quaker pharmacist named Edward Stabler. The shop was the center of Alexandria social life for many years, with patrons that included George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee. It was in continuous operation for 141 years, finally closing its doors in 1933 during the Great Depression.

"I remember coming here as a kid," said former City Councilman Jack Ticer, who grew up on South Fairfax Street. "I would bring them jugs, and they would buy the jugs for a nickel each. Then I'd go over to the hardware store to buy nails to do whatever 9-year-old boys do with nails."

Some of the 1930s-era pharmaceutical equipment was never taken out of the boxes, and many of the drawers still have the dried herbs that were there on the last day of operation in 1933. When the shop was forced to close, the owners simply locked the doors and walked away leaving the most extensive pharmaceutical archive in the United States. In 1934, a nonprofit organization known as the Landmark Society reopened the building as a museum. Over the last two years, the Landmark Society has thoroughly modernized the building and presented it as a gift to the city of Alexandria.

"From a museum standpoint, it's really an incredible gift," said Jim Mackay, acting director of the city's Office of Historic Alexandria. "And the untold nature of this site gives us the potential for so many things."

AFTER THE RIBBON-cutting, city leaders and assembled guests walked into the apothecary and marveled at the antique medical instruments and wondered about the countless generations of customers who frequented the establishment. They chatted with costumed interpreters, visited the gift shop and learned about a time when medicine was more of an art than a science.

"I'm so pleased to finally be opening the shop," said Edward Stabler, portrayed by Charles Aldrich. "Whose first?"

Without missing a beat, Councilman Rob Krupicka stepped up to the counter. Stabler grabbed his fleem and aimed its lance at Krupicka. He positioned his arm over the bleeding bowl and indicated the best position for maximizing the amount of blood that could be removed from his body, thus alleviating him of bad blood and restoring his four humours to their natural order.

"Do you have a permit for this?" Krupicka asked nervously. "I think you're going to need a special-use permit."

THE APOTHECARY opens a window into a world of herbal remedies pharmacists used to combat common ailments. Sassafras was administered to reduce fever. Ginseng was prescribed to relieve nausea and vomiting. Rhubarb was used as a laxative. Crocus was thought to relieve gout. Bleeding, blistering and purging were common methods for purifying tainted blood. All of these remedies are documented in the apothecary's archive, including who prescriptions went to and when they were prescribed.

"It's a lot of work," said City Archivist Jackie Cohan. "So I'm going into it with some trepidation."

The museum has four distinct public spaces: the 1840s-era apothecary, a gift shop, a multi-purpose room and a manufacturing room. Opening up the second floor, which was previously off-limits to visitors, has doubled the size of the museum and greatly expanded the possibilities for interpretation. The manufacturing room, where the Leadbeater family prepared a number of products for sale, is a fascinating window on the world of early 20th-century commerce. And because the Leadbeaters abandoned the building as an operating facility, it's an incredibly revealing look into a bygone world.

"This is my favorite place in the museum," said City Archeologist Pam Cressy. "It's eerie, sort of like a time capsule. It's basically an above ground archeology site."