Walking into the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum is like walking back in time. Everything in the building is as it was when it opened its doors in the year 1792. Even when the family business closed in 1933, the interior structure remained untouched.
When my family walked into the museum, the employees kept referring to my child as a “young pharmacist” who probably enjoyed Harry Potter. While she didn’t want to touch the vial of dragon’s blood, my kiddo enjoyed mixing licorice root using a giant mortar and pestle.
The first room still remains the retail portion of the building. Nostalgic candy, tooth powder, herb books for kids, science experiments, and potion bottles are just some of the neat items for sale. The tour begins here and continues to the next room, dimly lit, to showcase the main retail area for pharmaceuticals. It was fascinating to see the original glass bottles and labels from Myrrh to Ipecac along with a handwritten letter from Martha Washington requesting a bottle of castor oil to be sent to Mount Vernon. The Apothecary also served as a general store carrying mineral water, soap, perfume, paint, and even four flavors of ice cream. Imagine walking in the same structure that was patronized by Robert E. Lee, Nelly Custis, and Union soldiers in search of “hot drops,” a paprika and alcohol lozenge used to relieve a cough.
The second floor shows two rooms which was the staging or storage area for supplies. Due to the close proximity of the seaport, drums filled with tree bark, glass, and other manufacturing supplies were lifted by pulley from the first floor to the second. It was here that the family produced batches of medicines, perfumes, and paints distributed to 500 druggists in the Alexandria and DC areas.
Drawers are filled with different plants and herbs like catnip, unicorn root, lavender, wild carrot tops, and pumice stone. Drawers labeled with various names of gums refer to the gum used to bind drugs. The knowledgeable docent informed us that some herbs were returning to the mainstream to treat ailments. Dextrin, which makes a pill solid, is still being used today. Colchicum seed can treat gout, while poisonous belladonna leaves are used in emergency situations both in the ER and for military operations.
On display, but not available to touch are weighing scales, mortar and pestle, various glass bottles, a cork squeezer, and pill roller. After school, the families’ children would wash the medicine bottles for 7 cents a day.
Due to the growth of modern chain drug stores, new food and drug laws, the Depression, and bad financial decisions, the longest running apothecary in the country closed after 140 years in business in 1933.
Hours and Admission
The museum is open for guided tours year round, but closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. From April to October, the museum operates Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, Sunday and Monday from 1 to 5 pm. From November to March they are closed Monday and Tuesday, but open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm and Sunday 1 to 4 pm. Tours start at a quarter after and before the hour and are 30 minutes in length.Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for ages 5 to 12, free for children under 5 and free for active duty military and their families. A discount is given to AAA members. Click the website link for eCoupons to receive $1 off adult admission.
- Throughout the year, the Apothecary hosts free admission during open houses. The dates include the first Saturday of October honoring National Pharmacy Month, President’s Day, and during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Parents receive free admission on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
- Students in grades three and up may enjoy the Wonders of Science program which ranges from natural sciences to shocking medical discoveries. The cost is $6 per person. Check the website to reserve a spot for the next session.
- Bring Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron to life by having your child’s birthday party at the Apothecary Museum. Suitable for ages 7 and up, the 1.5 hour party includes a tour, activities, and making a special potion!
- Metered street parking and pay garages are steps away. For a different experience, we took the free King Street Trolley from the King Street Metro and disembarked at King and Fairfax Streets. The trolley is fun, gives a brief history of landmarks, and allows you to hop on and off at various stops in Old Town.
- The small apothecary museum gives an in-depth look at what a pharmacy looked like in the 18th century. It’s a wonderful presentation and preservation that is geared toward children ages 8 and up. I would like to return with my child when she’s older to participate in the Wonders of Science program.
Photos by Kathleen Molloy.