"Mrs. Washington," wrote Martha Washington to her druggist in 1802, "desires Mr. Stabler to send by the bearer a quart bottle of the best castor oil and the bill for it."
This letter, hundreds of similar ones, and a collection of medicinal herbs have been found in an Alexandria drugstore in the years since the business closed during the Depression. The drugstore will be the focus of an exhibition opening March 5 at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria called "Archaeologists at Work: Excavations at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop."
The exhibit will feature relics from the shop as well as the archeological techniques used to uncover their origins and significance. "The exhibit will show people what is involved in re-creating history from archeological evidence," said Barbara Magid, leader of the Stabler-Leadbeater excavation and assistant director of Alexandria Archaeology, a city agency. "They'll see that there is more to it than just digging up bottles and looking at them."
While Magid and others have been examining relics from digs in the basement of the Stabler- Leadbeater Apothecary, experts from the National Museum of American History and other historians have been uncovering historic treasures from the second and third floors, where the manufacturing of the drugs took place. The areas have remained undisturbed since the business closed in 1933.
"Walking into the Stabler- Leadbeater Apothecary is like walking into King Tut's tomb," said W. Brown Morton III, a professor in the Historic Preservation Department at Mary Washington College. "To find so much intact dating back to the 18th century is extremely rare. The collection of potions and plant materials has tremendous scientific value."
The walls of the second and third floors are lined with mahogany drawers filled with the ingredients -- wild carrot tops, dragon's blood reeds and liverwort leaves -- that went into the remedies of the past.
"The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary is unique because it is the only site in the United States where you can see how 18th century medicines were manufactured," said Ramunas Kondratas, a curator for the medical sciences division of the National Museum of American History.
The remedies that were made in the late 1700s and early 1800s were composed of minerals and plant parts that the druggist mixed into ointments, teas and potions, Kondratas said.
The early 19th century, when the manufacturing plant at Stabler-Leadbeater was in full operation, is referred to as the "heroic age of medicine" because the remedies inflicted considerable pain on the patient. Mercury was often prescribed for venereal disease, for example, and it caused many unpleasant side effects, such as hair loss, according to Kondratas.
Tonics were used during this period to revitalize the patient after the painful part of the treatment. One tonic invented by an Atlanta pharmacist had a particularly pleasing taste and evolved into the product known today as Coca-Cola, Kondratas said.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary was founded in 1792 by a young man named Edward Stabler who decided that the bustling port city of Alexandria needed a drugstore, according to members of the Alexandria Landmarks Society, the current owners of the apothecary. After borrowing $100, Stabler opened a shop at 105 S. Fairfax St.
The business prospered and at one time occupied 11 buildings.
The store served Alexandria as a post office and meeting place as well as an apothecary, and George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster are said to have been among its regular customers. Many ledgers containing the formulas for cures, and letters from the shop's distinguished patrons, were only recently uncovered.
The Alexandria Landmarks Society, which acquired the building in 1933, keeps the first floor open to the public as a museum and has begun restoring the drugstore. Plans for the apothecary include several costly structural repairs and the opening of the second and third floors to the public.
The restoration will cost at least $600,000, according to Anne Paul, president of the society.
The society has raised $150,000, mainly from local individual donors. The National Association of Retail Druggists has launched a drive to raise $300,000 for the apothecary, and a drive is under way to raise $100,000 from Alexandria businesses.
The restoration is expected to be completed in two years.
Before any of the structural repairs can be made to the building, the Landmarks Society is faced with the enormous task of cataloguing, moving and storing the entire collection of vials, herbs, bottles, powders, potions and boxes. No place has been found to store the collection during the repairs.
However, Paul said she is certain that the efforts and the cost are worth it. "Few other collections are as extensive as ours, and even fewer exist on the original property in the original building," she said, breathing in the fragrances of the medicinal herbs left open in boxes all around her.
"What I really like about this place is that, unlike so many museums, the smell of the herbs adds another dimension that really helps to bring the visitor back in time," she said. "It's like entering a time capsule."