A month before she died, Martha Washington was experiencing some intestinal discomfort. On April 22, 1802, she sent away for a quart bottle of the “best castor oil” that Edward Stabler had at his apothecary.
A copy of the note that Washington wrote is currently on display at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum at 105-107 S. Fairfax Street. It’s just one of many historical treasures from the country’s very first family in the apothecary’s storied history, which also includes ledgers with orders from George Washington’s doctors while he was president, orders from Martha Washington’s daughter Nelly Custis.
The simple note reads: “Mrs. Washington desires Mr. Stabler will send by the bearer, a quart bottle of his best castor oil, and the bill for it. – Mount Vernon, April 22, 1822.”
The museum, which has reopened, also has records showing that Robert E. Lee paid off his account in 1861, after he was refused the command of the Union army, resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy.
The apothecary was more than just a pharmacy. It was more like a CVS or Walgreens, and sold a variety of items, including paint, perfumes, cleaning products, pesticides and more. The company eventually owned more than 10 locations in Alexandria.
“The apothecary was the dealer in all things chemical,” Lauren Gleason, program coordinator and museum gift shop manager for the Office of Historic Alexandria, told ALXnow. “That’s why photography processing chemicals were sold originally at apothecaries. And we just continued with the practice of having our film developed at the pharmacy well through the 20th century.”
Edward Stabler founded the business in 1792, and it lasted for four generations, until his great grandson declared bankruptcy and closed shop in 1933. The original apothecary opened a few doors down, and moved into its present location in 1805.
The museum still has all of the original ingredients that were in the pharmacy when it closed in 1933, including cannabis, opium, Dragon’s Blood, Mandrake Root and Wolf’s Bane. Understandably, the list of items lines up well with the museum’s sold-out Harry Potter program.