The wizards in the world of Harry Potter made regular use of dragon’s blood, mandrake root and devil’s snare for potions and spells. In the real world, healers and midwives also used creepy-named plants for medicinal purposes, and they didn’t need to visit Hogwarts to get them. They could be purchased at an ordinary apothecary (a pharmacy or drugstore).
Today, one of the best preserved apothecaries in the United States has been turned into a museum in historic Alexandria, Virginia, and provides a fascinating glimpse of medicines before the days of antibiotics and modern drugs.
For more than 140 years, from 1792 to 1933, the family-owned Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary served customers with an amazing assortment of medicines. When the shop closed down, the new owner kept it just the way it was and turned it into a museum.
The apothecary usually provided remedies “for minor ailments, rashes, the flu, or a headache,” explained Lauren Gleason, manager of the museum.
Curator Callie Stapp oversees the intriguing collection of thousands of objects, most in excellent condition. They include weighing scales, weird bloodletting tools, and cobalt glass bottles that stored poisonous liquids.
“The apothecary is so much the same that if the owners were still alive today they would feel at home in it,” she said.
The shop serviced famous clients, including President George Washington and his wife Martha, who had items delivered to their nearby Mount Vernon estate. The museum even has a note written by Mrs. Washington, requesting the delivery of castor oil, which was used as a laxative.
Like a modern drugstore, the apothecary sold more than medicine.
“Lots of other chemicals like paints, dyes and perfumes, would have been made and sold here,” said Gleason. But “other items like sewing machines, pens, razors and baby bottles were sold here as well.”
The store’s original gleaming white shelves hold dozens of clear hand-blown glass bottles for liquids, labeled in gold leaf.
“These bottles have probably been part of this pharmacy’s collection since the 1850s,” Gleason explained. “The various concoctions helped with things like coughing, an upset stomach and kidney disease.”
Remnants of the past
A number of the bottles have traces of residue from the ingredients. Others, amazingly, still contain liquids that go back decades, including cinnamon for nausea, iodine, an antiseptic, and opium, which is derived from the poppy flower.
“Opium was a very effective pain killer, and it would often be used to treat the flu or dysentery,” Gleason said. “And it would have even been used to treat depression, though we know today it would not have been helpful.”
A dimly-lit upstairs room looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie, with its old wooden boxes and drawers for storing herbs and other botanicals.
Dragon’s Blood is hand-written on one of the drawers. It supposedly comes from dragons and is used to make potions in the wizardly world. But Dragon’s Blood actually comes from a tree whose red resin was mostly used as varnish.
Straight out of Harry Potter
A container marked aconite, once held a topical pain reliever that is poisonous to eat. But in the Potter series, the plant, also called wolfsbane, helps control violence by werewolves during their full moon transformations.
“So if you’re having werewolf trouble, it will get you through to the next full moon,” remarked tour guide Jim Williams with a smile. “But the practical use was for gout and joint pain.”
Dried wild carrot tops were once used as an anti-inflammatory. Stapp carefully opens a sticky drawer that is stuffed with them. “They look surprisingly the same way as when they were packaged many years ago,” she said.
What’s old is new again
Visitor Christine Zapata from California said she was intrigued by the variety of plants, including cannabis, the marijuana plant.
“Herbs and plant-based medicine are coming back now, so it was most interesting for me since I work in the cannabis industry.”
Williams pointed out a timeworn box that used to contain bottles of Coca-Cola. The original drink was first marketed in the late 1800’s, not as a beverage, but as medicine that could cure a number of ailments. The problem was it could also be addictive.
“On the box it says ‘for exhaustion and headache.’ That’s when coke still had the cocaine in it,” he noted.
While some medicines were discarded after it was known they were toxic, we still rely on others found in the apothecary for today’s modern remedies.