Charleston Social Traditions

Charleston is considered to be among the most well-dressed and best-mannered cities in America, and this is a tradition that has largely been held sacred in the many historic societies that grace the old city.
One of the most famed societies is the St. Cecilia Society, created in 1762 and named for the patron saint of music. The old society includes Charleston’s most elite families, and the membership is limited only to those who are directly descended from the 18th century organization. The St. Cecilia’s annual ball is a white-tie and tails/long gown affair in which dinner is served at midnight, followed by hours of formal dancing.
Two benevolent societies, the 1737 South Carolina Society and the 1748 St. Andrews Society, share the same hall at 70 Meeting Street. South Carolina Society Hall was built by descendants of French Huguenots in the early 1800’s, and they offered to share the roof with their Scottish Presbyterians brethren after fired claimed the old St. Andrews Society hall on Broad Street in 1861. The building features atop its grand portico, the South Carolina Society motto “posteritati”, meaning “future generations”, with the symbol of a hand planting a seed. The seed that is largely planted for future generations today is the formal dance party, as dozens of “debutante” parties are held at the hall each Fall in which young women are formally introduced to society. There are also the annual Cotillion dances for younger children, who learn the manners and dress of genteel society.
The Deutsche Freundlische Gesellschaft, Societe’ Francaise and the Hibernian Society are all based on national German, French and Irish origins, and all have very honored traditions. Perhaps the most well-known and honored is the St. Patrick’s Day parade of the Hibernians, who have marched in their green garb since the mid 19th century.
Other societies with significant traditions include the Brown Fellowship Society, founded by Charleston’s free blacks in 1794; the New England Society, founded in 1819 by such newcomers to the city as Massachusetts native Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who created the famous Morse Code.
Some of the old societies and traditions have died over the years, such as the spirited meetings of the Philomathean Society of the early 19th century, which met in Stoll’s Alley and was dedicated to gathering gentlemen to debate intellectual issues of the day.
Most interesting of all names was the satirical Ugly Club, founded in the aftermath of the American Revolution by elite Charlestonians who met at the old Williams Tavern on Tradd Street to exchange eloquent and humorous insults. Their colorful salutation, read at the beginning of each meeting was :
“ Ugly mortals, hither haste, Enjoy our mirth, enjoy our feast,
Bring noses crooked, noses hooked,
Noses swollen, noses crooked,
But each must bring and homest heart,
Or bear this sentence – hence depart.

Changing Streetscapes

Charleston’s historic buildings retain much of their historic look and character, but the city’s streetscape has dramatically changed over the years. Going back to colonial times, streets were largely unpaved, and even with the advent of cobblestone and Belgian block, were rough rides for the carts, wagons and carriages that rumbled past in no particular order.
Early attempts to create some efficient traffic flow included an 1842 order by police captain James Duffus, stating that all drivers must use the right side of the road. In overlooking the fact that many illiterate slaves drove wagons, and would not be able to read the order, Capt. Duffus actually created more traffic confusion in truly living up to his unusual name.
Throughout the early days of Charleston, streets were plied by lamp lighters and ward foot patrols, vultures and wandering livestock were a common sight, street vendors pushed carts and carried baskets full of goods, and on curbs such as East Bay, slaves were displayed in open-air sales.
A dramatic change in the streets came in 1866, with the laying of the first trolley rails, and the hulking, train car-looking bodies would dominate traffic for nearly 70 years. Automobiles made their first appearance in the 1890’s, but were not common on the streets of Charleston until the 1910’s. The city had to create new ordinances to offset awkward confrontations between auto and wagon drivers. At first, hand signals and compass-direction right-of-way rules were implemented, but didn’t do much better than the efforts of poor Capt. Duffus. By the late 1920’s, the first stop signs were in place, followed by the traffic light.
Parking would soon become an issue, and on busy streets such as Broad where space was limited, autos were parked diagonally, with the trolley line running down the middle of the street. The 20th century would usher in the era of asphalt, and the old stone and brick surfaces largely disappeared. Trooleys gave way to buses in 1938, and as streets became busier, and cars larger, traffic was funneled down the first one-way streets in 1949.
Even with busier thoroughfares, street vendors continued to push carts by hand until the 1960’s, and as a boy, I remember the “shrimp man” and the “sugarcane man” coming down Legare Street on early mornings with hearty voices echoing their wares. At that time, a lone horse and buggy strode the streets with a then-tiny tourist contingent. Driven by John Waggoner, the old carriage was in many ways a transition from Charleston’s streets of long ago, and the busy tour trade that dominates them today.

Lovely Lepidopterans

Fall is a time of great color in Charleston, and much of it is provided by migrating butterflies. The famed Monarch, recognized by white speckles on the rims of its wings, is on its way south to Mexico, where it will hibernate for the winter before emerging to lay eggs next spring. Their delicate wings are a common sight along barrier islands, where they flutter through sand dunes to nip at nectar from wild flowers that bloom this time of year. Monarchs are the longest-living butterflies, surviving for many months, while most of these flying insects live only a matter of weeks after emerging from their caterpillar cocoons.
Other common migratory butterflies include the Gulf Fritillary, the Cloudless Sulfur and the Skipper. The fritillary is distinguished by its bright orange wings and is spotted easily in the historic district as it darts to and fro over bright blooms of lantana and plumbago, and gets its name for its fly-over patterns in the Gulf of Mexico. The sulfur is bright yellow, and may be the most common set of wings in local gardens. Skippers look much like moths, and with a more grayish hue of their wings are less visible than the brighter butterflies, and can be distinguished by moths by their club-like antennae.
All of these creatures are members of the family Lepidoptera, meaning “scaled wings”, and are cold-blooded and require sunlight for energy. What looks like a pair of wings are actually four, and are lined with veins that provide aerial power. The Monarch’s thick black veins are most noticeable. Butterflies eat by means of a long, hollow tongue called a probiscus, which pierces the flower petal and sucks up nutritious nectar.
Naturally, the increase in butterflies brings an increase in spiders looking for a flying meal, especially the large Argiope or Banana Spider that weaves massive webs as big as six feet wide on paths among the beach sand dunes. The butterfly numbers are so huge – in the tens of millions – that there’s plenty to feed the spiders and propagate the butterfly species.

Occupied Houses

During the Revolution, Charleston was captured by the British and occupied by English troops for two years, between 1780-82. Local families were ordered to house British officers, who also insisted upon social events in which the daughters of the city were compelled to attend and entertain. Three pre-Revolutionary houses in the South of Broad district have interesting stories involving those British officers’ interest in Charleston’s young ladies.
At 22 Legare Street, Charleston’s Elliott family was instructed to hold an event, and their young daughter Jane attended and attracted the attention of several English cavalry officers. Jane had fallen in love with an American officer, Col. William Washington, before the occupation, and was able to follow accounts of his battles with the British in the areas outside the city. Washington had famously defeated the English cavalry shortly before the social event at the battle of Eutaw Springs, where his cavalry charge caused the British to turn and run. When Ms. Elliott was approached by the English officers, she reminded them that she was engaged to Col. Washington. When one cavalryman dismissively said, “who’s he?, Jane answered by saying, “if you looked behind you during your retreat from Eutaw Springs, my fiance’ was the officer leading the charge that chased you off the field.” After that, no English officer bothered Jane Elliott again.
At the 1740’s house 2 Ladson Street, another legendary encounter took place between British officer Archibald Campbell and Charleston’s Margaret Philp. “Mad Archie”, as he was known, became so enchanted with Ms. Philp that he invited her for a carriage ride, then drove to the Goose Creek church, where he orderd the minister at gunpoint to perform a marriage ceremony. The marriage that began at gunpoint ended when a gunshot killed Campbell at the late stages of the war.
Campbell’s cousin, Lord William Campbell, fared better by actually getting a Charleston woman, Sarah Izard, to consent to marriage before the Revolution began. Campbell was appointed Royal Governor of South Carolina by King George III, and took his post in 1775, living in the house at 34 Meeting Street, which belonged to the Izard family. Lord William instantly antagonized the local sons of liberty by sending messages to the upstate to arouse loyalists. Fortunately for him, the 1760’s era house was built with a rear passageway that led to old Vanderhorst Creek (now Water Street), and it was through this back door that Lord William escaped in September, 1775, when it looked as though he might be hanged from the nearest tree.

Cobblestones

We cross several cobblestone surfaces during the tour, which once spread across more than ten miles of city streets. Cobblestones are lump-shaped rocks weathered by erosion, and should not be confused with cut stone surfaces known as Belgian Block. Cobblestones are not native to coastal South Carolina, but come from places such as New England, where sailing ships built during the colonial era needed heavy ballast in their hulls to keep them upright in strong winds.
The piles of cobblestones were an easy solution to the ballast needs, but took up space that could be used for cargo. So when ships came to old Charleston to load bales of cotton or barrels of rice, there ballast was often dumped on our wharves to make room for the weighty goods. The new stone was ideal for paving Charleston’s sandy muddy streets, and for building foundations for fortifications, and providing landfill for mudflats and marshes. By the 1720’s, Charleston customs officers were offering freedom from taxes and duties on goods in return for tons of ballast, and long stretches of street benefitted from the layers of stones.
In old pictures, it is hard to see some of the cobblestones buried in soil and sand, and it has been erroneously written that many of our streets were dirt up through the War Between the States. Cobblestones were and still are rough, however, and Belgian Block, vitrified brick, and creosote planks were also used to make some streets less teeth-chattering. By the end of World War I, many city streets had been paved in the new synthetic surface of asphalt, and the cobblestone streetscape was greatly diminished.
Only five driveable thoroughfares are paved in cobblestone today – Chalmers Street, Maiden Lane, South Adgers Wharf, North Adgers Wharf, and Gillon Street. There are some still scattered in place such as Longitude Lane and Philadelphia Alley, but in areas primarily for walking. Many cobblestones survive as pavement in private driveways, obviously “borrowed” over the years from the aging streets.

Families Ties

Each day on my tour, I typically show people the work of Sweetgrass basket weavers such as Betty Manigualt and Marilyn Dingle. Both Betty and Marilyn learned this ancient African weaving method as children, carrying on a long-standing tradition that has been handed down among local families for many generations. I have also been fortunate to have as friends the Wigfall family out in Six Mile, and have been invited on several occasions to document their interesting work in keeping this art work alive. The Wigfalls showed me how they gathered sweetgrass by hand in wetlands on Dewees Island, where they had to stoop over bundles of the wispy green plant and reach down into areas where cottonmouth moccasins often lurk. The key is to twist the bundles of sweetgrass above the roots and harvest it in a way that the plant can continue to grow. The grass has to be dried before weaving, and one of the more interesting methods that the Wigfalls used was to throw bundles up on a gable roof to dry in the sun without blowing away. We also cut some palmetto fronds and bull rush as well as picking up long leaf pine, all of which complement the sweetgrass in a typical basket.
I’ve learned from all the weavers that stitching all these materials together is a laborious process that take a great deal of patience and skill. I was particularly impressed that Betty and Marilyn learned to stitch as children using 10-penny nails and beef bones. Today, most weavers stitch with a broken fork or spoon handle that is filed down to a narrow point, and they still call the tool a “nailbone”, with the obvious reference to days when all their enslaved ancestors had to work with was a discarded nail or animal bone.
The Wigfall’s have a family Marilyn sets up along the sidewalk next to St. Michael’s church, where she weaves in front of passersby. She is a very good-natured person who has been weaving for 64 years, so I tell people on the tour that she started when she was two, which always gets a laugh out of her. Betty is also a very pleasant, engaging person who sets up in front of the Historic Charleston Foundation shop at 108 Meeting Street, where she weaves each day and sometimes includes her daughter and grand daughter. She always tells the tour group “come back and let’s make a deal!”
In buying sweetgrass baskets, it is a acceptable to barter, but people should remember that some of these creations are painstakingly done by hand stitch by stitch, and that some more elaborate baskets will take weeks to weave, working until hands get aching and weary. So I hope all will remember Betty, Marilyn, and the Wigfall family and that the sweetgrass tradition will remain in such good hands.

Ghost of the Whistling Doctor

Charleston is famous for stories of ghosts who supposedly haunt houses, graveyards and alleys. One of the most often-told tales is about the “Ghost of the Whistling Doctor” at 59 Church Street. After the Revolutionary War, upstairs rooms in this house were offered for rent, and a New England physician named Joseph Brown Ladd became a tenant. Dr. Ladd quickly became a recognized figure in Charleston, writing popular poetry for local publications under the pen name Arouet. The doctor was known as a pleasant individual who whistled as he walked to his office down the street, where his practice included free medical treatment for the poor from two hours each morning.
Doctor Ladd did not get along with everyone, however, and was embroiled in a heated personal dispute that ended in a deadly duel. On October 19th, 1786, a Charlestonian named Ralph Isaacs wrote a scathing public letter denouncing Dr. Ladd as a fraud and accusing him of assault with a pistol. Two days later, Ladd and Isaacs squared off with pistols behind the old barracks at the site of the present College of Charleston. Dr. Ladd was shot in both knees, which was a particularly cruel and vengeful thing for Isaacs to do. The doctor was carried back to his room at 59 Church Street, where he died of infection two weeks later.
In a story published shortly after his death, it was written that Dr. Ladd’s “soul serenely seems to soar”, and since then 59 Church Street is legendary as being haunted by Doctor Ladd’s ghostly whistling as he comes up and down the stairs and down the street. On a recent tour, a nice family from New Jersey took a picture of the house while I told the tale, and the interesting image appeared. I have always said that I know why the house is haunted. The plaque near its door tells the story, but has Dr. Ladd’s name wrong, and I think he’s just whistling in an attempt to get his name right when people pass by and read.

CHARLESTON EARTHQUAKE

The great Charleston earthquake of August 31st, 1886, was among the city’s most calamitous events, with a series of violent tremors that continued into November, killing at least 60 people, destroying or damaging thousands of buildings, and felt over 5 million square miles. Occurring before the Richter scale, geologists estimate the magnitude of the quake at 7.3, based on reports and pictures of damage.
Newspaper reports of the event mention what sounded like a massive locomotive running under ground, and giant fissures and sink holes appeared in the ground in many locations. Charleston had experienced earthquakes before and has since, but nothing has compared to the extensive damage that crumbled more than 10,000 chimneys and smashed historic buildings all over town.
The city Guard House at Broad and Meeting was so badly damaged that it was eventually razed and replaced by the Federal Post Office building that stands on the spot today. St. Michael’s Church was ripped with giant cracks in its walls and floors, and its steeple had been shaken so badly it was expected to collapse – but never did.
Open areas such as Washington Park filled up for weeks after the quake with frightened families rendered homeless by crumbling walls due to the shocks. Pulling mattresses, sheets and blankets into the public spaces that were safe from collapsing walls, Charlestonians carried on daily activites from these “tent cities”, which provided a business opportunity for my great grandfather, Paul E. Trouche, who was 19 at the time and started what would become a million-dollar retail business by selling sundry items such as handkerchiefs to those displaced in the parks.

Crescent is Gorget

South Carolina’s “palmetto flag” was officially made the state banner in 1861. The crescent and tree symbolize the defense of Charleston in 1776, shortly after independence had been declared from England. Troops wearing the crescent symbol on their caps built a fort of palmetto logs overlooking the city’s harbor entrance on Sullivan’s Island, and their famous victory over the British on June 28, 1776 was largely attributed to the soft palmetto core that absorbed and smothered English cannonballs.

 Although the crescent is recognized to be a symbol of the troops and not the moon, some disagreement persists as to its origin.

 From what I have found, there seems to be little doubt that it is the “gorget.” The motif was derived from the throat plate of the medieval knight in armor, and during the 18th century became popular with King George II as a military symbol worn around the necks of English officers. One of South Carolina’s staunch loyalists was William Bull, who was named Lt. Governor by King George in 1755, and who personally designed the uniforms of a newly-reorganized South Carolina militia in 1760, adding the gorget symbol to their caps.

  Bull’s own family crescent includes the gorget symbol and it was he who commissioned William Moultrie as an officer of the 2nd South Carolina regiment. Moultrie is credited with designing a crescent flag as a symbol of his troops in 1775, and he later wrote that it conformed to the crescent symbol worn on their caps.

 This chain of evidence far outweighs anything that can be offered in opposition to this theory, and why I firmly stand by the research that proves the crescent comes from the gorget. Some confusion has been caused by the fact that the crescent on the state flag was tilted in the 1890’s to resemble the moon. Fortunately, one of the original flgas (and perhaps THE original state flag) still exists from the 1860’s. This large banner features a crescent straight up and down in the manner of the gorget. Ironically, this flag was stolen from the state capitol in Columbia in 1865 by Iowa troops under Sherman, who burned and ransacked that city. It is still kept at the Historical Society of Iowa, which should be willing to give back the property of a sister state (after all Iowa, wasn’t the Union “preserved” by those troops?) Thus far, no offering from Iowa, so the old flag remains in limbo.

Bull Family Crest1860's Flag

Pineapple Gates actually Finials

Finial detail
Pineaple Gates

 The statuesque brick single-house at 14 Legare Street is famously known for the its unusual “Pineapple” gates. Unlike the Sword Gates up the street, the namesake motif is not in swinging parts of the structure, but atop the brick frame from which the gates are hung. The main gates and two side gates are made of oak, and date to the early 1800’s when the house was built by James Simmons. He sold the house in 1815 to George Edwards, a wealthy shipping merchant who imported, among others goods, a hugely-popular novelty of the post-Revolutionary period called pineapple cheese.

    Pineapples had been become symbolic of gracious hospitality since the 1670’s, when King Charles II famously posed for a painting in which he was presented a luscious fruit borne from America. In the years  that followed, pineapple motifs appeared in wood and stone on exterior walls as a show of such hospitality. Edwards commissioned an Italian sculptor from Philadelphia to carve four stone finials his gates, which were added along with Edwards initials. Presumably Edwards asked for pineapples, which would have been the most logical motif, and in keeping with other pineapple shapes on walls and gates around old Charleston.

  Yet a close look at the so-called Pineapple Gates reveals no pineapples, but what look more like four peeled Brussels sprouts. Some writers have suggested over the years that what Edwards called for are Italian acorns, but pictures of Italian acorns look nothing like these. No, it’s safe to say that Edwards meant to get pineapples, but that his sculptor took artistic license in creating the look. It really doesn’t matter that they don’t resemble pineapples, because the “Pineapple Gates” is a misnomer anyway, as they should be more correctly called “The Pineapple Finials”.