February is a great month for those planning trips and visits to scenic, historic #Charleston, SC. The weather is generally clear and brisk, but not too cold; there is little waiting time to get stable at most of the city’s fine restaurants; hotels generally offer lower rates and have a larger assortment of available rooms; and, the streets are quiet and uncrowded offering great views of classic architecture and gardens that offer some of the most interesting blooms this time of year. One of the most storied plants showing its radiant color in the winter is our state flower, Yellow Jessamine. With its waxy yellow blooms cascading down woody vines that decorate wonderful gates and stately walls, the Yellow Jessamine offers a delightful accent to a remarkably beautiful city. The scientific name for the flower is Gelsemium Sempervirens, which means “always green”, and one of its interesting nicknames is “poor man’s rope”. The plant is native to other parts of the world as well, and in ancient times, its tough twisting vine was used to spin into rope. The colorful petals attract a variety of wildlife, from hummingbirds to butterflies, but its nectar is toxic to humans, so I recommend to tourists and those wandering the city on my walking tours to enjoy it with the eye instead of the hand.<img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Unitarian Church”
One of the often-overlooked aspects of #Charleston is the cities extensive social history, and by that I mean social clubs and gatherings. As I tell visitors to the city on my walking tours, Charlestonians have always been very inclined to social events, and have created a wealth of organizations for that purpose. The oldest social group in the city is the St. Andrews Society, founded back in 1729, and although largely a gathering for pleasantries today, like most of these groups, there is a philanthropic purpose. Many historic Charleston societies have charitable functions that are meant to better the community, and some offer stipends and scholarships to the needy and the deserving throughout the city. But the central purpose of each group is for gathering and convivial exchange, and historically whether it was the intellectual pursuits of the Philomathean Society, the musical interests of the Arion Society, or the help offered those of African descent by the Brown Fellowship Society, the pleasantries were always foremost in each meeting agenda. Some of the old societies dies out over the years, and one in particular, the Ugly Club, I would like to see reincarnated. It was purely for fun that 18th century Charleston gentlemen met in this society, with the idea of having laughs with self-deprecating humor. I came across an old poem that was read at each meeting, and although I have edited it somewhat, you will get the drift.
our rumpled hairs and chins that double
flank winged ears and veins that bubble,
with wrinkled necks and pockmarked faces
the fairer sex would nigh embrace us,
our sagging jowls and bulbous lashes
meet with howls in looking glasses,
there is no boasting visage in tatters,
but ugly we toast friendship that matters
We have a sub-tropical climate here in #Charleston that is quite warm and humid in parts of the year, but we can also have snow and hard freezes in other months. I am often asked on the walking tours about the climate in Charleston and about climate change. I have no ideological position one way or another on the subject of climate change, and I look at it very objectively, but there is one very noticeable study done in Charleston by scientists centuries ago that offers some startling information that contradicts the commonly held belief that we are getting much warmer. Two Scottish-born scientists, John Lining and Lionel Chalmers published extensive studies about Charleston’s climate which can be read in entirety on line under the title “An account of the weather and diseases in South Carolina”. The two men measured temperatures for the 10-year period between 1750-59, measuring thermometers every day, every week, every season, day and night. They concluded, as you can see in the table below, that the average temperature for that period was 66.3 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature for Charleston in 2019 was 65.85 degrees. Of course climate does change, and the entire Charleston area was a sea bed 40 million years ago, and may well be again. But Lining and Chalmers’ study does offer an intriguing perspective.
One of the enduring pleasures of Winter in #Charleston is the sight of camellias blooming in an assortment of reds, whites and pinks. We pass numerous private gardens on my walking tours of the historic city, and visitors are typically very impressed with the beauty of this wonderful flower. The version of the plant in bloom now is the Camellia Japonica, which, as the name suggests, is a plant native to Asia. There is no certainty as to when the Camellia Japonica was introduced to the Charleston area, but there is proof that French botanist Andre Michaux brought the plant as a formal gift to Middleton Plantation in 1786. Michael was the royal gardener of King Louis XVI, and was sent to America in 1785 to help develop better relations between France and the newly independent America colonies. He moved to Charleston, where hew created an 110-acre botanical garden just outside the city, and introduced Charlestonians to colorful blooms that he had gathered in extensive travels around the world. <img.src=”Charleston Gardens” alt=”Camellia Japonica”
One of the great things about historic #Charleston, SC is that the city is so safe after dark. I often encourage visitors on my walking tours who are looking for things to do in the evening to take a stroll down some of the streets of the older city and enjoy the light show at place such as First Scots Presbyterian Church pictured below. Night lights are a long tradition in Charleston, dating back to the first street lamps in the 1700’s lit by hand with burning wicks. By 1846, wick-lit lamps gave way to gas lamps, as the city burned coal and piped the coal gas underground to ignite lamps after dark. The first electric lighting came at the turn of the 20th century, and one of the most memorable displays at the international Charleston Expo in 1901 was a landscape lit by Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulbs. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Night lighting”
I often get questions by guest on my walking tours about some of the discoloration in the stucco walls of historic buildings here in Charleston. Stucco is a mixture of sand and calcium hydroxide, the latter substance being essentially salt. This allows the stucco to breathe so as not to trap moisture under the wall surface, but can cause problems if there are cracks in the stucco. Exposed crystals of calcium hydroxide will either rect with carbon dioxide from the outside air or dissolve with intruding rain water to form calcium carbonate that creates a discoloration usually in the form of patches and streaks – what is known as efflorescence. Calcium carbonate is not soluble in water, so it will not contribute to any further damage, but just give the stucco exterior a mottled look as in the image below of the old Charleston District Jail. In this case, the salt and sand stucco having worn off over the years has allowed the efflorescence to intrude.
When I lead guests on my walking tours, I try to emphasize the visual detail of historic buildings in #Charleston as a clue to either how old they are or what they were used for. And with so much detail in some of the older buildings, sometimes obvious things go unnoticed, such as the differing types of windows. As Charleston was growing in the 1700’s, the double-hung window became a very popular way of lighting up a structure. But because glass at that time what still made by hand, window panes could not be made with any great size or strength, and it was the structure of the muntins that held the glass that gave a window its durability and look. A dead give-away of a pre-1800 structure are the 9 over 9(pane) and 12 over 12 windows, such as this 18th century house on Broad Street. It wasn’t until the advent of rolled glass panes by the 1820’s that bigger and stronger panes emerged, and led to larger windows that were often built floor-to-ceiling to add significantly more light. So I recommend to anyone touring Charleston, observe the number of window panes, and you will likely know from what era the house originates. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Nine Over Nine Windows”
One of the classic images each Christmas is the decorative red glow of the Poinsettia, named for #Charleston native Joel Roberts Poinsett. Poinsett, who was well-educated and multi-lingual, was a diplomat by trade who served under several presidents as envoy or ambassador to foreign countries such as Russia, Chile and Mexico. He was also an avid botanist, and at his home in Charleston, he cultivated a variety of plants and trees in what became known as Poinsett’s Grove. While serving as ambassador to Mexico in the 1820’s, he became infatuated with the fiery-colored plant known scientifically as euphorbia pulcherrima, and brought samples back to cultivate in Charleston. The plant was eventually named for Poinsett, and is widely-used as a Christmas decoration today. One other lesser-known Christmas contribution from Poinsett was the fact that he almost single-handedly prevented an American Civil War in December of 1832, when South Carolina was threatening to nullify federal tariffs. It seemed that the state and the Federal government were headed for a military conflict until Poinsett used his connections with the nullifiers and President Andrew Jackson to help create a compromise. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”The Poinsettia”
People who visit our historic and scenic city often enjoy wandering through narrow alleys and passageways, of which there are several that we see along my walking tours of #Charleston. Among these are Stoll’s Alley, Four Post Alley and the “close” leading from Ropemaker’s Lane to Church Street (pictured here). What is interesting about them, besides their picturesque charm, is that all were initially private property that the public used frequently to walk from one area to another. South Carolina, like many states, has a unique law that states if the public uses a passageway on a regular basis for more than a year without that passage being locked, that it becomes public property. Stoll’s Alley is such a case, and this former private passageway is now public. But at Four Post Alley and the close at Ropermaker’s Lane, owners still lock the gate once each year to keep it in private hands. What is so ironic about locking the gate pictured is that pedestrians can simply walk around it and down the close, yet the formality of locking the gate technically assures it remains private. <img.src=”Charleston Alleys” alt=”Locked Passageways”
In a few areas such as Stoll’s Alley and lower Church Street, visitors can still find brick street paving that once stretched for miles around historic #Charleston. As I feel guest on my walking tours, there was an abundance of brick manufactured in Charleston historically, but there was also much that was shipped here from other brick manufacturers around the country and world. The quality of brick depended largely on its underground origins and the methods used to fire it in hot kilns to create a sturdy mass of material. To that extent there were areas in the country that had superior raw materials and manufacturing methods, such as the Katterskill Brick Paving Company in Catskill, New York. The company specialized in waterproof “vitrified brick” made from shale, and in 1908-1909 the city of Charleston purchased tons of Catskill brick and used it to pave extensively. The city acknowledged that the brick from New York was superior, but just to make sure, purchased what were known as “rattlers” to test the strength of the brick by tumbling them in cages with hard pieces of iron. Obviously, the “rattling” proved the affirmative, as these bricks have held up under cars and trucks for more than a century. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”brick paved streets”