Obscuring Origins

There has been considerable effort in recent decades to rewrite History in order to make perceptions of the past fit certain ideologies of the present, and that is something I will gladly contest for the sake of the integrity and honesty of historic interpretation. One of the numerous canards I have found is the reference to the architectural feature, the cupola, as being of Moorish or Berber origins, supposedly introduced by Islamic builders to Europe in the 8th century. The term cupola comes from the Italian word meaning “dome”, and the domes of ancient Rome, such as the famous Pantheon, can be traced much further back in the past than the 8th century, and long before Islam even existed. I will give history credit where it is due regardless of politics or religion, but I will also call out something that is demonstrably wrong. I still hear tourists being told that the historic architecture of Charleston was based on the West Indies and Barbados, and that steeples and cupolas were ideas all borrowed by Europeans by someone else. That is simply not true. We are undeniably a very European city in the style of our buildings, and anyone can find much more similarity to our architecture in Europe than anywhere else.

Moss Mystery

I have had many visitors to #Charleston on my walking tours who ask about the “Spanish Moss”, wondering why so many live oaks in the older part of the city do not have any of it hanging from their limbs. The truth is, even arborists are not exactly certain why the draping gray moss has disappeared from some of the live oaks on which they are traditionally found. To explain my theory, first let me point out that “Spanish Moss” is not moss at all, but a flowering angiosperm whose real name is Tillandsia Usneoides. The plant is an epiphyte, meaning that it uses other plants as platforms to absorb its nutrients, mostly out of the air. The crevices of the live oaks do hold moisture that the plant needs, and I believe that it is the concentration of emissions in the older part of the city that has settled into these crevices, causing it to evacuate or die. Farther up the Charleston peninsula in places such as where this picture was taken near Ashley Avenue, there are not as many delivery trucks and leaf blowers polluting the air, and there is a wealth of the plant on live oaks. Still, no one knows for sure. <img.src=”Charleston Trees” alt=”Spanish Moss”

Ruin Reminder

I am often asked on my tours of Charleston whether Northern troops under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman burned any of Charleston. Fortunately, Charleston was spared from Sherman’s destructive methods largely due to the fact that his army moved toward the middle of the state to destroy Southern railways in Columbia. But there should be no doubt as to what Sherman and his troops did. He was ordered by Lincoln’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Henry Halleck, to “lay waste to South Carolina”, and he certainly did. Nothing in Sherman’s path was safe, whether private homes, slave quarters, or in the case of the picture below, Old Sheldon Church near Beaufort, which was torched in February of 1865. Ironically, the church had been rebuilt after the Revolution, when the first structure on the site was burned by British troops during the American Revolution in 1779. Today, the old ruins stand quietly, surrounded by forest and faded grave stones. There is an Easter service held inside the ruin each year, but otherwise it remains as a reminder of the realities of war, and how much of the suffering is traditionally among non-combatants. <img.src=”Charleston Civil War history” alt=”Old Sheldon Church”

Critter Creativity

The second full weekend in February marks the beginning of the three-day Southeastern Wildlife Exposition here in #Charleston. This international arts festival features wildlife artists from all over the world, who bring displays of fascinating paintings, drawings, carvings, and sculpture to a variety of venues throughout the scenic city. There are also live displays of hunting dog skills and conservation efforts from groups such as the Center for Brids of Prey, dazzling the crowd with flights of hawks and eagles that were rehabilitated from injuries or sickness. Charlestonians have always had a love of animals and a great interest in events that featured them, such as the old days of the Cole Brothers circus that would come to Charleston each year, including the day nearly a century ago in the picture below, where featured elephants paraded up Meeting Street prior to the event.  <img.src=”Charleston Wildlife” alt=”Wildlife in Charleston”

Postal Posture

Visitors to historic #Charleston often remark about the colorful letter boxes that grace the city, where the tradition of leaving outgoing envelopes dangling from the mail slit is still very popular even in this age of e-mail. The first boxes for home mail delivery did not appear until the 20th century. In the early days of the colonial city and continuing well in the 1800’s, local newspapers would publish lists of letters addressed to Charleston people, who would then be obligated to go to differing postal locations to retrieve letters and packages. The early “post offices” where typically taverns and newspaper offices, such as Shepheard’s Tavern and The Charleston Gazette office, both on Broad Street. Postage stamps did not appear until the 1850’s, an before that, postage was calculated by weight and distance traveled. But stamps did play a big role in Charleston in 1765, when the British Parliament passed a law requiring that stamps be affixed to any paper product sold in America, including playing cards. Stamps were sent in huge numbers to each of the 13 colonies for distribution by stamp royally-appointed stamp inspectors from postal offices, causing a great outrage over the lack of representation in this new form of taxation. Here in Charleston, people learned that the incoming inspector, George Saxby, would be living on Tradd Street near a shop used for posting letters, and the assumption was that location was where the stamps were coming. A raucous crowd ransacked the residence and the shop in October, 1765, although neither Saxby nor the stamps had actually arrived yet by ship. The Stamp Act was summarily repealed and the two buildings on Tradd restored, and stand there now. But it is a fitting reminder of a time when Charleston “went postal”. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Postal History”

Terrific Tour

I encourage those visiting historic #Charleston to consider joining one of my walking tours. My tour is rated number one in the city by Trip Advisor and has a 5-star rating on Google with far more excellent reviews than any other walking tour in Charleston. I am a 7th-generation native Charlestonian whose family has been in the city since the 18th century, and I grew up in the famous South of Broad area and have lived in Charleston all of my life. I work very hard to make my tour appealing to a broad spectrum of backgrounds and interests. I have written two books about Charleston and have extensive knowledge of the city’s architecture, history, plants and trees, ironwork, cultural background, legends, burial grounds, climate history and geography, coastal species and biology, and lots of great stories that most other guides do not know. For those who take my tour, and I can offer detailed explanations of historic building methods, materials and styles, whether its the function of a clay pantile roof, the symbolism of a Greek triglyph, or the intricate properties of wrought iron. I have a Master’s degree in History, and I can give documented accounts of such aspects as the slave badge and hiring system, the Nullification crisis, the private fire brigades, the significant women and men who shaped the city, and the methods and armaments of the Revolution and Civil War. I know the intricacies of applying historic stucco, weaving of sweetgrass baskets, forging iron, pressing brick, turning wood, carving stone and blowing glass. I include the very human nature of the city with details on harvesting fish and food, regional linguistics, ordeals of the enslaved, societal traditions, historic garments, food and drink, and a wealth of local legends. My tour is a two-hour walk through the most scenic and historic parts of the old city, at a pace that is comfortable for all ages. I mix facts with fun along the way, and offer a variety of colorful tales and reminiscences that give the tour a character unlike any other. Please come and join me. <img.src=”Charleston Walking Tour” alt=”Charleston Footprints Walking Tours”

Jessamine Joy

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”

Convivial Congregations

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


Consistent Climate

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.

Compelling Camellia

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”