One of Charleston’s nicknames from long ago was the “Madeira City”, referring to the inclination of residents to pull a cork. Archeological digs at various locations around the old city have verified that indeed the liver was an overworked organ, as artifacts often have included a wealth of wine and liquor receptacles. Among the prominent citizens known for an astounding drinking capacity was “two-bottle” John Rutledge, who found time between cocktails to preside twice as Governor of South Carolina, sign the Constitution, and be appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Much of the political discourse of the colonial period was hashed out in the convivial atmosphere of private parlors, where it was a common practice for elite barristers and administrators to gather late in the afternoon and imbibe until the wee hours.
Charleston is one of the few cities able to boast that it thwarted two different Prohibition periods. During South Carolina’s Dispensary era from 1893-1907, liquor was lawfully sold only from state-approved locations in official bottles. Charleston’s answer was the “Blind Tiger”, in which patrons supposedly were paying to see an exotic animal show at a place of business that sold bootleg drinks in back rooms. During the federal Volstead Act of 1919-1933, Charleston wharves did a brisk trade in homemade hooch disguised in fishing and vegetable boats. The greatest testimonial to Charleston’s boozing determination can be found under police reports in early 1900’s city directories, in which thousands of gallons were confiscated by patrols and supposedly dumped down drains at the old Hutson Street station. The police captain who signed these reports was named Duffus, and anyone who believes the stuff was all disposed of is entitled to that name as well.
In defense of the drinking legacy, Charleston’s water supply was suspect for most of its history. There was no sewer system until the 1890’s, and the thousands of outhouse “privies” were constantly leeching pollution into the soil and water table. Cholera and typhoid fever were deadly water-borne diseases very common to the city, so pulling a cork was not only enjoyable, but often healthier as well. Today, we happily carry on the chuggling tradition – but only for the sake of history and our health, of course.
Many strollers notice the small lane off Meeting Street between Tradd Street and St. Michael’s Alley with the name Ropemakers. It actually was the site of Charles Snetter’s Rope Manufactory from the 1790’s until 1803. In the era before industrialization and steam power, rope was made by hand along long such “rope walks”. Workers would push an apparatus on wheels that would “lap” the long lengths of hemp and fiber, twisting strands into thick sections of ship rope or fishing net. In this method, the stress on the rope was dispersed evely among the twisted mass of strands, and to create length an mass suitable for hauling sails or ocking ships, workers would walk the equivalent of six or seven miles a day up and down the narrow lane. Much of the raw material used in the colonial period was hemp from the cannabis plant, which is better known as marijuana, and the same stuff they were working on Snetter’s walk was beig smoked in pipes at local taverns. The practice of making rope in this manner faded with steam-powered mechanisms that could do the work faster an more efficiently. Snetter did not live to see the day that his rope work would be made obsolete, and although he died in 1803, Charleston has “knot” forgotten him.
Among the distinctive sounds so fasmiliar to historic Charleston is the short, sharp squeak made by pressing thumbs along stretching palmetto fronds, as sweetgrass basket makers knit creative designs as they have for centuries. Waeving cominations of the aromatic sweetgrass with colorful patterns supplied by bull rush and long-leaf pine requires a binding stitch, and the tradtional binder is the flat, long leaf of the palmetto. Lowcountry families have carried on this ancient art whose genesis was in West Africa, and generations of descendants work meticulously on single baskets for hours, even days, to keep this cultural connection alive. What was once a functional creation meant for holding goods and food is mostly decorative today, but the common thread of ancestral history makes sweetgrass basket weaving much more important than just pleasing the eye. Sweetgrass baskets will never be mass produced, and are one of the most original and timeless forms of South Carolina art work. There is a great deal of skill and affection that goes into each basket, and each new weaving echoes with the sounds of an honored past.