Going Postal at Old Exchange

The Old Exchange Museum is a spectacular introduction to Charleston’s past, and once was the first building in full view for sailing ships entering the harbor. The property was originally on the waterfront, and included a tactically-important part of the original city wall called the Crescent Moon battery. By the early 1700’s a guard house was plced on the spot, and here dozens of pirates held prisoner in 1718, including the famed “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, who was hanged the same year. Replacing the guard house in 1767 was as a Custom House finished in 1771, featuring exquisite Palladian details in its Neoclassical structure. Built on a raised basement that included a storage area for incoming goods, the building offered a merchants floor as well as offices for customs officials on the second tier. The Exchange was commandeered by occupying British troops in 1780, who used its basement as a jail for American patriots who included two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Heyward Jr. and Edward Rutledge.
After the Revolution, the Exchange building was sold to the U.S. government and became Charleston’s main Post Office until 1896. During the Civil War, Federal troops were firing at the building with long range guns from Morris Island during the siege of Charleston, and because they were technically shooting at their own property, this is the first case in history of someone “going postal.”
In the early 20th century, the building was saved from demolition by the Daughters of the Revolution, and today it is a city museum. When archeological work was being done on and around the building in the 1970’s, oyster shells were found in the spaces between the upper floors. Had the tide risen that high at one time? No, these were just the remnants of the builders’ lunch in the 1760’s.

Stinkweed and other odd plants

Charleston has always been a natural garden, and some of the plants that have grown here or were introduced from other areas have some peculiar nicknames and histories. The “popcorn tree” is very common, a nickname for the Chinsese Tallow tree. It’s berries are waxy-colored and look like popcorn and thus the name. They were once used for making candles, but today the berries are commonly woven into sweetgrass baskets by the weavers along city sidewalks. The “cast iron plant” is the nickname for another Asian species, the Aspidistra. This wide-leafed plant grows well in sunless areas and with little water and thus the monicker that suggests it will survive anything. “Stinkweed” was perhaps the most colorful name for a Charleston bush, referring to the odiferous Jimson Weed that was once found growing wild on the Charleston peninsula. The Jimson Weed is toxic to animals, and an city ordinance passed in the 18th century required people to remove it from their property.

Well, Wells

For the initial settlers of the Charleston area, finding fresh water was easy – all you had to do was dig, and not very deep. The peninsula lies atop a 18-20 foot strata of sandy soil that underneath has bed of hardened clay marl impervious to water, and soaking rains fill this strata enough that a twelve-foot well should provide plenty of water. A water problem emerged with population growth and pollution, as wells on adjacent lots competed for the same water, while outhouses drains dumped harmful bacteria into the water system.
By the 1820’s steam technology and improved digging implements allowed for probing through the marl into the ancient aquifers deep in the substrata of the coastal plain. There, tons of water flows daily, creating enough pressure to create springs where the layers of subterranean rock come closest to the earth’s surface.
The initial artesian wells, drilled to 300-500 feet, had little success, but by 1880, a series of wells stretching as far as 1700 feet produced millions of gallons of water. The pressure from the flowing depths were strong enough to fill receiving reservoirs and twelve miles of street mains with 165 hydrants by 1881. Tests done by Charleston health officials on the chemical make-up of the water in the 1880’s proved that the underground water was cleaner than rain water, and the artesian wells on Calhoun and Wentworth street were a regular filling station for Charlestonians until Hurricane Hugo damaged the wells in 1989.
One of the fascinating things that Charelstonians learned from the ever-flowing water, was that it varied in strength according to tides. Many of the artesian springs bubble up under the sea, and when the tides are high the pressure on top of the springs holds back the flow, so that it moves faster through other openings, and vice versa.

Architectural Illusion

The beauty of Charleston can offer a challenge to the eye of the beholder in some of the city’s most historic landmarks. A number of the grand facades on the peninsula, such as the 1825 portico at South Carolina Society Hall, feature an ancient architectural illusion called entasis.
This barely-noticeable feature entails a tapering decrease in circumference of portico columns at from bottom to top. It was first used by ancient Greeks to on their towering temples to compensate for a linear distance in perception that naturally tricks the eye. If columns are the same breadth all the way up, the width ratio appears concave from eye-level, and the solution is to reverse the image by making the column convex.
The word entasis comes from Greek, meaning “to stretch tight”. The concept was perpetrated in the designs of Andrea Palladio, whose work inspired the Classic, Roman and Greek architecture that is evident throughout Charleston today. Even the Rolls Royce company got in the entasis act by the 20th century, adding the illusion to grills on the front of its cars to give the frame a more substantial look.
Most of the larger columns on Charleston’s historic buildings are made of brick, and covered with stucco, offering bricklayers a challenge in building courses and bonding with a taper that nevertheless had to hold up massive pediments. Several, such as the columns of Hibernian Hall, had to be rebuilt after the earthquake of 1886.
Entasis is not the only optical illusion in Charleston’s columns. The intentional pitch in side porch “piazzas” that allows water to run off also creates the illusion that many houses are leaning. A great example is the 18th century house at 17 Meeting Street at the corner of Lamboll East. The high, narrow single-house style also features a three-story piazza, and the combination of pitched floors and narrow height makes the house look as if it is leaning to the North.

Stained Glass Glory

The sanctuary of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is open on most weekdays, and well worth visiting for the sake of the incredible stained-glass windows alone. The four stained glass windows were all done by the famous Tiffany Company of New York. Behind the altar, the image of St. Michael slaying the devil, a likeness of Raphael’s famous painting in the Louvre, was done in 1893. Also on the East wall is Easter Morning, done in 1897. On the North wall, The Annunciation window was created in 1897, and on the South wall, the 1915 Tiffany is in the style of Art Nouveau.
The most striking aspect of the windows is the color, made possible by a technique that Louis Comfort Tiffany perfected, called opalescence. He discovered in the late 19th century that he could add silica (opals) to molten glass by mixing in melted jelly and candy jars, whose chemical makeup allowed for diffraction of light in various angles and waves that intensified the color in the glass. Previously, stained-glass was highlighted by painting the panes, but Tiffany’s concept made this obsolete. The color is remarkable in the paintings, and with the diffraction that comes from any exterior light source, makes the vividness truly awesome.
Interestingly, both the Annunciation and Art Nouveau windows were once doors, leading to a central crossing aisle that led from Broad Street to the churchyard to the South. The changing sun position during the day gives each window a greater radiance when the diffracted rays of light shine through, which is even more remarkable considering that storm windows have been added to protect the glass, and certainly affects the intensity of the light.

SC Constitution Signers

Of the four South Carolinians who signed the Constitution, three are buried in famous Charleston church yards. Charles Pinckney, who is buried in eastern churchyard at St. Philip’s Episcopal, was the youngest South Carolina signer at age 29, but is considered to be one of the most influential in the final wording of the Constitution document. His version of Congressional representation included the tabulation of slaves, and Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution famously bases representation on each state’s number of free persons, indentured servants, Indians who paid taxes, and three-fifths of the number of slaves.
Charles’ cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, is buried at St. Michael’s churchyard near a third signer, John Rutledge. Charles C. was a son of the famous Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who perfected the processing of indigo, which brought great wealth to Charleston in the 1740’s and 1750’s. Charles C’s career included being an officer during the Revolution and a diplomat thereafter, crafting compromises that created the Federal tariff system in 1789 and ended the international slave trade in 1808. He was most noted as minister under president John Adams, and responding to threats of war and demands for brides by Napoleon’s ministers by saying “millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.”
John Rutledge, who like Charles C. lived and studied in England during his early life, was nonetheless the most resolute of the signers in his determination to break from British rule. Rutledge was elected the first and only President of South Carolina after the province declared independecce from England in March of 1776. When an English fleet was sent to Charleston to crush the revolution, Military asked for him to order retreat from the tiny fort defending the city on Sullivan’s Island. In reply, Rutledge wrote that he would rather cut off his hand than sign such and order, and the fort and Charleston were saved.
Pierce Butler is the least well-known of the four signers and the only one who was not America born or buried in Charleston today. Butler was Irish, and actually came to America as a British officer. This is an interesting note for those who dismiss Confederates as traitors, but call fighters in the Revolution patriots. Butler was also an owner of hundreds of slaves and argued for slavery to be protected by the Constitution. Butler was one of a small number of American officers who avoided capture when the British seized Charleston in 1780, and joined ranks with other famous partisan fighters such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter, who eventually drove the English army out of South Carolina. Butler died in Philadelphia and is buried in the city’s Christ Episcopal Church graveyard.

Charleston Dialects

I often have guests from other parts of the country who are surprised that I don’t speak like Forrest Gump, and tell me, “Southerners speak with a drawl”. To that I respond that the South is comprised of 11 states covering more than 1 million square miles, and that people from west Texas, for example, have no more common lingual traits with Charlestonians than they do with folks from Wisconsin. As for the drawl, that kind of speaking is more common to southern Indiana than Charleston, so it really isn’t so much Southern as it is country (take Larry Bird for instance). And by the way, Tom Hanks’ accent in Forrest Gump was a far-fetched rendition – Hanks is a Californian who obviously hasn’t been around many Southerners. I’ve also thought it interesting that people talk about Southern accents as unusual, but not “Northern accents”. To my ear, there are very pronounced accents from other regions as well.
Charlestonians do not drawl, but we do have distinguishable dialects that set us apart. We have a very diverse mix of language backgrounds with various European and African influences, and many areas that were so isolated for so long that certain dialects became even more unique. To my ear, there are three basic dialects that are spoken by old Charleston families. There is the “Tidewater accent” of those like me whose English was spoken among the more aristocratic families (not mine, we were a family of French artists and teachers who learned to speak this way from associating with the “blue bloods” when we emigrated here). This dialect sounds to many people like the English spoken in Canada, with pronounced emphasis on words such as “house” and “about”, and earlier generations still added a “y” sound to certain words such as “cyar” for an automobile and “gyarden” for the place you grow flowers.
Another common dialect was a brogue that came from the large Scottish, Irish and north country English who settled here. Their way of speaking sounds very much like what you might here in Donegal or Edinborough, as they give many words a double-syllable or compress the vowel sounds. The word “gate” sounds more like “gehyet”, “boat” like “bowat” and “door” like “dowah”. Vowels are compressed as “line” sounds like “loyn”, “fish” like “fush” and “to” like “toe”.
The most unusual Charleston-area dialect is Gullah, a name that has a questionable origin but most likely comes from the Gola tribe of West Africa. Large numbers of West Africans were brought to coastal islands as slaves, where they learned English by mimicking overseers. Over the years in these remote places with little English-speaking influence, Gullah transformed into what many consider a language of its own.
It is distinguished by metaphorical phrases such as “ee foot in ee han’”, meaning “his foot is in his hand” referring to the image of a rabbit running so fast that his back foot seems to rest in his front paw. This term simply means “he’s fast”. Gullah words include African terms such as “yam” and “gumbo”, but most of it is a pigeon-English as words were corrupted by sound, and terms such as “you are” became “onna”, “there” became “de-dey”, “yent” became “are not” and certain “th” and “r” sounds were dropped altogether.
Perhaps the best way to explain how Gullah sounds is the great story told by the late Dick Reeves, who made his life’s work the preservation of Gullah. He told the tale of a man from up North who came South looking for a place to hunt deer and came across a Gullah-speaking man, and asked him if deer were in the vicinity to hunt. The Gullah-speaker shook his head knowing well how deer were never around when you wanted them to be, and only showed when you didn’t want them, so he replied by saying, “No suh, wen onna de-dey, de deh de no deh deh, but onna yent deh, de deh, den dey deh.”
Simply translated, this means, “no sir, when you’re there, the deer are not there, but when you’re not there, the deer, then they’re there.”

Castle Pinckney

Castle Pinckney is a much more visible site in Charleston Harbor today, thanks to recent trimming of trees and weeds that had obscured the curious foritification for many years. The original 1808 design was created by Col. Jonathan Williams, who was Chief Superintendent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under president Thomas Jefferson. Williams planned a series of twin-tiered, elliptical fortresses in a castle-like look to guard the Atlantic coast. Two other castle fortresses were built in New York Harbor, with the Charleston version named after Constitution signer Charleston Cotesworth Pinckney.
Castle Pinckney was built on a spit of land called Shutes Folly, located inside the harbor. It’s position so close to the Charleston peninsula quickly made the fort obsolete, as more the powerful cannons of the 1820’s made it necessary to build a fort more distant from the city to keep ships at bay, and thus Fort Sumter was conceived. The only shots fired from Castle Pinckney were military salutes during garrison duty in the early 19th century. Still a U.S. installation in 1860, Castle Pinckney was seized by seceding South Carolinians, and was manned with guns during the Civil War. The only significant use it served during that conflict was as a holding area for Union prisoners in the early days of the war before Confederate prison camps were created. In the summer of 1861 after the first battle of Manassas, Union “Zoave” captives from New York were held at Castle Pinckney, which had barracks decorated with signs that read “Hotel de Zoave” and “Musical Hall 444 Broadway.”
The fort was decommissioned as a military location after the Civil War and served as a harbor channel lighthouse and day marker until 1951, when it was manned by abandoned. Today, the tiny old castle is sunken into surrounding mud, but at least one Dahlgren cannon from the Civil War lies buried within. The property was recently deeded to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who have cleaned up year so neglect, and plan to erect a flagpole to display the Second National flag of the Confederacy, the “Stainless Banner” in 2012.

Why Windows Wavy?

I am often asked why the old panes of glass on Charleston’s historic buildings have a ripple or wavy texture. The answer comes from the old methods of making window panes. Prior to the 1830’s, glass was made by hand, as individual artisans created windows with a simple, rustic process. The basic ingredients of soda and lime were baked into a molten mass called a “crown”, which was then attached to a metal pole called a pontil. The pontil was mounted on hand-powered gears to spin the molten mass at high speeds, spreading the still-liquid glass by centrifugal force into wide, thin circles that were cooled and cut into individual panes. This became universally-known as Crown Glass.
The spinning motion itself created the wavy ripple that characterized old glass, and also made certain imperfections. Where the spinning began at the pontil attachment had larger ripples and became known as the “bulls eye”. Air pockets were common as the shape of the molten glass change with exposure to sudden cooling. Both the bulls eye and air pockets were still cut into functional panes, typically mounted in lesser-viewed windows. One such window is on the North side of St. Michael’s church, where the imperfect panes are clearly visible.
Another limitation of the old Crown glass-making was that the thin sheets became more brittle as larger sections were cut, leading to the preponderance of colonial “nine-over-nine” windows that feature so many individual panes.

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.