History Behind the Story #4: Quirky Charleston Customs and Tidbits
We’ve talked about Charleston history in some of our earlier posts, but what we haven’t discussed is Charleston’s social customs during the Antebellum Era. The Holy City was founded way back in 1670 by English settlers and went on to become the largest city south of Philadelphia before the Civil War. Richmond might beg to differ, but there is a strong argument that Charleston was the premier Southern city. Charleston had the wealth, culture, sophistication, population, and social life that few places in a largely agrarian region could rival, and that’s what makes it such a fun setting.
When I first began writing Southern historical fiction, I quickly realized that Southern, or even American, social seasons and rules of society were largely based on locality and weren’t quite as compulsory as European rules. For instance, New Orleans social life would have been very different from Savannah’s, whereas if I were writing a story set in England in the Nineteenth Century, I could find book after book with strict lists of rules because it was a much smaller territorial base, much more structured social hierarchy, and there was seemingly more willingness to conform among the British. For Southern social practices, the best you can do is glean what you can from tours of house museums and period letters. And since that kind of research inevitably makes what you find a little random, I thought bullet points of random quirky customs were in order for this post. Here we go!
- Sources tend to indicate that in many Southern cities, the social season took place starting right after Christmas and ran through the beginning of the planting season, when the men would need to leave and return to the plantation. This makes sense when we juxtapose that hypothesis with the fact that the London Season always began roughly in April with the opening of Parliament and ended roughly at the beginning of June when society fled London for their country estates to escape summer diseases. I compare the two because I notice a pattern: a social season taking place around the work schedule of the men as well as the danger, or lack thereof, of disease.
- Speaking of diseases, the Lowcountry experienced what was called a “sickly season” every year. One quirk of Charleston is that, while the rest of the world was fleeing out of cities during the summer months, many people actually fled into Charleston, which was considered to be more salubrious and less at risk for fun things like Malaria and Yellow Fever. And this makes sense when you consider that Charleston is right there on the ocean. If you had a plantation in the Sea Islands, like where my fictional Santarella was located, you would probably find it a safer bet in the summer even than Charleston and retreat there. But people from the outlying Lowcountry with plantations situated in the swamps would have to evacuate them for the sickly season, often going to Charleston. One thing I found interesting was that many of those with plantations in the swamps didn’t have Charleston homes, and so from the end of May until the first frost (which could be late September or early October), they led a nomadic existence, staying with friends and relatives or travelling. If you visit Charleston, you’ll find that if a plantation wasn’t on one of the Islands, the hot spot was the Ashley River Road, which is now actually within the city boundaries of Charleston but then was just a few miles outside of it. The sickly season seems to have hit these plantations pretty hard, too. And so you had this almost comical situation where people owned vast plantations just a few miles away from where they owned mansions in Charleston. Of course, this enabled those people to take part in Charleston’s social life, too, which was considered a benefit for sophisticated elites. So Charleston was always fuller in the dead of winter and heat of summer, with various people either fleeing Charleston or coming into it for safety. You can see this is all very complicated!
- Charleston was a bit of a pilgrimage spot for the state of South Carolina, with people crowding in during the social season from all over the state. One would be presented with a huge menu of events to fill one’s calendar– theater, opera, ballet, public concerts, not to mention parties, balls, horse racing, and morning social calls. Think of an isolated rural life in the Nineteenth Century, and compare it with such a modern social calendar– the two must have seemed like different worlds.
- We know that when Southern Rain opens, Shannon’s brother has been on a year-long grand tour of Europe. This is one custom that is strongly documented. Young, wealthy Southern men would be sent upon reaching adulthood or graduation from university to the Continent in the hopes of giving them cultural exposure. An alternative to this was that sometimes couples would be sent on a similar tour as a honeymoon or “wedding trip.” These trips could last for up to three years. I remember touring a plantation near Charleston which had a beautiful portrait of a couple painted while they were on their honeymoon in Europe. Also featured with them is their two-year-old son, who was born while they were abroad touring. It’s a bit of a different concept of “honeymoon” from what we have now!
- Speaking of babies… I’ve found at least one instance of a woman from a rural plantation going to Charleston to give birth. The thought process was that there would be better access to medical care in case of an emergency. My instinct tells me that this was fairly common: if you were wealthy enough to own a plantation, you were sophisticated enough to want the finest medical care of the day. Couple that with the fact that South Carolinian plantations were steeped in isolation due to geography, which is enough to scare you, especially if there wasn’t a decent doctor nearby, and it would just be easy logic if you owned your own house to go there to give birth. But… In the documents I was reading, the couple didn’t own a house in Charleston and instead would stay with friends! That seems like a lot to ask of your hosts, especially when you think of the horror that was childbirth in the Nineteenth Century, but it seemed like hosts and guests seemed to think nothing of it and were instead delighted by the couple’s social visit!
- Okay, on to dining! One thing that will be broadcast loud and clear if you tour plantations in the Lowcountry is that: DINNER TIME WAS AT THREE O’CLOCK. As in dinner. As in the afternoon. There were reasons for this (various and conflicting). But one thing that struck me when we visited Charleston was that when we would try to beat the tourist crowd and grab dinner at three or four o’clock, we would find the restaurants so congested that we couldn’t move. We would look at each other thinking, Imagine what six o’clock is going to be like! But no! At supper time, the bubble popped, and the restaurants were utterly deserted. And, so while I have seen no empirical evidence of modern-day Charlestonian eating customs, I’m pretty sure they still follow this rule!
- If you lived on the Sea Islands, a lot of what you could do entertaining-wise was determined by the tides. If you couldn’t get your guests out quickly enough, they might have to spend the night (one possible reason for three o’clock dinners). If the tides turned against you, you could be trapped with your guests for days or even weeks!
- The connection between New England (John Thomas) and Charleston (Shannon) may seem tenuous except for the friendship between John Thomas and Shannon’s brother, but there were actually strong ties between the two regions given the fact that Northern mill owners bought their cotton from Southern planters. In fact, a society called the New England Society of Charleston was founded in 1819.
- Elite children were generally sent to private academies from a young age, with girls like Shannon being sent to “female academies” where they would learn the basics plus special polishes such as music, dancing, and art, along with the usual running-a-household type courses.
- The social season in Charleston continued even once the Civil War started. There were officers stationed at the three nearby forts, and they were welcomed at balls, weddings, and dinners. The wealthy in Charleston weren’t deeply affected by the war (unless you lost a loved one) until the Union started chipping away at the surrounding Sea Islands, which caused panic in Charleston and rocked their world.
Okay, that’s a wrap for this one! Let me know if you hear of any fun Charleston facts during your visits or research!
Photo Credit: http://cityofcharleston.blogs.wm.edu