Charles Town was the 4th largest city in the 13 colonies in 1775. There was a lighthouse near the sand bar to guide ships into the harbor.
As one visitor said, it was “Fine, fertile looking country, well wooded with noble lofty pines and oaks forming a prospect upon the whole strikingly beautiful.”
A network of roads and rivers helped to make it a valuable importing and exporting center in the south, along with this natural harbor. Rice and indigo were the chief exports. Over a million pounds of indigo was departing annually. Lumber, corn, peas, potatoes, tobacco, deerskins, and oranges were also in great demand. An observer said that on one day he saw 350 ships in the harbor.
There are still eight cobble stone streets in Charleston. In the old wharf area on the Cooper River side of the peninsula, as the cobbles had all been used as ballast for the empty sailing ships coming to Charleston to pick up their goods. Difficult to walk on in any type of shoes, but the history of their journey across the Atlantic Ocean is a real. For three centuries, horses and carriages have picked their ways between the rocks. Below is Maiden Lane.
Merchants sold imported products. James McCall advertised Bristol window glass, candlesticks gloves, and silk umbrellas. John and Simon Berwick sold shoes in their shoe shop, made from their own tanyard. Tinsmiths, wigmakers, weavers, bakers, barbers, and tobacconists plied their wares and services.
In protest of the Tea Act of 1773, which embodied the concept of “taxation without representation,” Charlestonians confiscated tea and stored it in the Custom House. Representatives from all over the colony came to the Exchange in 1774 to elect delegates to the Continental Congress, the group responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence; and South Carolina declared its independence from the crown on the steps of the Exchange.
There were at least 36 women who owned their own businesses. Frances Swallow ran a fashion shop and tavern. Katherine Bower owned a millinery shop that offered caps, lace, satin, needles, and beads. A pastry shop, owned by Margaret Nelson, offered plum cakes, custards, puddings, tarts, and marmalades. There was a cleaning business that Mary Drysdell ran, offering a service of starching, washing, and cleaning.
Charles Town was a boom town. New buildings, large and small businesses were everywhere. Along Broad and Meeting streets were large, handsome, brick houses. High ceilings and large windows were a must to help survive the heat. Piazzas were added to keep the sun’s rays from entering the house. Having the coolest house was a contest.
Taverns and inns vied for business; their food and choice liquors were important. They were similar to community centers as locals and visitors met together. Both men and women were owners; the women were called hostesses. Elizabeth Carne advertised as “entertainment for man and horse.” The Charlestown Chamber of Commerce was organized at Mrs. Swallows Tavern on Broad Street.
There was a social season that brought in the planters and their families; it started in January and lasted until early spring. Private clubs and public places were crowded. Concerts, balls, and plays were attended. Dancing and music was popular.
The first musical society was called the St. Cecilia Society. Sometimes as many as 250 ladies attended with their families or escorts. Only men were members, and they were the most prosperous planters, politicians, lawyers, physicians, and merchants in the SC Lowcountry.
Amateurs and female professionals appeared occasionally at the St. Cecilia Society’s concerts, as instrumental or vocal soloists. Professional singers, usually affiliated with the local theater, presented songs from popular English and French stage works. Young lady amateurs, generally performing on the harpsichord, piano, or harp, occasionally played solo works or appeared in small ensembles or as concerto soloists. Just like in the concert halls in London, they listened to Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and Handel
The Dock Street Theater was busy during the season; in 1774 season, 77 different plays were performed. The social elite were entertained.
And this was the city that in 1776, four months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, South Carolina adopted a state constitution–drafted by a Provincial Congress–and elected John Rutledge as the state’s president and Henry Laurens as its vice president.
Walking or riding the streets of Charleston is a rich journey into the past. It is still a city of pirates, of churches, of cannons, a long sea wall, and harbors to welcome you with mossy fingers waving in the wind.
Charleston is my birth place. Whatever the year, it welcomes you and me.