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Charleston Time Machine

Storytelling Podcasts

Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, explores the less familiar corners of local history with stories that invite audiences to reflect on the enduring presence of the past in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.


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Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, explores the less familiar corners of local history with stories that invite audiences to reflect on the enduring presence of the past in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.




Episode 266: Inventing the French Quarter in 1973

In September 1973, a group of preservation activists coined the term “French Quarter” to describe a single block of urban Charleston that was slated for demolition. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places that same month to deter redevelopment, and the new name soon became part of the local lexicon. Residents and visitors have embraced and expanded the concept of Charleston’s “French Quarter” over the past half-century, but few recall the curious circumstances of its creation. On the next episode of Charleston Time Machine, we’ll review the events that inspired the name and explore its historical pedigree.


Episode 265: Hog Island to Patriots Point: A Brief History

Patriots Point is a well-known landmark on the east bank of the Cooper River in the Town of Mount Pleasant, but its modern name obscures a much deeper history. Known as Hog Island before 1973, the site has been radically transformed by nature and humans over the past three centuries. Its evolution from a tiny but habitable island to an expansive, vacant marshland, to a thriving community atop a mountain of dredge spoil, illustrates the shifting dynamics of tidal forces and human engineering that have reshaped the local ecology.


Episode 264: John Champneys and His Controversial Row, Part 2

Champneys’s Row was a conspicuous anomaly at the time of its construction in 1781, the only civilian edifice adjacent to the brick curtain wall defining the eastern edge of East Bay Street. The building’s height and novel placement violated provincial zoning laws, and the Champneys family persevered against community opposition to protect their investment. Details of the modification and eventual acceptance of Champneys’s Row in the 1780s illuminate an important moment in the history of Charleston’s built environment.


Episode 263: John Champneys and His Controversial Row, Part 1

John Champneys was a Charleston factor and wharf owner whose loyalty to the British Crown deranged his life during the American Revolution. While surviving documents provide details of his imprisonment, exile, and return, the slender row of brick stores Champneys built during the war at the southeast corner of East Bay and Exchange Streets bear witness to his tumultuous experience. On the next episode of Charleston Time Machine, we’ll trace the dramatic rise and fall and rehabilitation of both John Champneys and his controversial, confiscated, and truncated row.


Episode 262: Bathing to Beat the Heat in Early Charleston, Part 2

The cheapest and simplest form of bathing in early South Carolina was an ancient practice shared by numerous cultures around the world: one simply walked to the nearest creek, river, or beach and jumped in. Because specialized bathing garments did not exist until the early nineteenth century, most outdoor bathers swam in the nude. The rising popularity of swimming costumes in the nineteenth century did not eradicate skinny-dipping, however. Poor people and those bereft of modesty continued to swim au naturelle until agents of the law convinced them to do otherwise.


Episode 261: Bathing to Beat the Heat in Early Charleston, Part 1

Before the advent of air conditioning and running water in the Charleston area, Lowcountry residents of all descriptions pursued a number of indoor and outdoor strategies to gain relief from the sultry summer heat. Some soaked in tubs within private residences and commercial bathing houses, while other paid to plunge into exclusive riverine pens. The most modest members of the genteel set drove bathing machines into the frothy surf, while bolder swimmers scandalized their neighbors by shedding their clothes in public and leaping into the nearest body of water.


Episode 260: Anson's Landing to Gadsden’s Wharf: A Brief History

Charleston’s new International African American Museum (IAAM) stands on ground formerly known as Gadsden’s Wharf, a man-made structure built along the Cooper River waterfront shortly before the American Revolution. During the previous century, however, the site formed part of a plantation that passed through the hands of John Coming and Isaac Mazyck before Thomas Gadsden sold it to Captain George Anson of the Royal Navy. Anson’s tenure defined the property for decades, and the tidal beachfront known as Anson’s Landing served as the staging point for Christopher Gadsden famous wharf.


Episode 259: Charleston's Third Ice Age: The Big Chill

The technology behind the creation of artificial ice, pioneered by a physician from South Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century, spawned new concepts of personal comfort and health in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Artificially-chilled air, a refreshing luxury that debuted after the jazzy era of Prohibition, rendered Charleston’s sultry summers more bearable and encouraged the influx of tourists and new residents. In the next episode of Charleston Time Machine, we’ll crank up the air conditioning and explore the chilling details of Charleston’s third “Ice Age.”


Episode 258: Sullivan's Island: Property of the Crown and State, 1663–1953

Sullivan’s Island holds a unique place in the history of South Carolina. Reserved in the late seventeenth century as a maritime lookout, quarantine station, and military post, this attractive barrier island remained in the public domain for nearly three centuries. Private residences began appearing on Sullivan’s Island in 1791, but their owners enjoyed little more than squatter’s rights for the next 162 years. The island’s colonial legacy, mis-remembered by later generations, precluded the possibility of private ownership until a 1953 law altered the legal landscape.


Episode 257: William Ah Sang and the Chinese Question of 1869

In the wake of the American Civil War, planters across the South considered the pros and cons of recruiting Chinese laborers to sustain the region’s agriculture traditions. An interstate summit on the topic, held in Memphis in 1869, stoked racial fears and produced mixed results. While some communities moved forward with plans to hire thousands of “Celestials,” South Carolina planters soon rejected the premise. Four years later, William Ah Sang, a connoisseur of Asian tea, became Charleston’s first resident of Chinese ancestry, opening the door for generations of urban immigrants.


Episode 256: The Hard: Colonial Charleston's Forgotten Maritime Center

A windowless warehouse on Charleston’s Union Pier conceals a forgotten site of historical significance. Near the present southwest corner of Concord and Pritchard Streets, a projecting point of sand and shells known as “the Hard” or “Rhett’s Point” served as a focal point of maritime activity from the dawn of recorded history in South Carolina to the turn of the nineteenth century. Subsequent wharf construction and landfill obscured the site’s colorful history, but the proposed redevelopment of Union Pier presents an opportunity to revive memories of an important local landmark.


Episode 255: The Genesis of North Charleston's Oldest and Newest Library

Charleston County’s newest library, the Keith Summey North Charleston facility, represents a major expansion of the Cooper River Memorial Library, erected in 1948 to honor some of the local men and women who served in World War II. African-American citizens gained access to the facility in 1963, and the building expanded over the decades to serve a growing community. On April 21st, Charleston Time Machine will recall the library’s memorial efforts of the 1940s and the changes wrought in later decades to render it more inclusive.


Episode 254: Charleston's First Market and Place of Public Humiliation

Following the precedent of “market towns” in England, the founders of Charleston created a public marketplace with stalls for the sale of meat, fish, and produce, as well as a cage, stocks, and pillory to punish malefactors in public view. The town plan of 1672 reserved a prominent central space for such purposes, but a number of factors induced early residents to use an alternative, long-forgotten market site prior to 1735.


Episode 253: Blanche Petit Barbot: A Musical Life in Charleston

Blanche Petit was a child prodigy on the piano whose European career commenced at the age of nine in 1851. After she performed in New York the following year, her family settled in Charleston, where her influential father died suddenly in 1856. Thirteen-year-old Blanche then launched an illustrious career as a professional musician, teacher, and conductor in the Palmetto City that continued until her death in 1919.


Episode 252: Florence O'Sullivan: South Carolina's Irish Enigma

Florence O’Sullivan was among the first European settlers who came to Carolina in 1670, and he played a significant role in the growth of the colony during the ensuing years. Few details of his life or his personality survive, however, beyond a litany of complaints and accusations made by his English contemporaries. Perhaps by considering O’Sullivan as a stoic Irishman struggling within an Anglocentric framework, we might lift the veil shrouding his enigmatic story and expand a curious narrative from the earliest days of the Carolina Colony.


Episode 251: Margaret Daniel: Enterprising Free Woman of Color

Margaret Daniel was neither rich nor famous, but the sparse details of her career provide a window into life in Charleston around the turn of the nineteenth century. Between the 1780s and her death in 1817, she accumulated real estate, catered fancy dinners, hosted exclusive business meetings, and briefly ran a school for Black children. On February 24th, Charleston Time Machine will profile the life and times of Margaret Daniel, one of the most interesting free women of color in Charleston’s past.


Episode 250: Charleston's First Black Detectives, 1869–1886

Americans love novels and movies that portray detectives following a trail of clues to solve a crime. In our community, the City of Charleston hired its first plainclothes detectives in 1856, during the era of slavery, but a handful of Black detectives joined the force shortly after the Civil War. On February 10th, Charleston Time Machine will explore the brief careers of the city’s first Black detectives and the political forces that ended their employment.


Episode 249: Searching For The Curtain Wall of Charleston’s Colonial Waterfront

If you’ve ever walked along the east side of East Bay Street in the heart of Charleston, you’ve stood atop a forgotten brick wall that once defined the city’s waterfront. This half-mile-long “wharf wall” or “curtain line” commenced in the 1690s to separate the street from the harbor, but it quickly evolved into a defensive fortification. Damaged by a series of hurricanes in the early 1700s, it was substantially rebuilt several times and finally leveled after the American Revolution. We’ll trace the rise and fall of Charleston’s eastern curtain wall and follow its path below the modern streetscape.


Episode 248: Savannah Highway: The Private Roots of a Public Thoroughfare

Can you imagine Savannah Highway as a narrow toll road traversing a patchwork of rural plantations? The present broad ribbon of asphalt covers a modest country path created more than two centuries ago by a private corporation. Its purpose was to funnel agricultural goods, animals, and people from the hinterland to markets in urban Charleston, across the first bridge connecting the city to the Parish of St. Andrew. We’ll explore the commercial roots of a nine-mile path that evolved into a vital transportation corridor.


Episode 247: The Ghost of Christmas Past: Joy and Fear during the Era of Slavery

During the era of legal slavery in the United States, most people living in bondage enjoyed a brief respite at Christmas. Their holidays often included celebratory meals, music, and dancing, sometimes in company with their White neighbors. This seasonal liberty also generated great anxiety, however: Slaveowners dreaded Yuletide acts of resistance against their authority, while enslaved people feared violent rebukes of their festive joy. Conversations about the history of Christmas in the South benefit from an honest appraisal of the holiday’s troubled past.