Shopping Charleston... From Time to Time
King Street, looking north, Charleston, S.C., between 1910 and 1920. Wiki Commons
It was no small surprise when Charleston’s King Street won a much-lauded “2014 Best Streets in America” designation from the American Planning Association a few months ago. With something-for-everyone shopping options, top hotels and restaurants, family-friendly Second Sunday and other festivities, King Street truly is a great main street. Widely regarded as a primary shopping destination these days, King Street originally served as the “Broad Path” connecting Charles Towne with interior settlements some 300-plus years ago. However, although Charles Town was settled in 1680, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that King Street transitioned into a major retail corridor, where wagons from the inland settlements came to trade country products for store goods. So where did Charlestonians shop before then?
The King Street before King Street
Tucked quietly away a block south of Broad, Elliott Street runs from East Bay to Church Street, bisected by Bedon’s Alley on the south. Named for the wealthy colonial-era landowner, William Elliott, the street has also been referred to as Callibeauf’s Lane and Poinsette Alley for prominent Huguenot families who owned parcels on the street. A 1739 map of the original city places the street’s entrance at the foot of Middle Bridge, the largest bridge on the waterfront, leading to Elliott’s Wharf. Although the fires in 1740 and 1778 nearly wiped the area clear of buildings, reconstruction resulted in a vibrant business district which flourished for nearly 30 years.
Life in 18th Century Charles Town, vividly composited by Centropolis FX under the supervision of Stuart Robertson.
Elliott Street, in 1800, was where Charleston’s elite came to do their shopping. As described in Charles Fraser’s Reminiscences of Charleston, the stores that lined the sides of the narrow alley had “the goods so variously assorted in them, that there was scarcely an article, from a two-pence yard of ribbon, through the whole scale of plantation and household commodities, but what might be procured at them. At one counter might have been seen the planter purchasing his hoes and awes, his plows and saddles, his osnaburghs and negro cloth; whilst at another in the same store a lady was bargaining for her laces, her satins and her muslins.” There were no wholesale merchants in the city and stores were operated by shipowners for the most part. There were only three stores which catered to one single product: two jewelry stores, and Muirhead’s book store on Elliott Street nearly opposite Bedon’s Alley. Businesses began relocating to King Street around 1820 to intercept the richly laden wagons entering the city from inland plantations. In the King Street wagon yards, drivers traded their country goods for store goods, and Elliott Street, isolated from this trade, declined as a commercial street.
Bedon’s Alley looking north to Elliott Street, ca 1920, from a collection of vintage photographs at shorpy.com
A 1934 Charleston News & Courier article bemoaned the subsequent fate of Elliott Street, which had by that point lost its former glory. “All that is left is several ruins of bricks, over which negro shanties have sprung up like mushrooms. But Elliott Street is Charleston...it has lost its glory, but its loss is King Street’s gain. And in the picturesque alley a certain element of life goes on. Babies are born and the old folks die.” While the description may sound a bit melodramatic, a picture in the historic archives of shorpy.com may serve as confirmation.
Preservation and Transformation
In the late 1930s, Susan Pringle Frost, the founder of what would become the Preservation Society of Charleston, renovated and restored structures in Bedon’s Alley. Inspired by her work, Mrs. Henry Chisholm began a lengthy and extensive renovation of many of the buildings on Elliott Street. This metamorphosis is described in a 1952 article published in the News & Courier: “This minor miracle has been accomplished by the lavish expenditure of labor, affection, and money of imaginative and progressive Charlestonians and others, who saw the possibilities of the street and went to work with the result that this once forlorn scene of dilapidation...has changed to one of beauty and cleanliness, pervaded by the scent of new paint, soap, and floor-polish.”