September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
Carolina rice inspired sweet dreams among Southern planters, some of whom were so grateful to the cereal grass for their prosperity that they enshrined its image—in the form of low-relief carvings—on their bedposts. Paramount among South Carolina’s early crops, rice was introduced there shortly after 1670, when colonists first settled along a bank of the Ashley River, about seven miles from present-day Charleston. The low-lying coastal region, with its abundant marshes and swamps, was ideal for rice cultivation, encouraging settlers to create plantations along the fertile wetlands.
With rice as its staple (cotton came later), Charleston evolved as a commercial center, becoming the South’s largest city during the eighteenth century. Nearly all the citizenry in this booming, culturally sophisticated, extremely social metropolis needed furniture. Because many of the colony’s planters and merchants regarded themselves as English, they understandably preferred London-made products and initially ordered many of their furnishings from abroad. But shipping furniture from London was costly and time-consuming, so Charlestonians increasingly patronized local cabinetmakers, who typically based their designs on English models. Before long Charleston became the South’s main center of cabinetmaking. (Williamsburg, Virginia, ranked second.) Records indicate that no fewer than sixty-three and as many as eighty-one cabinetmakers were active in Charleston in the decades flanking the year 1800. They produced furniture not only for the town houses but also for the plantation manors in the countryside.
Plantation owners were partial to beds with ornamental carvings of rice stalks on the footposts, such as the bed on the opposite page. Many of these still survive in or near Charleston. The example seen here is part of the American furniture collection at Middleton Place, a plantation that belonged to one of the Carolina’s most eminent families and is now open to the public. This bed was probably produced by a local cabinetmaker around 1800. The four-poster is made of mahogany, which Charleston cabinetmakers imported in large quantities from the West Indies. The square, tapered headposts are typically plain, while the turned footposts are reeded and carved. The low-relief carvings of bunched rice stalks, portraying blades of grass as well as seeded stems, appear on the upper, swelling portions of the posts, just above the indented “waist.” Though no evidence exists that rice-post beds originated in Charleston, they certainly appear to have been a popular local variant on the wheat-sheaf motif—another symbol of fertility —that appears on English furniture.
Visitors from other areas found Charleston beds unusually firm because the bedding was not supported by a resilient grid of ropes but instead rested on a rigid row of wood slats, laid side by side. Another characteristic of Charleston-made bedsteads is that the headboards are often removable, enabling their occupiers to better cope with the humid, subtropical summer nights. As was common in the East, Charlestonians seeking heat relief placed cool rush matting on the floors and moved their headboardless beds into the middle of the room to enjoy better air circulation. They also changed the fabrics on both the canopies and the bedding. In place of winter bed hangings, as shown here (the fabric is a Scalamandré reproduction of an eighteenth-century French toile), they would have put on “summer dress,” lightweight fabrics, such as dimity, and mosquito netting, that indispensable material for canopies in the Deep South.
Although South Carolina’s low country has weathered many catastrophes, little of Charleston-made antique furniture has survived. Rampant fires, such as those in 1778, 1796, and 1810, destroyed hundreds of homes at a sweep and incinerated unknown quantities of furniture. The city’s humidity is treacherous to wood inlays and veneers, not to mention manufacturers’ labels. Hurricanes periodically flick the roofs off houses and drench furnishings with torrential rains. Only last September Hurricane Hugo damaged more than two thousand of the city’s historic structures and devastated the area’s grand old magnolias and oaks. At Middleton Place alone, Hugo downed more than five hundred trees.
But Middleton Place’s rice-post bed was undamaged by the storm and continues to epitomize the graceful style of Charleston furniture. The bed’s design has been so highly regarded that Historic Charleston Reproductions, a division of the not-for-profit Historic Charleston Foundation, licensed the Baker Furniture Company to make and market reproductions of the bed, the royalties going to various preservation and restoration projects. In this way, even Yankees can enjoy a measure of Southern comfort.