Inflation and Scarcity in 18th-century Charleston, South Carolina #research #American #history #ReadIndie #AMorePerfectUnion

There is a scene in Elizabeth’s Hope (A More Perfect Union prequel novella) where Elizabeth and Emily go to the market to buy something for dinner. I want to talk today about some of the background for the following scene:

They strode into the cluster of makeshift tables holding the various foods and wares offered for sale. Chatter vied with the cries of the gulls and babies, the hawking of vegetables and meats as well as candles and baskets. The aromas of hot roasted peanuts and cool bayberry filled the crisp fall air. A gentleman sauntered along the sandy street leading his water spaniel, a good-size dog with curly caramel colored hair, his pink tongue lolling. A lady browsed the offerings, her pet monkey dressed in a tiny British uniform perched on her shoulder. A typical day in some ways, but with the ominous shadow of the enemy blanketing the discourse and exchanges. Wandering along, she stopped in front of the eager fish monger.

“How fresh are the oysters?” She indicated the bowl filled with the gray-shelled mollusks.

“Caught this morning.” He lifted the shallow bowl to angle the contents for best viewing. “How many do you want?”

She eyed him with one brow lifted. “How much are you asking?”

He quoted a price that had her lifting both brows. She haggled with him until the eagerness in his eyes dimmed. After a few more offers from either side, they settled on a price for two dozen. As he wrapped her purchase, she sighed. They needed to eat, but where would she find the money to buy new shoes for herself let alone for her sister? Until she could do so, her faithful maid Jasmine must continue to wear the worn out ones she’d been putting up with for months. Elizabeth’s heart hurt at not being able to maintain the standards they had always aimed to achieve. How they dressed and presented themselves bespoke their class without words, a station in life her father had labored to achieve.

Until the war ended, the soaring costs and scarcity of everything would surely continue to get worse. Right along with the deprivations and deceptions necessary to survive as best they could. She let her gaze drift around the market square, noting the British soldiers standing in clusters, watching the people like hungry birds of prey. Beady eyes following their every move. Waiting for any careless patriots to reveal themselves so they could pounce and exact their vengeance for placing them in such a precarious position.

Before the American Revolution, Charles Town (now spelled Charleston), South Carolina, was a bustling and important sea port. Ships arrived every day from distant ports in the West Indies and Caribbean and others carrying exotic fruits and spices among many other delicacies. The pre-war bounty can be better appreciated from the following excerpt I came across during my initial research for this series:

“From her plantation or in her Charleston home, Harriott would not have lacked for good food and drinks. At Hampton she had gardens, poultry, and livestock together with game and seafood from nearby fields and rivers. In Charleston there were certainly a kitchen garden, a poultry yard, very likely a cow or two, the daily market, and a wealth of imported delicacies from the West Indies and Europe…Milk and cheese were generally lacking except to the well-to-do. The pork and barnyard fowls, fed on corn and rice, were rated good, but the beef, veal and mutton were but ‘middling’ or inferior because…the cattle and sheep were not fattened but rather slaughtered direct from the thin pastures. From nearby fields and waters…there was a plentiful supply of venison, wild turkeys, geese, ducks, and other wild fowl. Terrapin were found in all ponds, and at times ships arrived from the West Indies with huge sea turtles. Fish were often scarce and expensive, but oysters, crabs, and shrimp could be bought cheaply. Vegetables were available and were preserved for winter months. Travelers noticed that the ‘long’ (sweet) potatoes were a great favorite and there were also white potatoes, pumpkins, various peas and beans, squashes, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, carrots, and parsnips among other vegetables. Rice was the colony’s great staple and it was served with meats and shellfish and used to make breads, biscuits, flour, puddings, and cakes. Corn served all classes to make Journey cakes and the great and small hominy. Wheat was grown by some of the Germans in the interior, but better grades were imported from Pennsylvania and New York. Lowcountry dwellers grew and enjoyed a profusion of fruits: oranges, peaches, citrons, pomegranates, lemons, pears, apples, figs, melons, nectarines, and apricots, as well as a variety of berries…Wealthy planters and merchants were not limited to locally produced foods. From northern colonies came apples, white potatoes, and wheat…as well as butter, cheeses, cabbages, onions, and corned beef. The West Indies, the Spanish and Portuguese islands, and Europe sent cheeses, salad oils, almonds, chocolate, olives, pimentos, raisins, sugar, limes, lemons, currants, spices, anchovies and salt. Boats arrived in Charles Town frequently from the West Indies with many kinds of tropical fruits. As for beverages, only the slaves, the poorest whites, and hard-pressed frontiersmen drank water. The average South Carolinian more likely drank a mixture of rum and water, spruce beer, or cider, and in the frontier areas peach brandy and…whiskey…”
A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry 1770, edited with an Introduction by Richard J. Hooker [University of South Carolina Press:Columbia SC] 1984 (p. 14-17)

But during the British occupation of Charles Town, things got very bad indeed:

“Soaring prices and the scarcity of food plagued citizens of the lowcountry. Paper bills issued by the Continental Congress and the State of South Carolina to finance the war effort and largely unbacked by gold or silver soon caused rampant inflation. An item selling for a shilling in Charles Town in 1777 might cost 61 shillings by 1780. A member of the wealthy and powerful Manigault family at Charles Town agonized in March, 1777: ‘We have been greatly Distressed for want of many Necessarys of Life.’ A few months later a military officer trying to secure supplies at Charles Town wrote his superior: ‘We have had quite a lot of trouble to obtain [provisions] because of the cost. Everything is a thousand percent more expensive since the War.’ As prices of meat and grain soared, one resident of Charles Town complained in early 1778 that ‘worm eaten corn is now sold which, at other times, would be judged only fit for beasts.’”

Patriots, Pistols, and Petticoats: “Poor Sinful Charles Town” during the American Revolution, by Walter J. Fraser, Jr. [University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, SC] 1976 Second Edition (p. 100)

I’ve tried to convey the dismay my characters felt when forced to pay high prices for what they considered staple foods as a result of the war-time situation they were living through without belaboring the point for too long. Keeping Elizabeth’s reaction to her reality in line with how I believe she’d handle the predicament. It’s an interesting line to walk when writing about the historical context of the story. I want to give the reader the sense of the times without making it into a history lesson. Not everybody enjoys reading history books, after all. So what do you think? Did I succeed? Should I have added more of the actual history to the scene?

I’m pleased to share that Elizabeth’s Hope is now available in audiobook format! My first audiobook, but the rest of the series will be following along shortly. Are you an audiobook fan? Or do you prefer another format? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Happy reading!


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Introducing the lives, loves, and dangerous times of the men and women in the A More Perfect Union historical romance series! This prequel novella takes place when Charles Town, South Carolina, is about to face the British enemy during the American Revolution.


Joining the revolutionary army was the honorable thing to do—but Jedediah Thomson hadn’t realized how long he’d be away from the lovely, spirited Miss Elizabeth Sullivan. They’d only begun their courtship when the occupation of Charles Town, South Carolina, trapped her in the city, making it dangerous to get to her.

Elizabeth Sullivan feared for her brothers, fighting for American freedom; for her father, pretending to be a loyalist; for family and friends, caught between beliefs; and most of all for Jedediah, the man she loves, who was doing his duty. She cherished every moment they had together, knowing how swiftly it could be taken away.

And that made her willing to risk everything to claim a piece of him forever….

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