Charleston, South Carolina has become one of my favorite places to visit. Downtown, you literally can walk past history and enjoy things like Starbucks or Five Guys in the same step. The atmosphere makes for an unforgettable visit and this year, my crew was in the mood for a relaxing day walking around town, with a little history lesson on the side. We met at the Visitors Center, hopped on a free trolley and left the Visitors Center for Broad Street, where we walked to connect to Church Street. We wanted to visit the Heyward-Washington House, and at the end of our leisurely walk, made it in time for the last tour of the day at 4:30 pm.
When you walk up to the house, you’ll notice a sign that says, “Ring doorbell for entrance.” Though keeping the door locked was probably for different reasons, I couldn’t help but feel like a true guest calling on the Heyward’s way back when, as the door opened and a lady’s smiling face beckoned us in. Inside, you’ll walk into the room on the left to pay for the tour, which is $12 per person. Before the tour starts, you can walk out the back door and enjoy the gardens.
North Reception Room
The tour itself, begins in the front of the house in the room on the right (where you enter the house). This was the North Reception Room. Our tour guide explained that during the time period, business was done in this room. In the hallway, there’s an arch separating the front of the house from the back of the house. This meant that the front of the house was where business was conducted and the back of the house was for entertainment of guests. Before we left the room, our tour guide pointed out some furniture and the significance behind each piece. I personally enjoyed hearing about the “chest on chest.” In the room, it looked like a regular dresser you would put clothing in. And though that was its purpose, the inventor of “chest on chest” took it a step further – when you traveled, each “drawer” could be detached and serve as single trunks. Pretty brilliant, if I might say so myself! The “chest on chest” displayed in the Heyward-Washington House was from 1770, made of mahogany and one of three complete sets left in the world.
The next room we visited was the Dining Room. Once everyone squeezed in the room, our tour guide checked her watch, smiled, then said, “If you were a family member, you’d be eating dinner right now!” During the 1700’s, families ate their evening meal at 3 pm. Now, if you were a guest for dinner, you wouldn’t eat in this particular room. The dining room for guests was upstairs, whereas this room was just for family dinner. If you looked around, there was a china set behind glass in the cabinet. The dinnerware was imported from China in 1760. Our guide also pointed out two things about living in the 18th century – both sugar and ice were a luxury. Ice had to be brought down from the north and didn’t have any real guarantee of making it all the way to the south without melting. When it did, you paid a pretty penny for it! Sugar has a similar story. Though it didn’t melt, it did have to be shipped in from Barbados, which caused it to be expensive as well.
Before our group climbed the stairs to the second floor, we stopped at the bottom of the stairs where a display was built into the wall, showing off artifacts from the time period. Our guide explained that originally, this would have been the gun closet. Why have a gun closet at the bottom of the stairs? Well, if it’s the middle of the night and someone rings the doorbell, the man of the house could come down the stairs from his bedroom and arm himself before answering the door.
Something really neat the tour guide told us, was that the handrail on the stairs are original. Meaning…you’re putting your hand on the same rail that George Washington did when he was a guest in the house in 1791. (Amazing, right?)
At the top of the stairs, we entered the bedroom on the right. Our guide explained different features of the room and when she came to the wardrobe, she said behind the doors were shelves where the clothing would be folded and stacked. Everyone chuckled when she casually mentioned that hangers weren’t invented yet, so there was no pole in the wardrobe to hang the dresses! LOL! Also, if you looked at the fireplace, there was an odd looking tool in the shape of a large spoon. This was a “bed warmer.” Servants would scoop coals inside, latch the opening shut and run it underneath the bed covers to warm the sheets in the winter time.
The drawing room was our next stop on the tour, where we learned of another commodity of the day – tea. Tea was a sign of wealth, because, like sugar and ice, it was a luxury item. In fact, to translate the cost of tea in the box into today’s dollars would bring the sum to an outstanding $1200! Expensive indeed! After guests had dinner, women would stay and socialize in this room or go to a bedroom while the men moved to the card room to smoke, drink and discuss various topics.
As mentioned above, the card room was where the men would resort to after dinner. Women were not welcome in the room and the decor would have a more masculine feel. A bookcase, which was very ornately made, was the main feature of the room. Made by Martin Pfeninger, this masterpiece was constructed in Charleston around 1770-1775. It’s original to the house and in excellent condition. In fact, the Antique Roadshow came to appraise the value of bookcase and said the value couldn’t be put into numbers – it’s priceless.
The tour ended with the child’s room, which was an example of what kind of room children had during the time. To be historically accurate, the children would have slept upstairs on the third floor, but because of fire codes, the city of Charleston does not permit tours to go up to that floor.
Conclusion: Charleston, South Carolina is an American gem for so many reasons. Just book a hotel downtown and you can either walk or take a free trolley anywhere you wish. The restaurants are great, the shops many and the history real. Such is the case with the Heyward-Washington House. I may be biased because I love touring old houses, but I think the fact that the home carries the name of our first President is enough to make it a must see. After all, who wouldn’t want to see the home George Washington was entertained in during his visit to Charleston in 1791? The tour of this home gives you a glimpse into a different time period of our nation’s history and I enjoyed learning about the town, the home and everything in it on this tour.
Interested in more reviews from Charleston?
Then you may want to check out my post about —> Fort Sumter