A visitor from the North recounted, in an anonymous letter in The Hartford Times, how he came across Tobias Scott’s shop on Water Street, near the Battery, in February 1886. He was awed when Scott opened boxes to reveal fan after gorgeous fan, fabricated from the feathers of peacocks, herons, spoonbills, owls and dozens of other birds, in colors “one would hardly think a natural bird could produce.”
“Pink, blue, rosette, brown, gray, white and iridescent,” he wrote, “the plumes were mounted on carved ivory handles, some of them in a zigzag style suited to the latest artistic caprice.”
For much of the 19th century, Tobias and his wife, Christiana, made and sold fans made of leather, ivory and feathers. Born into slavery on James Island, they married in 1848 and moved to Charleston, where they built a house and raised a large family.
The Scotts supplied generations of Charleston women with dazzling accessories for an evening at the Academy of Music or the St. Cecilia Ball. A photographic portrait of Christiana suggests that she shared her customers’ taste for silk, lace, fringe, beads and braid. No doubt she pored over fashion plates in magazines, like Godey’s Lady’s Book, noticing details that could be featured in Tobias’ designs. The Scotts also sold less expensive fans made from the feathers of turkeys and other domestic fowl to those whose social lives revolved around church services and lectures.
We know now that the feather trade, like the ivory trade, decimated the population of many native and exotic species. But in the 19th century, plumes and tusks were regarded as commercial products like any other. The man who visited Scott’s shop in 1886 assumed that he caught birds himself by luring them into a net, but he probably purchased most of his more exotic materials from jobbers who dealt with professional bird hunters and sent out price lists.
Two known examples of Tobias Scott’s work are now owned by the Charleston Museum. Both feature handles woven from the quills of the feathers themselves, a method practiced by the Choctaw and other Native Americans. Christiana’s grandmother was said to be Cherokee, and it is possible that she showed her husband this technique. Other fans owned by the museum, including the pink one pictured here, feature similar handles, and it is possible that they were also made by Scott.
In 1886, Tobias Scott had been making fans for 40 years, and he would go on practicing his art for two decades more. He sold one to President Theodore Roosevelt at the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition, an ambitious fair intended to stimulate trade with other countries. The Exposition, which ran from December 1901 through May 1902, was built in the space we now know as Hampton Park and included a dozen grand but temporary buildings. Scott’s work was featured in the Negro Department, headed by educator Booker T. Washington, who insisted that the exhibit showcase “the real and fundamental occupations of black Americans.” One of Scott’s business cards features a drawing of the Negro Building, built by students from what is now South Carolina State University. President Roosevelt visited the fair on April 9, 1902, and was filmed reviewing the troops by none other than Thomas A. Edison. Roosevelt’s fashionably dressed wife, Edith, stands next to him, holding a parasol. She sports several plumes on her hat, though no fan is in evidence.
At some point, the Scotts moved up the peninsula to St. Philip Street and branched out to make “peacock feather brushes,” probably what we would call feather dusters today. Their home and workshop occupied the site of present-day Maybank Hall on the campus of the College of Charleston.
Tobias Scott was a fashion designer who produced oneof- a-kind pieces with an eye for color and pattern. His work reminds us that African-Americans created many of the elegant objects that define Charleston style.
Susan Millar Williams is the author, with Stephen G. Hoffius, of Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow.