In the chill of winter, Southerners gather around crackling bonfires, heaps of steaming oysters, and smoky barbecues. It’s a season for entertaining and for being entertained, when the heat and humidity no longer confines us indoors with AC. Drayton Hall is celebrating the season with a look back at how one of Charleston’s historically prominent families played host. What was it like to have dinner at the Drayton’s in the 18th and 19th centuries when John Drayton, and later his son Charles, lived in the home? In an event aptly titled “Historic Entertaining: A Seminar and Wine Tasting at Drayton Hall,” guests will view and discuss artifacts that once composed the Drayton’s sumptuous table spread. “Accuracy is important to us, so the event is overseen by our curator,” says Catherine Coughlin, communications and marketing manager. “They’ve studied records, the marks on all the porcelain and glassware. We’ll be passing on educationally accurate information.” Afterward, Rudi Barberi will conduct a wine tasting of European wines that were available to the elite of colonial America. “That level of society in the South was transporting wine, beer, lagers, and madeira from Europe,” says Coughlin. “Rudi specializes in wine from Europe, so he’ll specifically be addressing the wines they put on the table.”
Archeologists began the work on the Drayton Hall grounds in 1974. Over the years, the staff have acquired an enormous collection of artifacts estimated at a million pieces. John Drayton’s dinnerware collection consisted largely of Chinese-export porcelains, signifying his social status since this sort of serveware was nearly unheard of for the average colonist’s dinner table. “We think that we probably have the finest collection of Chinese export porcelain in the region if not in colonial America,” says Sarah Stroud Clarke, archaeologist and curator of collections. “John Drayton spared no expense in building the house or in the material culture. If you were coming for dinner, you were going to be eating off of Chinese-export porcelain, and that was nearly unheard of in this time to this extent.”
Charles took ownership of Drayton Hall in 1784, and he brought his own, more modern tastes with him. “Charles began repopulating Drayton Hall with his own fine dinnerwares,” says Clarke. “It’s a different aesthetic than his father’s. The time period has changed. But we definitely see how he’s very much a consumer like John was. He bought the latest and greatest from London.”
In addition, the Drayton Hall team has over a decade worth of Charles Drayton’s meticulously kept diaries. “We rely very heavily on those documentary resources to know what was happening here at Drayton Hall during Charles’ time period. For John, we have to rely on the archaeology because we don’t have written records,” explains Clarke. The diaries, which are transcribed and available on the CofC library website, aren’t intimate accounts of Charles’ inner thoughts as you might expect. Instead, they’re succinct accounts of daily life at Drayton Hall with mentions of guests entertained and visits to other prominent homes. A brief December 1795 entry reads, “At D. hall a Dinner [and] Ballet.” Five years later, again in December, Charles writes, “Went with family to M. Place complimentary visit to Hal. on his return home with a family.” This, of course, is a reference to Middleton Place, one of many scattered throughout the diaries. “We know from those diaries that December was a very busy time of year just like it is now,” explains Clarke. “There are lots of references of Charles traveling to the Middleton’s or to the Manigault House … They’re referring to having dinners and ballets, and all of this activity is going on in the months of December and January.”
Like any good Southern hosts, the Draytons didn’t allow their guests to leave hungry. There would be multiple courses of food presented on countless varieties of serving dishes. “Every single thing had its own dish,” says Clarke. “It’s an interesting challenge when you’re an archaeologist, and you have to figure out from these artifacts what each particular piece is. There are so many different types.” According to Clarke, the most unusual piece in the collection is an oblong, perforated dish that sits within a larger platter. “I call it a fish strainer,” she says. “You would serve a whole fish on it, and it would essentially let the juices run down through the strainer and onto the platter.” For dessert, platters and tiered stands would be filled with glasses that held sweetmeats, nuts, and candies.
Drayton Hall ensures that tribute is paid to the enslaved who prepared these lavish meals. Thanks to Charles’ diaries, the names of many cooks and butlers are known. “Anything we do in programming here, we want to talk about those who were enslaved. It’s very important to remember that someone was always preparing this food. While it’s always fun to think about the dining experience, we also want to reflect on who is making the food,” says Clarke.
Historic Entertaining at Drayton Hall: A Seminar and Wine Tasting. Sat. Jan. 26. 3-5 p.m. $65/non-member, $50/member. Drayton Hall, 3380 Ashley River Road. draytonhall.org
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