Been to a silent auction lately? A festival? A fair? If you have been, you were upholding one of Charleston’s favorite traditions—raising money to support a community project with swag and entertainment.
In the 19th century, Charleston ladies held fetes, raffles, bazaars and teas to support organizations like the Ladies’ Fuel Society, the Ice Mission for the Sake of the Sick Poor and the Carolina Art Association. Many Charlestonians first experienced the telephone when they paid to try one at a church fair. At a Pink High Tea, young women in pink dresses sold hot drinks in pink china cups. The King’s Daughters put on a butterfly festival, and everyone who paid to attend got “a favor in the form of a butterfly.” Local businesses faithfully donated merchandise and prizes, everything from watches and jewelry to baby afghans, berry dishes, bales of cotton or sets of false teeth.
These events almost always included activities aimed at girls, the ladies of tomorrow who would one day oversee running such fundraisers themselves. There were fancy dress balls, soap bubble competitions and contests, like the grand Festival of Dolls held at the Mills House Hotel in 1888.
Among those who brought their dolls that day were Julia Courtenay, whose father William Ashmead Courtenay had just stepped down as mayor, and Ethel Dawson, daughter of Francis Warrington Dawson, editor of the local newspaper. Julia carried a baby doll and Ethel a lady doll, which was bought on a trip to Paris. Other girls brought dolls in foreign costumes, rag babies, and family heirlooms and tiny dollhouse dolls.
A man carrying a large doll asked each girl to guess its name. The girl who got the right name would get to take the doll home. To their mothers the man said, “We do ask in return a small consideration.” The mothers handed him coins. The girls wrote out their guesses.
The judges lined the girls up and moved from one to the next, inspecting every doll and asking its name and history. One girl held up a French porcelain doll and announced that her name was Muriel. Everybody knew that French dolls were the finest dolls in the world. They had realistic glass eyes, silk clothes, human hair and real gold jewelry. This one wore a blue velvet costume trimmed in maroon. Ethel announced that her French doll was named Mabel Marguerite Baronne de Bourse Platte. Another girl proudly presented a Russian peasant doll with a rustic scarf draped over its head and shoes made out of straw. When the judges came to Julia, she quietly held out her baby. One of the judges asked her to say something about it. Julia said it was a baby doll, dressed as a baby.
There were lots of real babies in the crowd, riding in their mothers’ arms. The bigger ones ripped into grab bags and pulled out candy and trinkets. A piano tinkled in the corner, and some of the younger ladies tried to coax children to dance.
Finally, the judges went off into a corner and, after a long while, one rang a bell. “We are ready to announce the winner!” she said. “The girl with the prettiest doll!”
Muriel and her owner Miss Moore won the grand prize, a doll-sized perambulator. Two girls had guessed correctly that the mystery doll’s name was Ruth. But there was only one doll, and they had to draw straws for the prize.
Proceeds from the festival were used to support the Charleston Exchange for Women’s Work, which ran a shop where ladies in need could sell needlework, baked goods and other handmade items.
Susan Millar Williams is the author, with Stephen G. Hoffius, of Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow.