August 14, 1999

You've decided that a spiffy, bright, blue shawl or sweater would add an elegant touch to your wardrobe. What could be simpler? Just dissolve one part of indigo into 4 parts of concentrated sulfuric acid. Add 1 part of carbonate of potash, dilute it with 8 times its weight in water. Throw the uncolored garment into a solution of 6 parts of alum and 3 parts of tartar for every 32 parts of cloth. Boil it. Add it to diluted sulfate of indigo. Drip dry and wear. Of course, if you mess up, the garment will be known by the putrid vapors it exhales. Back in the early 1700s you'd have to follow the above procedure. And if you lived in the American colonies you would have to be quite wealthy - most indigo was imported from China or western Africa into Britain.

A South Carolina steel magnolia changed all that. Born in 1722 in Antigua, Elizabeth Lucas, called Eliza, was the daughter of a well-connected British army officer. Her father sent her off to a finishing school in England, where she learned all the social graces expected of a young lady of her class. For most of them it was all they were expected to know. But Eliza would soon prove to be different. She recrossed the Atlantic when her family moved to a plantation in South Carolina. She proved to be a very observant young lady, with a head for management, beyond that of many men. A short while later her father was called back to Antigua. Eliza had already taken over many of the duties of running a plantation (three plantations, actually) and her father could think of no one better equipped to manage the properties. Mrs. Lucas had recently died, so all the responsibility would fall on the daughter's shoulders. She was up to the challenge and more. Father and daughter shared an interest in botany and Eliza soon began experimenting with alternate crops. She struck up an acquaintance with Charleston physician and plant collector Dr. Alexander Gardener, for whom the gardenia would be named, and began experimenting with crops such as figs, flax, hemp and silk. At the age of 22 she married politician Charles Pinckney, but he traveled a great deal, so she continued her planting.

The fledgling colonial textile industry was beginning to flex its wings and Mrs. Pinckney decided there might be a market for locally-grown indigo; if it could be grown in South Carolina. Up at five every morning the young wife launched herself into a flurry of ungenteel activity, touring the fields, directing the slaves (some of whom she even educated, very much against the tradition of the time) and continuing her experiments. On July 1, 1732 she wrote to her father, "on the pains I had taken to bring the indigo, ginger, cotton, lucerne and caseda and that I had greater hope from the indigo than any other." Her hope and hard work would soon bear fruit. Make that pods.

Back to southern fields next week. For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte