“No, not Palmetto but Palmette….”
Roots and Recall is often engaged in conversations with homeowners who have little clue as to what historical style their home represents or for that matter, any accurate history of the home altogether. This was the case several years ago when attempting to explain to an individual, that the lovely motif in her home, was not an adaptation of the Palmetto tree, but rather an ancient design used for thousands of years, the Palmette. Certainly it would be easy for someone speaking Southern to misconstrue or even mispronounce the name of this design and adopt it as a piece of Southern culture. However, that’s not the case with the Palmette motif! When we left, she was still insistent the mantel motif represented the leaves of her state tree. Currently it appears in modern decorative ironwork, garden statuary and so much more.
Wikipedia states, “The palmette is a motif in decorative art which, in its most characteristic expression, resembles the fan-shaped leaves of a palm tree.” In reality, this really isn’t so different than that of the South Carolina Palmetto tree, so why argue? The design has often been repeated in wallpaper, door surrounds, and on numerous pieces of material culture throughout the region. By the 1840s, many architects and builders were incorporating it into their house designs, perhaps influenced by it’s prominent use in wallpaper borders and fabrics.
Usage of the Palmette design varies widely and is sometime hard to recognize. Note the front door of the Charles Chamberlain House in Belton, S.C. is also decorated with the style, described as a plant based ornamentation.
The use of plants for ornamentation is certainly nothing new and was widely used throughout the state to embellish local architecture. The mechanic – contractor Mr. J.I. Coulter (1803-1851), successfully used the palmette design as the symbol of his work. It was similar to the use of a trademark or logo in modern marketing. If you came upon one of his houses, his signature motif, the palmette, was carved beautifully in most of the formal room mantels. To date, five of his houses have been identified and R&R would like to know of any others constructed by the craftsman. The McNeil – Darby House in Chester Co., S.C., built by Mr. Coulter, once had several of his signature pieces in the house. These are now located in the modern homes of family members.
The next time you are visiting an historic house or noticing wallpaper with a decorative border, think about the Palmette as a first cousin of the Palmetto tree. You too, will be able to correctly recall the name.
A R&R NOTE: Several weeks ago, the Roots and Recall blog discussed the use of native materials to build stone churches and more. R&R received numerous comments from individuals who clearly appreciated the website offering a look at some of these buildings. But the one call, from my brother, a history professor in Columbia asking if I was aware of the early 20th century settlement of Russian immigrants in the Blythewood area of S.C. took me by surprise. Frankly I was totally unaware of this piece of data. He explained in detail that R&R should focus on this area and do a story on the settlement and buildings these Russian artisans constructed. Well, I think this is a marvelous opportunity and I hope he will research and write the article himself. Perhaps this only one of many similar stories that need to be recorded on the pages of R&R. Do you have one to share?
From the Porch – Blog @ RootsandRecall.com – 8.10.17