The City Magazine Since 1975

Unseen August

August 2017
Unseen August
WRITER: 

What did the term "August Ladies" mean a century ago?

A 1920s view of a quiet Church Street

Charleston has faced many a siege—by the British in the 1780s and Federal forces in the 1860s; there were also protracted attacks of cholera, yellow fever, and a multitude of other diseases. We’ve stood up against them hardily, but there is one siege we flee from annually: summer. It sends us running for the hills, the beach, away from plagues of mosquitoes and heat.  

August is traditionally when folks abandon the city, leaving houses dark and streets hauntingly empty. The month’s austerity even entered the local vocabulary; 100 years ago, “August Ladies” was the term used for the impoverished grand dames of the old aristocracy who had no money to get out of town in the month when it was social death to be seen on the streets. These proud citizens kept inside all day, emerging for necessities—and a breath of fresh air—in the evenings.

If you did have money and a summer haven, but happened to be in the city for business or another errand and spied one of these ghostly apparitions, you did not acknowledge them, and they certainly did not see you. It’s another social custom, like three o’clock dinner, lost to the changing of times—and the advent of air conditioning!

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Photograph by Arnold Genthe/courtesy of loc.gov