Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Fascinating Facts About South Carolina

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Though it's often clumped together with its neighbor to the north, South Carolina boasts its own unique history, cultures, and way of life. Before your next visit, file away these 25 facts about SC:

1. Today it's known as the Palmetto State, but at one time, South Carolina's license plates read “The Iodine State.” The motto was an effort by the South Carolina Natural Resources Commission to publicize the high levels of the chemical element found in the state’s fruits and vegetables. Thankfully, it did not stick.

2. The state motto, which appears on its seal, is the Latin phrase “Dum spiro, spero,” which translates to “While I breathe, I hope.” The seal also bears the phrase “Animis opibusque parati,” which means “Prepared in mind and resources."

3. The highest point in the state, Sassafras Mountain, is around 3560 feet at its summit, whilce the state’s coastal plains, known as the “lowcountry,” are of course just at or barely above sea level.

4. The smallest town in the state is a patch of land in the northwest called Smyrna. The entire town is only around .7 square miles, and according to the 2010 Census Summary, the population hovers around 45 people.

5. Charleston has earned the nickname “The Holy City” because there are more than 400 places of worship representing several denominations across the city. 

6. At 297 feet tall, St. Matthew's Lutheran Church is the tallest structure in the city of Charleston. At one point, it was also the tallest structure in the state.

7. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina when Confederate soldiers opened fire on the Union soldiers guarding the sea fort. The conflict that followed has been called the “bloodiest four years in American history.” The fort is now a national monument and popular tourist destination.

8. The popular '90s Nickelodeon television show, Gullah Gullah Island, was filmed on South Carolina's St. Helena Island and was inspired by a real culture. The Gullah people are descendants of African slaves living in the coastal areas of the Southeast, stretching from Pender County, North Carolina down to St. Johns County, Florida. The show’s polliwog mascot, Binyah Binyah, gets his name from the Gullah word meaning “been here” and signifies someone who is a native of the area. Although the creators of the show have said that it was not specifically “about Gullah culture,” they paid homage to the language and cultural traditions of the Gullah people, while also celebrating the region's diversity.

9. There are no major sports teams based in South Carolina, but that doesn’t mean that the state hasn’t produced some amazing athletes. Legendary tennis player Althea Gibson, boxing champion Joe Frazier, and future NBA Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett were all born in the Palmetto State.

10. There is a town in South Carolina named Due West, and you can probably guess where it is geographically. There are also real towns called Quarantine, Wide Awake, and Climax.

11. Bishopville, South Carolina, is home to The Button Museum, the brainchild of one Dalton Stevens. A lifelong insomniac, one night in 1983, Stevens decided to while the hours away by sewing buttons on to one of his suits. Two years later, he had successfully attached more than 16,000 buttons to the garment. Stevens kept his project going, adding buttons to all kinds of bizarre objects. Today, the fruits of his labor—including a button-covered hearse—can be viewed in a hangar he rents off of SC-41.   

12. There are over 4000 rhesus monkeys on Morgan Island (also called Monkey Island). Around 750 monkeys are born there each year, but the island is not a cute tourist attraction. The only humans that are allowed there are the researchers who tag and use the growing population for AIDS research and other kinds of scientific testing.

13. “America’s First Museum” was started by the Charleston Library Society in 1773, 12 years before the nation’s first public museum opened in Philadelphia. The Charleston Museum would not open to the public until 1824.

14. The town of Sumter is home to the world's largest commercial gingko farm

15. The Shag, not the Charleston, was designated the official state dance in 1984.

16. Tattooing was illegal in South Carolina until 2004. To get inked legally, residents had to drive out of state to nearby Georgia or North Carolina. In the decade since the law was changed, more than 100 parlors have been established across the state.

17. In 2014, an eight-year-old girl wrote a letter to her state senator suggesting that the wooly mammoth become the official state fossil. Despite the fact that some creationists took issue, the measure was passed in May of that year.

18. There are more peaches produced in South Carolina than in Georgia (the so-called Peach State). In the town of Gaffney, there is a landmark water tower shaped like a giant peach that was built in the 1980s to honor the region’s peach farmers (and to hold water, of course). The peach made national news when locals and tourists who had seen it in an episode of House of Cards mistook site renovations for a complete demolition.


19. South Carolinians have their own lake monster, affectionately dubbed "Messie." The creature supposedly resides in Lake Murray; the South Carolina Fish and Wildlife Department reportedly has a file full of Messie sightings, from "reputable" citizens who were "not on drugs or drinking" when they spotted the beast.

20. When it opened in 2005, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge that connects downtown Charleston and the town of Mount Pleasant was the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. The bridge is 1546 feet long and cost $540 million to build. It was dethroned in 2011 by the John James Audubon Bridge in Louisiana.

21. Snow in South Carolina is very rare: On average, the state receives less than an inch each year. When there is snowfall, chaos reigns. For example? In 2014, a state of emergency was issued by governor Nikki Haley ahead of a winter storm that the National Weather Service forecasted would bring a quarter inch of ice and between 2 and 3 inches of snow to parts of the state. 

22. The worst earthquake on record in South Carolina occurred on August 31, 1886. Believed to have been a 7.6 on the Richter scale, the quake killed more than 100 people and leveled much of Charleston. The damage done totaled an estimated $5.5 million—around $136 million today.

23. When the aliens show up, Bowman resident Jody Pendarvis will be ready. Pendarvis has built a large "UFO Welcome Center" in his backyard, in case any extra terrestrials decide to park their ships in Orangeburg County. 

24. Hogna carolinensis, also known as the Carolina wolf spider, is the largest wolf spider in North America and has been the state spider of South Carolina since 2000. Despite its name, the spiders are found in much of the United States (save for the Pacific Northwest) and even down into Mexico.

25. The largest living cat, according to Guinness World Records, is an adult male liger (half lion, half tiger) named Hercules who lives at the Myrtle Beach Safari wildlife reserve. The cat weighs over 900 pounds, is 12 feet tall when standing on his hind legs, and eats 100 pounds of meat each day.

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:


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