South Carolina’s devotion to agriculture worked against the development of cities and towns for much of its history.
Like other southern states, South Carolina became urban at a far slower rate than did the northeastern and midwestern regions of the United States. Although Charleston had been the fourth largest city in North America in the eighteenth century, during the antebellum period a mature plantation economy and dispersed backcountry settlement led to a pattern of rural agriculture with scattered courthouse and market towns. After Reconstruction, railroads and textile mills gradually stimulated the growth of urban centers, but nevertheless the majority of South Carolina’s population remained rural until 1980. Much of the new urban population, however, lived in suburban and coastal communities that did not resemble traditional cities.
After early settlers relocated to Oyster Point in 1680, Charleston became one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing cities in the colonies, with twelve thousand residents by 1775. About one-quarter of all white South Carolinians lived there; no other colony had such a population concentration. Fine homes, grand churches, diverse shops, skilled craftsmen, and cultural institutions made the bustling seaport and colonial capital an urban and urbane center.
After Columbia was chosen as the state capital in 1786, it grew steadily, reaching 4,340 residents by 1840 and 6,060 in 1850. It officially (and symbolically) changed its name to the “City of Columbia” in 1855. Despite Columbia’s steady growth, Charleston remained larger until well into the twentieth century. At the time of the Civil War, they were the only true cities in the state. They were still the largest in 2000.
South Carolina’s devotion to agriculture worked against the development of cities and towns for much of its history. Antebellum plantations and farms stressed self-sufficiency and sought the marketing and distribution services of urban centers only during relatively confined portions of the year, especially in the months after the harvest. The state’s large slave population kept consumer demand low, with many large planters preferring to order supplies in bulk from northern merchants rather than patronize smaller, local establishments. In addition, the devotion of South Carolina whites to the rural way of life made them deeply suspicious of cities, seeing them as breeding grounds of vice, crime, fanaticism, and–especially in northern states–abolitionism.
The state’s courthouse towns were tiny urban centers. Most were busy on court days, but their permanent populations remained small. The expansion of railroads beginning in the 1850s, however, sparked a noticeable increase in the number and population of towns in South Carolina. Existing courthouse towns, such as York and Laurens, saw dramatic increases in their populations following the arrival of railroads, while new towns, such as Rock Hill and Blackville, emerged from depots and turnouts erected along railroad lines.
The Civil War devastated Charleston and Columbia and depopulated coastal plantation areas. Railroads recovered rapidly afterward, however, bringing hope to towns along their tracks. Sumter, for example, invested in several railroads at once in order to create its own destiny as a rail hub. After 1873 the Charlotte and Atlanta Air Line railroad provided reliable and faster transportation to the markets of the Northeast.
In 1876 the state’s first postbellum textile mills were built in the upper Piedmont. Most were small, backed by local capital, and shipped finished goods north. As larger mills were established across the state at the end of the century, former tenant and subsistence farmers flocked to their mill villages. While textile employees were poorly paid and considered a low social class, the mills economically supported an expanding urban middle class. Few of the European immigrants who fueled the growth of northern cities settled in the South.
Cotton mills made the upcountry more urban. Greenville reached 10,000 people by 1900, 20,000 before 1920, and a peak of 66,188 in 1960. Spartanburg, Anderson, and Rock Hill kept pace, frequently jostling for numerical supremacy. Although Florence, Orangeburg, and Sumter became regional railroad and industrial hubs, the population center of the state was shifting north and west.
With larger urban populations the availability of goods, services, schools, entertainment, and libraries also improved, leading to a way of city life that was markedly different from that in the countryside and small towns. In the 1910s and 1920s the appearance of cities changed. The first skyscrapers were erected, including the Palmetto Building in Columbia and the Woodside Building in Greenville. First trolleys and then automobiles encouraged the growth of middle-class neighborhoods outside downtown. In 1918 Columbia’s street railway carried eleven million passengers.
The growth of cities slowed but did not stop during the Great Depression. Federal programs employed city dwellers; some worked for new businesses, especially the life insurance industry. Many farmers abandoned their land and sought refuge and hope in the cities. By 1940 about one-fourth of the population was considered urban as compared to one-twelfth in 1870. South Carolina was becoming more urban, but at rates that lagged behind the national averages by about fifty years. As late as 1950 only ten cities had more than ten thousand residents.
World War II brought military mobilization; cities grew from the influx of military personnel at air bases in Sumter and Greenville, the army base at Fort Jackson in Columbia, and the navy base in Charleston. Many soldiers, sailors, and airmen made their first visits to South Carolina during the war; some stayed or returned later to retire.
Following the war, South Carolina shared the national explosion of new automobile-oriented suburbs. As early as the 1950s, this new growth spilled across city boundaries into unincorporated areas. Because of restrictive annexation laws, many cities could not expand, and their population growth slowed or stopped while suburbs flourished. Overall, the state’s urban population grew from 36.7 percent in 1950 to 54.1 percent in 1980.
The formation of the South Carolina Development Board in 1954 marked a new era of industrial recruitment that began to take South Carolina beyond the textile age. While the new jobs were concentrated in the upstate, Columbia, Charleston, and smaller regional centers such as Florence, Sumter, Orangeburg, and Greenwood expanded as well. International companies began to move into the state. By 1973 Spartanburg had twenty-four foreign corporations employing four thousand workers.
The Development Board also made the first intensive study of the potential for resort and tourism development along the coast. With Sea Pines Plantation, Hilton Head Island developer Charles Fraser provided a new model for growth that changed the state and influenced the nation. Large-scale gated retirement communities on the Fraser model, with accompanying commercial centers, spread across the lowcountry. The population of the coastal region, virtually stagnant since the Civil War, climbed dramatically. Prosperity returned to languishing coastal communities such as Beaufort. Between 1950 and 1980 the population of Hilton Head Island grew from a few hundred to 11,344. Tourists and retirees prompted rapid growth in Myrtle Beach and the surrounding Grand Strand as well. Charleston, long too poor to tear down and replace its old buildings, became a world leader in historic preservation and heritage tourism.
While railroads shaped the state in the nineteenth century, highways dominated the twentieth century. The interstate highway system especially benefited larger cities. The authorizing legislation, passed in the 1950s as a defense measure, mandated the connection of all metropolitan areas with populations of more than fifty thousand. Charleston, Greenville, Columbia, Florence, and Spartanburg made the list, as did Charlotte, Savannah, and Augusta just across the state lines. Cities such as Myrtle Beach, Sumter, Orangeburg, and Greenwood did not, retarding their growth. By 1980 the seven metropolitan areas of the state, including Rock Hill / Charlotte and Augusta/Aiken, led the state in population growth and prosperity.
While South Carolina officially became an urban state in 1980, in reality it was a predominantly suburban state. In Greenville County, for example, the city population has remained near 60,000 since 1960, while the county population has climbed to nearly 400,000 by 2000. The trends were similar in Columbia and Charleston. North Charleston, Goose Creek, and Hanahan were unincorporated communities in 1950. By 1980 their populations respectively reached 79,641, 29,208, and 12,937. Mount Pleasant grew from fewer than 5,000 people in the 1940s to 47,609 in 2000.
Suburban growth benefited small towns near urban centers. Lexington, Cayce, and Irmo grew faster than Columbia. Easley, Greer, Mauldin, and Simpsonville outpaced Greenville. In the upstate the area between Anderson, Spartanburg, and Fountain Inn became an almost continuous urban region. The seven-county upstate region passed one million people by 2000.
Suburban residents helped make emerging metropolitan areas more sophisticated by promoting new office buildings, live theater companies, symphonies, museums, and arenas. Charleston and Greenville dramatically revitalized their downtowns. Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, Florence, and Myrtle Beach sponsored minor- league sports teams.
Rapid suburban growth led to increasing concern about sprawl and the loss of community identity. In the 1990s South Carolina ranked within the top five states in the conversion of rural land to urban uses. “New Urbanism,” an alternative to sprawl pioneered by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk at Seaside, Florida, inspired similar projects in South Carolina. In Beaufort County the Village at Port Royal, New Point, and Habersham became compact walkable developments based on traditional small towns. The I’On and Daniel Island communities became competitive with traditional suburbs near Charleston.
By 2000 South Carolina had become increasingly urban and more closely tied to national trends. However, it remained more rural than the nation as a whole. Its towns and cities developed at a rate similar to those of other states in the Old South, suggesting that this lag in urbanization was a regional phenomenon.
Caldwell, Wilber W. The Courthouse and the Depot: The Architecture of Hope in an Age of Despair. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001.
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Ernst, Joseph A., and H. Roy Merrens. “‘Camden’s Turrets Pierce the Skies!’: The Urban Process in the Southern Colonies during the Eighteenth Century.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 30 (October 1973): 549–74.
Glaab, Charles N., and A. Theodore Brown. A History of Urban America. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740–1990. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.