Written By Merry Lee Jones
Photography by Ed Funk
he Lowcountry has been continuously occupied by humans for thousands of years. Traces of every period remain, including old tabby ruins. Not much is left of the houses and slave quarters of the old tabby era. The walls have eroded, and there are gaping holes where perhaps a door once stood. A closer look at these magnificent structures that have crumbled under the elements of time, show an amazing brilliance of the people that came before us.
Tabby is a type of inexpensive cement for walls, floors, and roofs widely used throughout the Lowcountry during the Military and Plantation Eras. It is composed of local materials, equal parts of sand, lime, oyster shell and water. First, shells were collected and heated until they began to break down. The burnt shells were then ground into lime powder. The lime was mixed with sand, whole shells, and water to form cement and poured into forms. This made a strong building material resilient to fires.
The word tabby is African in origin, with an Arabic background, and means “a wall made of earth or masonry.” There is evidence that North African Moors brought tabby to Spain when they invaded that kingdom: A form of tabby is used in Morocco today and some tabby structures survive in Spain.
It is likely that Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers first brought tabby (which appears as “tabee”, “tapis”, “tappy” and “tapia” in early documents) to the Lowcountry coast. Tapia is Spanish for “mud wall”, and, in fact, the mortar used to caulk the earliest cabins in this area was a mixture of mud and Spanish Moss.
Plantation buildings, including the slave quarters, are made of this enduring material. Since their construction by skilled slave labor over one hundred and fifty years ago, the cabins have lost most of their protective lime plaster coating leaving the walls bare and vulnerable. The other principal protective features - the wood roofs - have long since eroded away. Only the hardy tabby walls remain.
According to historians, the vast majority of tabby structures were located on the southern Atlantic coast. This distribution reflects diffusion from two primary centers or hearths: one at Saint Augustine, Florida, and the other in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Thomas Spalding (1774-1851) was a big proponent of using tabby as a construction material. He wrote:
“I was born in the old town of Frederica (St Simons Island) in one of these tabby houses; I had seen time destroy everything but them. Tabby…a mixture of shells, lime and sand in equal proportions by measure and not weight, makes the best and cheapest buildings, where the materials are at hand, that I have ever seen; and when rough cast, equals in beauty to stone.”
In most places on the coast, there is no natural stone or soil appropriate for producing quality brick, and wooden structures were vulnerable to decay in the subtropical coastal environment. Tabby, called “coastal concrete,” became a popular building material with settlers who wanted homes that could survive the rough coastal storms.
Spalding’s formula was ten bushels of lime, ten bushels of sand, ten bushels of shells and ten bushels of water to yield sixteen cubic feet of wall. He made some walls fourteen inches thick. Spalding’s one-story tabby home (of the Ionic order) was raised four feet from the ground, measured ninety feet by sixty-five feet in depth, and stood sixteen feet in the ceiling and 20 feet in wall. It took six men, two boys and two mules two years to build the house.
Tabby was cheap to produce, but labor-intensive because the shells had to be thoroughly washed. It was probably not much slower, however, than other construction processes of the time: Tabby construction required only unskilled laborers, not the more expensive carpenters (and sawmills) that lumber entailed.
Colin Brooker, of the Historic Beaufort Foundation, said that Beaufort County has the largest number of tabby ruins in the United States. The Foundation has placed the county’s tabby structures on its endangered resources list. Mr. Brooker said that much of the destruction that has taken place has occurred naturally. Tabby, by its very nature, is generally a poor quality material.
When the Coquina (shell rock) quarries near St. Augustine were opened, hewn stone superseded tabby for wall construction there. The Coastal Lowcountry has no coquina, so tabby continued to be used here even as late as the 1890’s.
David L. Laphan has written a short story entitled “The Tabby House” and this is how he imagines it may have been:
I sat in the doorway of the old tabby house, closed my eyes, and listened, trying to hear, trying to feel this place. All I could hear was ringing in my ears. I sat that way for a long time, even leaned back against the wall. I was starting to relax, even though the rough surface of the wall cut into my back. My mind wondered, thinking about what might have gone on in this place, the people who might have lived here, the slaves, the children, hurricanes sweeping across the place and dumping heavy rains on this house, the family warm and cozy inside, soft summer nights with tree frogs chirping and a cooling ocean breeze whispering through the trees and the palmettos. I sat there, calm now, with eyes closed, daydreaming.