"Beaufort County is exceptionally rich in tabby architecture" writes Colin Brooker, a recognized authority on this building construction material.
Tabby is a concrete made from lime, sand, water and oyster shells. Its origin is uncertain: although early documents record Indian burial vaults with walls made of oyster shells and lime, no such structures have survived. It is likely that Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers first brought tabby (which appears as "tabee", "tapis", "tappy" and "tapia" in early documents) to the coasts of what would become South Carolina and Georgia. 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.. 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, though in both instances it is granite, not oyster shells, that is used.
According to Janet H. Gritzner, "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 at Beaufort, South Carolina. These centers represented the core areas for two separate traditions in tabby building. ... British-built tabby arising out of Beaufort, South Carolina, had a quite different history and distribution from that of Spanish origin." Although the British tradition began later (around 1700, upon introduction of the technques from Spanish Florida) than the Spanish (1580), it was less restricted. "Beaufort, South Carolina, was both the primary center for British tabby and the location of the earliest British tabby in the southeastern United States. It was here that the British tradition first developed, and from this hearth tabby eventually spread throughout the sea island district."
Gritzner doubts that there is any connection between the use of tabby by the Spanish at the Santa Elena site and the first uses of the material in British Beaufort about 120 years later.
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."
In the New World, Fort San Felipe, built in 1577 on what is now Parris Island, S. C., is an early example of tabby construction. The compound contained more than sixty tabby houses.
"Oyster shells," wrote Earl D. Dietz, "are primarily calcium carbonate. When they are 'burned' they are heated to a high enough temperature to decompose the calcium carbonate to lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide, which dissipates in the air. The resulting lime mixed with the sand, the oyster shells and water reacts with the water, and to some extent the sand, to form a bond for the mixture. Thus Tabby is a concrete. Today, artificial tabby is made using Portland cement instead of lime and the resulting 'tabby'is stronger and more stable. In this area there are many driveways and walks made from the artificial tabby."
Todd Dickinson reported that in his research of the lime burning process, he found that "the books suggest burning 3/4 inch pieces of limestone or oyster shells in a kiln at 2,000 degrees F. Another source suggested that charcoal and lime be burned together". Experimenting with the process, Mr. Dickinson "roasted oyster shells for 5 hours on a gas grill at about 600 degrees F and they softened some. Then I roasted them for another 3 hours, then made a camp fire at the Eno River Festival, covered part with bricks and stoked the fire and shells for two more hours. Some of the shells got quite soft and a portion of them burned, and the ground shell reacted to a vinegar acid bath, so I guess that much lower temperatures will eventually result in producing the first step towards mason's lime". (Please note that this description is not intended to serve as a practical formula for producing tabby.)
Tabby was cheap to produce, but labor-intensive (the shells had to be thoroughly washed). It was probably not much slower, however, than other construction processes of the time: Georgian Thomas Spalding reported that his "people" could produce thirty cubic feet per day with enough work to "employ six hands for three days to compleat the rounds, mixing mortar one day and filling in two, thus making two rounds a week", even accounting for bad weather. Tabby construction required only unskilled laborers, not the more expensive carpenters (and sawmills) that lumber entailed.
Wet tabby was poured and tamped into a wooden form made of two parallel planks extending along the full length of a wall. The planks were tied together by crosspieces . The boards were moved up repeatedly as each layer of tabby dried (the imprint of the planks is often visible on finished structures), up to the desired height of the wall. To create a window or door space, builders placed a short plank across the inner and outer boards of the form and steadied it with two poles. Stucco overlays and scoring (to imitate brick patterns) were methods to disguise the humble tabby; the stucco also prevented the accumulation of moisture within the rough surface of the shells. Wood (for joists and lintels) and bricks (for corner columns, doors and windows) were often incorporated into the tabby structures, either during the pouring or when the mixture was still wet. Settlers also made individual bricks of tabby and used the cement to construct all manner of houses, farm structures, churches, fortifications, sea and exterior walls, fireplaces, tombstones, and other structures -- including an extant mill wheel made from tabby. Of only two remaining ruins of indigo vats in South Carolina, one is built of brick and the other, recently discovered in Beaufort County, was made of tabby (both date from the early 1700s). A report from 1775 mentions repairs to Fort Lyttletons "two tapis walls and a tapis breakwater wall."
Local use of tabby decreased after the Revolutionary War, until around 1805, when Thomas Spalding began using it on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Spalding's formula was "10 Bushels of lime, 10 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 and "below the lower floor 2 feet; for the second story 10 inches -- beyond that (he) would not erect Tabby buildings." 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.
Beaufort County's Tabby Landmarks
The Sea Wall (Bay Street east of Carteret Street intersection, facing the Beaufort River): Although its age is unknown (estimates range from the time of the Revolution to the Civil War), it is an example of how tabby can withstand the elements (and salt water) once it has set and hardened.
Remnants of the foundation of the Gold Eagle Tavern (along the river at New and Bay Streets): The tabby foundation of a structure developed continuously from 1785 until the 1930 was the site of the famous Gold Eagle Tavern (demolished in the late 1960s). The existing residence was built after the demolition of the original building. The last private resident of the original house was Kate Gleason, the famous business promoter and philanthropist.
Elizabeth Barnwell Gough House (Washington Street): Built around 1780.
The Tabby Wall in Laurel Bay, located in the woods near the playground by Bay Circle in the military housing area. It is approximately100 feet long, with the remains of several rooms.
Hilton Head Island Sites include: The Stoney-Baynard Ruins in Sea Pines Plantation; the ruins of the The George Edwards House; and foundations of chimneys on a row of slave quarters in Drayton Plantation (next to Barker Field).
Other Beaufort County Sites include: The Edwards Tabby Ruins (ca. 1790) on Spring Island Seacoast Packing Company (also called the "Pickle Factory") on Grayson Street, Beaufort, Old Jericho Road in Burton, Beaufort's Northwest Quadrant Neighborhood, The Seabrook Community (off U. S. Highway 21, near Whale Branch River), The former Beaufort County Jail on King Street, Tabby Structures on Spring Island, and The Remains of the B. B. Sams Plantation House on Dataw Island, built by Sams and his brother, Reeves (remnants of housing for family and slaves, farm buildings and the foundation walls of a chapel). Reeve Sams' buildings were destroyed in the mid-1800s, when a hurricane washed away nearly a hundred acres on the Morgan River side of the island.
from e-mails of Earl D. Dietz,
cement in tabby is the lime, sand and water that binds the
oyster shells. Tabby is a building material.
Mortar, sometimes called cement is a mixture of Portland cement, sand and water. Mortar is used between bricks and other building materials.
Slight revisions made by Grace Morris Cordial, MLS, SL, CA, Beaufort District Collection Manager in November 2015.
Broam, Michael. Photographs cited above.
Brooker, Colin. “The Conservation and Repair of Tabby in Beaufort County, South Carolina” in The Conservation and Preservation of Tabby: A Symposium on Historic Building Material in the Coastal Southeast, February25 – 27, 1998, Jekyll Island, Georgia. Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation, 1998.
"County Boasts Many Tabby Sites" (Staff Report). Beaufort Gazette (Beaufort, SC), September 27, 1999; pages 1-A and 2-A.
Dickinson, Todd. E-mail message of July 6, 1999.
Dietz, Earl D. E-mails of January 9 and February 16, 2006.
Dimock, A. W. "The Fleet is Upon Us", in Port Royal Under Six Flags by Katharine M. Jones. Bobbs-Merrill, 1960.
Gritzner, Janet H. "Distributions of Tabby in the Southern United States A Geographical Perspective" in The Conservation and Preservation of Tabby: A Symposium on Historic Building Material in the Coastal Southeast, February25 – 27, 1998, Jekyll Island, Georgia. Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation, 1998.
A Guide to Historic Beaufort by Beaufort Historic Foundation, 1970.
Historic Resources of the Lowcountry. Lowcountry Council of Governments, 1979.
Langley, Lynne. "Symbol of the South: Spanish Moss is Neither." Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) of May 16, 1996.
Lepionka, Larry. "The Nature and Origin of Tabby." Archaeological Society of Callawassie Island (Bulletin), August 1983.
Spieler, Gerhard. "Low Country Tabby." Beaufort Gazette (Beaufort, SC), September 21, 1972.
Van Pelt, Rita. "Tabby: The Sea Island Cement." Beaufort: Land of Isles magazine, Winter 1978.
Wilson, M. Ed. "Troops Sent to Beaufort to Hold Negroes in Check." Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), January 21, 1907.