Palmetto Preservation Works, Historic Preservation Consulting, Historic Rehabilitation, Historic Investments, Greenville, Greer, Upstate, South Carolina

14 South Main
Central Location for Essential Business
By Lydia Dishman

Greenville Magazine

Aunt Amelia sat hunched over the old Singer sewing machine each afternoon, in the time between lunch and supper. She usually prepared all the family's meals, but in the late afternoon, her capable hands could be found pushing colorful cloth under a needle that flashed up and down to the rhythm of her pump on the treadle. The Singer was vintage early 1900s, a remnant from her youth, time spent working in the sweatshops of Manhattan's lower East side. She was proud of her skill as a seamstress, and proud of her capability to support her family without the help of a husband.

Back in those days, she sewed clothing for a living. Now she sewed for pleasure, making a hobby of creating little dresses for me, or shifts and housecoats for herself and her sister, my grandmother. I believe my lifelong appreciation of fabric came from Aunt Amelia's boxes of cloth. Silks, cotton, wool challis, and muslin rested in sturdy cardboard shirt boxes, another remnant of times gone by. She taught me how the material could be tested for quality and durability with the fingers. Shopping for it, though, was a special treat. On the rare occasions that I was allowed to accompany her to the fabric store, I would walk along rows of bolts stacked to the rafters, smoothing a little calico here and fingering soft velvet there, the whole array a feast of tactile pleasure for a child.

Despite this early exposure to the fine craft of sewing, my own ability left much to be desired. I was destined to be relegated to the ranks of admirer. Now I shop for fabric that I never buy because I know better than to hope I can create any decent piece of clothing out of it. It never stops me from exploring though.

So I was secretly delighted to learn from two most valuable friends and historians, that they had completed a National Historic Register application for the property at 14 South Main Street, that was, in its heyday, a dry goods mercantile owned by Messrs. Stradley and Barr. David Arning and Robert Benedict of Palmetto Preservation Works kindly shared their research with me, bringing to light a glimpse of Main Street around the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately for me, there is no exact detail of what types of cloth were sold, to whom and for how much. Though with my research of the history of the trade, I can reconstruct with reasonable certainty what these merchants might have carried in their store.

According to Mr. Frank Barnes's book "The Greenville Story," the building currently standing at 14 South Main Street was constructed around 1898 and designed by George T. Barr himself. The Romanesque Revival architecture pre-dates other National Register properties in the neighborhood, including the Poinsett Hotel, Greenville County Courthouse, Chamber of Commerce Building, Huguenot Mill, American Cigar Factory and Carolina Supply Company Building, making it one of downtown Greenville's oldest surviving historic resources.

Reconstruction after the Civil War allowed Greenville to recover its economic strength. There were a variety of shops clustered on South Main Street, then the center of the business district. Groceries, tobacco shops, banks, drug stores, bookstores, tailor shops and hotels rounded out a diverse commercial district. By 1876, downtown Greenville had 30 dry goods stores, Dry goods stress thrived in this era before "boughten" or "ready-to-wear" clothing was widely available.

The typical customer of such an establishment was usually a woman, as they did most  of the household sewing. Frank Barnes drew a slightly different conclusion for women's nearly daily visits to the shops, noting in his reminiscences that there was "a customary and womanly desire to know anything of interest" and there was "nothing else to attract the feminine gender except the fact of seeing and talking with a friendly population."

Shops were often small and cluttered, constructed with long shelves to hold bolts of all kinds of materials: ginghams, calicoes, percale, lawns, batiste, sateen, nainsook, bleached and unbleached muslin, and India linen. Small round stools bolted to the floor were placed in front of these counters so customers could sit and talk while selecting patterns or materials. Merchants used a yard stick to measure, but Barnes says, "even so, a careless clerk could give away in ‘good measurement' most of the profits."

The shops primarily stocked yard goods, and larger stores carried fancy work supplies for women who were handy with a needle. When not sewing clothing, they could be found working embroidery, crocheting, knitting, tatting or quilting. Other notions for sale were tea towels, handkerchiefs (edged in lace or embroidered- for show not for blow), darning needles, mending eggs which could be stuffed into the toe of a sock holding its shape to assist the darning process, and threads. Thread came in six colors: black, brown, navy, grey, and tan.

The demand for such goods prompted two former clerks of the T. W. Davis Dry Goods Store to strike out on their own, having acquired the business from Davis following his retirement. George T. Barr and Charles D. Stradley were friends and neighbors as well as colleagues. Mr. Davis was Barr's uncle by marriage and he initially trained George to repair Singer sewing machines, then mentored him in the sale of dry goods.

The formation of the Stradley and Barr Dry Goods Store in 1882 had the young partners operating out of Davis's original location, paying rent of $75 a month. Shortly thereafter, they acquired an adjacent lot from Henry Shumate who requested payment in cash which they promptly paid in silver dollars!

By 1898, the handsome Romanesque Revival building, and the expansion of their business was completed. The purchase of the land and construction cost $11,000 and was declared the "acme of beauty at that time." The building featured prominent, elongated windows lined and arched on the second and third floors. Windows were deeply recessed into the exposed masonry walls with stone cushion capitals between them. The second floor windows were capped with granite flat-arches while third floor windows featured ashlar, round arches. Granite lentils and patterned brickwork accent these windows. The top of the building had a distinctive stone and masonry parapet with dentils and a Victorian flagstaff. Beneath the parapet and running the entire length of the front façade are inset, small stone arches and Doric columns. The original storefront consisted of prominent, squared stone masonry. The interior also featured soaring columns, and twelve foot ceilings of pressed tin.

Stradley and Barr Dry Goods Store, one of Greenville's most popular retail establishments was now a most luxurious one, compared to other similar operations at that time. That same year despite their recent financial outlay, they ran an ad in the Greenville Mountaineer proclaiming, "The Maine has blown up, but nor out prices."

The building remained the Stradley and Barr Dry Goods Store, enjoying success until 1919 when it became Efird's Department Store. By that time, George T. Barr and C.D. Stradley had dissolved their partnership. Stradley opened a dry goods store at the corner of South Main Street and Coffee Street. Barr retired to Orlando, Florida and recalled in an interview with one of his former employees that he made more money on the sale of his building than he made in 30 years of merchandising.

Efird's Department Store ushered in a new era of retail. Mass marketing of consumer goods began at this time when the nation's first large department stores opened in several major cities. Efird's was already a well-established retailer in Greenville. This new location placed them right in the middle of Greenville's most desirable retail corridor. On the north side of Efird's was one of Greenville's finest shoe stores, the Patton, Tilman and Bruce Shoe Store. Across the street at the intersection of South Main Steet and Washington Street, was the distinctive 1910 era Kress 5-10-25 Cent Store. Efird's would remain at this location until 1958 when the building was sold to The Dollar Store.

As dry goods stores gave way to department stores, so the department stores removal to suburban shopping centers coincided with Greenville's suburban growth and the gradual decline of Main Street commerce. The historic storefront was removed around the time The Dollar Store took over and replaced it with contemporary glass and metal. It was then painted white, obscuring all the distinctive masonry details. Finally in 2003, the building was acquired by 14 South Main Street, LLC and rehabilitated with an eye toward restoring its former dignity and distinctive architectural features.

As for the dry goods business, there are still some wonderful old-style fabric stores left in the county, but they are more luxury than necessity. The availability of ready-made clothing may have been one reason for dry goods stores going out of business, but their primary customer, the woman who sewed clothing and linens for her household, had changed too. A U.S. Census report taken in 1890 showed that about 7.5 percent of women worked outside the home. By 1980 that number had risen to 50 percent. Women that previously made everything from scratch could no longer afford the time to do so. It was a seismic shift that affected more than just the rag trade. But that is another story.

402 Hampton Avenue. · Greenville, SC 29601 · Ph: (865)978-0123 or Ph:(864)271-5220 · E-mail