A comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875




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his feet in Maryland's winter: "My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes." Freedwoman Mary Reynolds had to wear shoes with brass studs in the toes and sides which hurt her ankles because they were too small. Despite rubbing tallow into these shoes and putting rags in them, they still left her with life-long scars. Similar to their clothing situation, slave children were even more neglected about being given proper shoes--many received none at all. One Virginia slaveowner ruefully regretted the deadly result of failing to shod one slave, telling Olmsted that: "He lost a valuable negro, once, from having neglected to provide him with shoes."70 Judging from how masters and mistresses tended to neglect supplying their bondsmen with sufficient clothing, deeming it rather optional, especially in the Deep South, the slaves were even more apt to be ill-supplied with shoes, especially since they themselves did not always wish to wear them. Slaves certainly were unlikely to have more shoes than they needed!


Just as for clothing, masters and mistresses could get their bondsmen shoes from two different basic sources. One standard approach, commonly used by the larger planters, was to order them from some company in the North or England. Brogans, basic, hard, and heavy work shoes, were not purchased while meditating on the tenderness of the slaves' feet. They were often ordered a size large, since the certainty of the fit was questionable when ordering from a distance. Barrow repeatedly recorded giving shoes to his slaves, always in October when noted. He said they were issued for winter yearly, which has its implications about the rest of the year. Alternatively, shoes could be made locally and individually by a shoemaker, perhaps by a slave craftsman owned by the planter himself.71 Either way, the ration of shoes given out each year was unlikely to last until the next year's new allowance arrived while suffering under the strain of heavy field work. The bondsmen's pre-teen children were fortunate to get any shoes at all, since they rarely worked with the crops.


Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Take on Slaves' Clothing Rations


Pressing forth an optimistic line on slave clothing allowances, Fogel and Engerman claim:


These [records from large plantations] indicate that a fairly standard annual issue for adult males was four shirts (of cotton), four pairs of pants (two of cotton and two of wool), and one or two pairs of shoes. Adult women were issued four dresses per year, or the material needed to make four dresses. Hats were also typically issued annually (women received headkerchiefs). Blankets were issued once every two or three years.

They add that sometimes slaveowners issued socks, underclothes, petticoats, jackets, and coats, the latter for winter months. Likely only the most paternalistic masters indulged in such a high yearly issue. Two or three sets of clothes seem a more likely average annual ration, as Sutch argues. Barrow issued blankets every three years, but Francis Henderson's master was apparently far less generous. The exemplary planters Fogel and Engerman cite must be offset against the very neglectful ones. Ball gave his editor a horror story about his fellow slaves' lack of clothing on a large cotton plantation in South Carolina. In the work gang, none had a full set of clothes, with "not one of the others [besides himself] had on even the remains of two pieces of apparel," and many of the teenage slaves were naked. Although an abolitionist editor's bias may have distorted this story, undeniably most slaves looked on workdays terribly ragged by Northern free white standards.72


Clothing and English Agricultural Workers


Turning to the English case, documenting conditions becomes significantly harder. Since the farmworkers normally bought clothing on their own, sources similar to that of the planters' records of clothing bought for their slaves do not exist. Furthermore, the kind of clothing the lower classes wore in England was often differed little in general appearance from the middle class's. Unlike other European societies, England had no required "peasant costume" that automatically marked off those working the land from the rest of society. But similar to many French peasants, many agricultural workers did wear smocks. Somerville once saw a crowd, of at least one thousand men, women, and children, who gathered to hear anti-corn law speeches. The men, composing two-thirds of it, mostly wore "smock-frocks or fustian coats, just as they had come from their work." This outfit's prevalence gradually declined as the nineteenth century progressed. As a youth in Warwick (c. 1840), Joseph Arch was given a smock of the coarsest cloth to wear, like other plowboys in his village. Since the sons of the local artisans sported cloth-coats (albeit made of shoddy material), they felt superior to the farmworkers' sons. The difference resulted in "regular pitched battles of smock-frock against cloth-coat." In Sussex, Cobbett saw a boy wearing a faded, patched blue smock, which made him reflect that he had worn the same when he was young himself (c. 1775). This boy also had on nailed shoes and a worn but clean shirt.73 Conspicuously, by comparison, African-American slaves, the lowest of the low in their society, wore no smocks while in the fields, nor did the white farmers either.


The Low Standards for Farmworkers, especially in Southern England


Clothing standards for agricultural workers, at least in southern England, approached the bottom of the heap even for the working class. While attacking the upper class's hypocrisy on this score, Cobbett quoted Sir John Pollen, an M.P. for Andover. Attempting to justify the corn laws as a means of helping the agricultural laborers, Pollen said the "poor devils" had "hardly a rag to cover them!" Somerville knew of one child who lent his shoes to another without any while they played together. Many of the budgets that researchers collected on the farmworkers normally had nothing devoted to purchasing clothing. After constructing a fairly reasonable, non-luxurious budget, Cobbett found that maintaining a family of five on five pounds of bread, one pound of mutton, and two of pork a day cost (c. 1825) over sixty-two pounds a year. This figure, for just food alone, was more than double what their average annual wages likely totaled, based on a nine to ten shillings a week average. Those on parish relief received still less (just seven shillings six pence per week, by Cobbett's reckoning). Of course, they ate far less meat than this in reality, ensuring their budgets came closer to balancing. With the extra harvest earnings, clothing (perhaps) could be bought for a brief period annually, since these put the agricultural workers somewhat above subsistence in much of southern England. Otherwise, they had to get them by charity or even begging. The Hampshire girls Cobbett saw in their Sunday best had received from charity a camlet gown, a white apron, and a plaid cloak each. But the upper class's generosity was unreliable, especially when by promoting enclosure and high excise taxes it had taken forcibly from the laborers much more than it ever gave back. As a result, many agricultural laborers could only afford to own one change of clothes altogether, putting them right at or below the level of many slave field hands in America.74 This conclusion is hardly surprising, because of the high cost of food for large families where the father was the main or sole support, especially when his family was scraping bottom during the family life cycle. With the parents struggling to raise a large number of children, household duties heavily burdening the mother, and only one child (perhaps) able to start earning a little at age eight or nine, a virtually guaranteed family financial crisis lasting some years struck working class families until their children became teenagers and could earn their keep. Under these conditions, clothing expenses were necessarily cut to the bare bone.

Although necessary for life, clothing was often an easily postponable purchase, since the laborer's wife (almost inevitably) could somehow patch and mend what near-rags the family had for another year or more when a major crisis for the family or region struck. Encountering a laborer in northern Hampshire along the road, Somerville found he had four children and a wife to support on a mere eight shillings per week. Hovering near the bottom of the family life-cycle, having a wife unable to leave home everyday, and having one twelve-year-old earning two shillings a week, they could not think of buying new clothes: "Clothes, bless you! we never have no clothes, not new--not to speak of as clothes. We thought to have something new as bread was getting cheaper, but wages came down, and we ben't better nor afore; it take all we earn to get a bit of bread . . ." Although many laborers locally raised pigs, they saw little of them as food--they sold them to pay the rent, and maybe buy some clothing. As the trade of Poole, Dorset scraped bottom in 1843, and the surrounding countryside held in the grip of economic distress, the local people avoided coming into town to buy clothes. Similarly, when the potato blight wiped out the potatoes of southern and western England in 1845, and high bread prices came with little or no increases in wages, Somerville heard that: "The village shopkeepers and tradesmen feel it [the potato famine], and complain that the labourers are neither paying what they owe for clothes and groceries, nor are they making new purchases."75 So whenever a family or general distress hit, laborers put off buying new clothes, since bread or potatoes were more immediately vital to life.


Homespun More Common in America than England c. 1830


A major difference between the America of 1860 and the America of a generation or two earlier Cobbett lived in (1792-1800, 1817-1819) was how commonly Northern farm families made their own homespun clothing. One time he observed "about three thousand farmers, or rather country people, at a horse-race in Long Island, and my opinion was, that there were not five hundred who were not dressed in home-spun coats." By the eve of the Civil War, this state of affairs had plainly changed. Having a farm on Staten Island, Olmsted certainly had a reasonable idea of conditions on Long Island. He commented how rare homespun was in the North, even in a more recently settled state such as Ohio (see pp. 48-49 above). Cobbett saw the decline of the home manufacture of clothing as a real privation for farm families. Correspondingly, he condemned concentrating its manufacture in the factories of the "Lords of the Loom." Noting its bad effects on keeping women employed at home, he points to the downside of the regional division of labor:


The women and children, who ought to provide a great part of the raiment, have nothing to do. The fields must have men and boys; but, where there are men and boys there will be women and girls; and, as the Lords of the Loom have now a set of real slaves, by the means of whom they take away a great part of the employment of the country-women and girls, these must be kept by poor-rates in whatever degree they lose employment through the Lords of the Loom.


Clearly, regional specialization and the division of labor had its costs in economic displacement. Since the industrial belt in the Midlands made most of England's cloth, and the tailors of London stitched much of it together, both undermined the economic independence of agricultural workers and farmers by making much of England's clothes. In this case, strongly counter-balancing the advantages of raising the quality and lowering time spent on making clothes for rural families, the laborers' womenfolk had much less to do, causing a kind of generalized and semi-hidden underemployment. As general population growth raised the unemployment rate and the regional and sexual division of labor intensified, women were pushed out of fieldwork as the eighteenth century drew to a close and the nineteenth century opened, further impoverishing southern English agricultural workers. One farmer/relieving officer in Sussex remembered that the poor once made their own clothing (c. 1794), but that had changed by 1837.76 By contrast, since America boasted a nearly empty wilderness crying out for settlement, far more work was available for everyone. Under these conditions, women need not suffer such want, in part because male wages or work brought in much more income. Hence, differing national conditions led to a paradoxical result: Olmsted saw the American South's heavy dependence on homespun clothing as a sign of its poverty/economic backwardness, but Cobbett saw its absence in England as evidence of the rural working class's increased impoverishment.


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