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




НазваниеA comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875
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Special Measures Used to Buy Clothes


Illustrating the rather desperate clothing situations southern English agricultural workers endured, consider the implications of one typical self-help used to help solve it: benefit clubs. In Dorset, Caird knew of a clothing club that operated in the area around Blandford. Similar to medical clubs and friendly societies in concept, this particular one helped meet the clothing needs of rural workers and their families. The workers contributed one penny for themselves and per child per week, the employer one penny also, in equal proportion. At the end of the year, club members received clothing equal in value to their accounts' totals. Despite only applying a mere bandaid over the gaping wound of low wages, this approach still encouraged laborers to exercise more self-discipline. They already had to operate carefully within low incomes to meet their most immediate needs outside food and shelter (rent). One anonymous resident rector had the program of selling "blankets, shoes, and various articles of clothing, at two-thirds of the prime cost" to laborers. After having sold them to all in his parish, he later limited sales to the sober, reliable, and church-going. In a pamphlet published during the Swing riots stating the laborer's case against the farmer and landlord's, an anonymous Christian paternalist calculated the cost for laborers of a "reasonable" set of men's clothes and shoes per year at £3 14s. 6d. and women's (much of it in cloth, not ready-to-wear) at £2 18s. 2d. Since the list for men consisted of three shirts, one pair of "trowsers," one jacket, one waistcoat, two pairs of socks, and one pair of shoes, it indicates prevailing clothing standards must have been still lower than this for southern rural districts in England. Also including other basic items such as soap and candles, these expenses "must be raised by the extra work of the labourer, by his profits in the hay and corn harvest, by the produce of his garden, by the leasings of his family, and by the earnings, if any, of his wife and children."77 Simply put, the regular weekly earnings of Hodge south of Caird's wage line usually failed cover anything beyond food and perhaps rent if he was the sole support for a large family. Ironically, the anonymous Christian paternalist's clothing budget's list of items being fewer than what many larger American planters issued their slaves annually. Special measures such as a "clothing club" or the use of harvest earnings for a vital necessity at a low-level of purchases help demonstrate the constant struggle the southern English agricultural workers had against ending up with mere rags to wear.


Slave Housing: Variations around a Low Average Standard


Since their homes often were crude log cabins with dirt floors, the housing conditions of slaves were hardly ideal even for their day and age. The impulse to heap indignation against these conditions, however, must be stiffled, at least to the extent the slaves lived on the frontier, where their master and mistress' "big house" often surpassed what their chattels endured by only a few steps. The housing slaves had in (say) South Carolina or Virginia in the 1800s illustrated how long settled areas treated them, but it cannot be safely extrapolated to what blacks endured when moving westward with their white owners into Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and especially Texas. Correspondingly, the slaves suffered with very crude housing when they were first taken to America en masse in the early 1700s, as slavery became widespread. But as the decades passed, at least some more paternalistic masters upgraded their slaves' dwellings, even if they remained beneath those most Northern free workers had. Hence, some antebellum defenses of slavery focused on the conditions of slaves on large plantations in long-settled regions such as lowland Georgia or South Carolina and Tidewater Virginia, where some authentic paternalism and mutual outgoing concern may have developed because (by the mid-1800s) the same white families had owned several generations of slave families. Having played with the children of slaves when young, the planter's white sons and daughters, as they became older and the master or mistress of the plantation themselves, would have long-standing personal relationships with at least some bondsmen.78 These relationships simply could not exist when the earlier colonialists had imported freshly enslaved Africans directly from West Africa. Nor did this situation arise among non-hereditary slaveowners on the make on the frontier, where housing conditions were inevitably worse anyway. Hence, variations in slave housing partially correspond to how long a given area of the South had been settled, how paternalistically inclined the slaveowners were, and how long they and their ancestors had lived in one area with the same slave families over the generations.


As overwhelming evidence indicates, the slave quarters normally consisted of "houses" little better than the barns and sheds that sheltered many animals during the winter in the North or in England. One room was all many, perhaps most, slaves had, with perhaps a loft for the children to sleep in, such as where former slave Charley Williams lived in Louisiana. As freedwoman Harriet Payne commented: "Everything happened in that one room--birth, sickness, death and everything."79 Slaves often lived in log cabins which allowed them to see through the chinks between the logs. Dirt floors were a standard feature.80 Escaping from slavery near Washington, D.C., Henderson described wretched housing conditions: "Our houses were but log huts--the tops partly open--ground floor,--rain would come through. . . . in rains I have seen her [his old aunt] moving about from one part of the house to the other, and rolling her bedclothes about to try to keep dry,--every thing would be dirty and muddy." Booker T. Washington said that as a child he was born and had lived in "a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square." It had no glass windows, a dirt floor, a door that barely clung to its hinges, and numerous notable holes in the walls. Since his mother was the cook, the plantation's cooking was done in this unsanitary cabin, for both whites and blacks! Olmsted in South Carolina's high country found conditions worse than what animals in the North suffered:


The negro-cabins, here, were the smallest I had seen--I thought not more than twelve feet square, inside. . . . They were built of logs, with no windows--no opening at all, except the doorway, with a chimney of stick and mud; with no trees about the, no porches, or shades, of any kind. Except for the chimney . . . . I should have conjectured that it had been built for a powder-house, or perhaps an ice-house--never for an animal to sleep in.


Providing scant comfort to the slaves, the local poor whites' homes were "mere square pens of logs" of little better quality.81


While in Virginia, Olmsted passed larger plantations that had "perhaps, a dozen rude-looking little log-cabins scattered around them [the planters' homes], for the slaves." In Louisiana he saw a creole-owned plantation where "the cabins of the negroes upon which were wretched hovels--small, without windows, and dilapidated." In the frontier conditions of Texas, he described one planter's slave quarters as being


of the worst description, though as good as local custom requires. They are but a rough inclosure of logs, ten feet square, without windows, covered by slabs of hewn wood four feet long. The great chinks are stopped with whatever has comes to hand--a wad of cotton here, and a corn-shuck there.


They gave little protection against the cold. Kemble thought she had found the worst slave accommodations by far at the Hampton estate on St. Annie's in Georgia, but later discovered far worse ones nearby: "The negro huts on several of the plantations that we passed through were the most miserable habitations I ever beheld. . . . [They were] dirty, desolate, dilapidated dog-kennels." One master "provided" the worst housing of all for his slaves--none! After getting into trouble with the law in Georgia, he had moved himself and his slaves to Texas, as aged freedman Ben Simpson remembered: "We never had no quarters. When nighttime come, he locks the chain around our necks and then locks it round a tree. Boss, our bed were the ground."82 These examples illustrate the general crudeness of slave housing, since it fell below what most whites in the contemporaneous North would have found tolerable, even for many living in more recently settled states such as Illinois or Wisconsin.


Cases of Good Slave Housing


Sometimes a higher standard of slave housing prevailed on some plantations. One particularly impressive case, pointed out as such earlier by Olmsted, was a certain rice plantation not too far from Savannah, Georgia:


Each cabin was a framed building, the walls boarded and whitewashed on the outside, lathed and plastered within, the roof shingled; forty-two feet long, twenty-one feet wide, divided into two family tenements, each twenty-one by twenty-one; each tenement divided into three rooms.


The cabins all had doors that could be locked and lofts for the children to sleep in. Each room had a window with a wooden shutter to close it. Overcrowding was avoided, since only five people on average lived in each of these homes. To use English terminology, each had an "allotment" of a half-acre garden and an area that served as a combination chicken coop and sty for pregnant sows. An interviewer seeking nostalgic reminiscences from freedmen, Orland Armstrong drew attention to the good housing conditions some slaves enjoyed when visiting a plantation's ruins: "Some of the old cabins are only heaps of debris, while others are better preserved. They were built of brick, in the substantial manner of many of the fine old South Carolina plantation servant [slave] houses." A good, but somewhat lower standard than these Olmsted found on a farm in Virginia, which had


well-made and comfortable log cabins, about thirty feet long by twenty wide, and eight feet tall, with a high loft and shingle roof. Each divided in the middle, and having a brick chimney outside the wall at either end, was intended to be occupied by two families.


They even had windows with glass in the center, an unlikely sight on the frontier for anyone's dwelling, but not surprising in a long-settled country. Housing that reflected frontier conditions--"log huts" many of the slaves lived in--began to be replaced by "neat boarded cottages," reflecting a more settled life, on four large adjacent plantations by a "tributary of the Mississippi." For whites, the frontier offered a means of getting ahead financially in exchange for the privations of living in the wilderness. But for the slaves, pioneer life merely meant having to endure more work and less comfort, especially in housing, without gaining anything more than they initially had if they stayed back east toiling on some large planter's estate. Consequently, for this reason and others, slaves much more commonly lived in a house where they could count the stars through the cracks, as Marion Johnson did, "the usual comfortless log-huts" (Olmsted), not a three-room wood frame duplex.83 Although some slaves enjoyed such exceptional housing conditions, these were hardly representative for most living in the South's interior, away from the lowland coastal areas of Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina, where (as Kemble's descriptions show) conditions often were hardly ideal as well.


How Much Better Was the Poor Whites' Housing than the Slaves'?

The crude housing many southern whites had perhaps best serves to indicate that slave housing was not all its apologists might have claimed. Even the master's home might be unimpressive, especially when he was a small slaveholder and/or lived on the frontier. After visiting a neighboring mistress's home on a sea island of Georgia, Kemble said typical farmhouses in the North were certainly better: "To be sure, I will say, in excuse for their old mistress, her own habitation was but a very few degrees less ruinous and disgusting [than her slaves' homes]. What would one of your Yankee farmers say to such abodes?" Similarly, although noting the homes may have signs of a former splendor or elegance, she observed, using her Englishwoman's eyes to make a comparison while calling on a mistress's home in a nearby village in Georgia: "As for the residence of this princess, it was like all the planters' residences that I have seen, and such as a well-to-do English farmer would certainly not inhabit." Considering she was living in a long-settled region of the South, this condemnation is particularly noteworthy. Olmsted stayed overnight in one old settler's home in Texas. It was a room fourteen feet square, which "was open to the rafters." The sky could be seen between its shingles. He actually spent the night in a lean-to between two doors, keeping on all his clothes in the winter weather. While in Mississippi, he deliberately decided to spend a night in a poor white family's cabin seen as typical judging from all the other ones he had passed that day. Since this family had a horse and wagon, a fair amount of cotton planted, but no slaves, they likely beat the poor white average some. Measuring twenty-eight by twenty-five feet, their log house was open to the roof. It had a door on each of its four sides, a large fireplace on one side, but no windows. In northern Alabama, an area where more whites than blacks lived, most of the houses he passed were "rude log huts, of only one room, and that unwholesomely crowded. I saw in and about one of them, not more than fifteen feet square, five grown persons, and as many children." The conditions whites in the South experienced have major implications for how the slaves lived. The poor whites' standard of housing indicates the basic ceiling on what the enslaved blacks could normally expect at best. Bad housing conditions (admittedly, in part a function of a frontier environment) for many whites indicate most bondsmen likely had nothing better, and normally had something noticeably worse.84


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