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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ideal masters and what slaveowners by reputation were supposed to do, or reflected the better treatment of slaves the Border States such as Virginia were known for. Later, in a conversation with an old free black man, he observed: "Well, I've been thinking, myself, the niggars did not look so well as they did in North Carolina and Virginia; they are not so well clothed, and they don't appear so bright as they do there." Additionally, Christmas gifts of certain finery could supplement the basic yearly ration of two summer suits and one winter suit, as he noted about four large adjacent plantations "situated on a tributary of the Mississippi" owned by one normally absentee planter. Slaves also could purchase clothes with earnings from working on Sundays, holidays, or late at night.60 Hence, the slaves normally were issued a certain amount of clothing yearly, but was it enough?


Bad Clothing Conditions for Slaves


Evidence repeatedly points to the everyday work clothes of enslaved blacks being near rags. The semi-tropical weather of the Deep South no doubt contributed to slaveowners' complacency with ill-dressed slaves. Perhaps the reason why Olmsted had observed better dressed slaves in Virginia and North Carolina was because planters and other slaveholders knew these states had harsher climates compared to the Deep South, which encouraged them to distribute more and/or better clothes. Even so, ragged slaves were common throughout the South. Born free in North Carolina, Thomas Hedgebeth had worked for various slaveholders. He saw how badly dressed the slaves were at one place. They had no hats while having to work in the fields in summer. As he described:


They were a bad looking set--some twenty of them--starved and without clothing enough for decency. It ought to have been a disgrace to their master, to see them about his house. If a man were to go through Canada [where he was living at the time] so, they'd stop him to know what he meant by it--whether it was poverty or if he was crazy,--and they'd put a suit of clothes on him.


The slaves Olmsted saw while passing by on a train in Virginian fields were "very ragged." At one farm in Virginia, "the field-hands wore very coarse and ragged garments." A different problem appeared on the rice-island estate Kemble stayed at. The slaves issued a fair amount of thick cloth to turn into clothes. But in coastal lowland Georgia's hot climate the resulting garments were virtually intolerable during summer, even to the blacks accustomed to the climate.61 Simply put, their clothes were so bad because their owners basically determined how much would be spent on them, not the slaves themselves. Their masters' self-interest naturally led to them to minimize "unnecessary clothing expenditures."


Slave children suffered most from inadequate clothing rations. Often they ended up with just a long shirt, although nakedness was not unknown. Aged freedwoman Mary Reynolds of Louisiana recalled what she wore when she was young: "In them days I weared shirts, like all the young-uns. They had collars and come below the knees and was split up the sides. That's all we weared in hot weather." Frederick Douglass recalled his want of clothing when he was a child:


I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked--no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees.


He found the thought of owning a pair of trousers at the age of seven or eight--offered because he was being sent to Baltimore to work as a servant--"great indeed!" Aged freedman Cicero Finch of Georgia remembered how both slave boys and girls wore the same basic piece of clothing:


An' de chillun? When dey big 'nough ter put on anything, it's a shirt. Boys an' girls de same. Run roun' in dat shirt-tail. Some de gals tie belt roun' de middle, an' dat's de only diffrunts.


In an upbeat recollection presumably blurred by nostalgia, old ex-slave Kike Epps of South Carolina described a still lower standard that prevailed for children's clothing on his master's plantation: "Dis hy'ar [banyan] shu't . . . wuh made jus' lak a sack. Got hole in top fo' de haid, an' holes fo' de arms. Pull it over yo' haid, push yo' arms t'rough de side holes, an' dar yo' is!" They would wear this bag with holes "till dey mos' growed up!" Due to South Carolina's warm climate even in winter, he wore this outfit without complaint, making for a decidedly different memory from Frederick Douglass's bitter experience in Maryland's much harsher winters. Although this pattern had exceptions, generally little was spent on children's clothes because they did no field labor when young, causing the less forward-looking "entrepreneurial" slaveowners to "invest" less in their "human capital" at this point in their lives, to use desiccated cliometric terminology.62


Differences in Clothing Provided for Slaves with Different Positions


Just as for food, different groups of slaves received different kinds and/or amounts of clothing. Most obviously, the larger planters issued better clothes to servants than to field hands, since they had to look presentable to the big house's visitors.63 They also received the cast-offs of the master's family, in the same way they enjoyed the scrapings and leftovers of the master's table. After being made a servant as a child, old freedman Henry Coleman remembered his mother told his father about one of his new needs: "That black little nigger over there, he got to git hisself some pants 'cause I's gwine to put him up over the white folks's table." His job was to swish away flies from a swing with a brush of peacock feathers over his owner's table. To wear only a shirt from that elevated position just might prove to be too revealing! Slaves with managerial duties also acquired better attire. Olmsted described the "watchman"--the top slave who served virtually as a steward and storekeeper for a large South Carolina rice planter--as being as well-dressed and as well-mannered as any (white) gentleman. One ex-slave said his father, a driver, was "de only slave dat was give de honor to wear boots."64 So at the cost of living under a master's or mistress's closer supervision, drivers and domestic servants enjoyed greater material benefits such as having better food and clothing.


Many slaves saved their best clothing for going to church on Sundays or special occasions, but reserved the worst for work. Gus Feaster, a South Carolinian freedman, remembered:


Us wore the best clothes that us had [at church]. . . . Us kept them cleaned and ironed just like the master and the young masters done theirn. Then us wore a string tie, that the white folks done let us have, to church. That 'bout the onliest time that a darky was seed with a tie.


Solomon Northrup, held in bondage in Louisiana, recalled that on Christmas slaves dressed up the best they could:


Then, too, 'of all i' the year,' they array themselves in their best attire. The cotton coat has been washed clean, the stump of a tallow candle has been applied to the shoes,  . . . [and, perhaps] a rimless or crownless hat  . . . [was] placed jauntily upon the head.


Many women wore red ribbons in the hair or handkerchiefs over their heads then as well. Kemble saw a similar phenomenon, comparing it to poor Irish immigrants who spent (judging from her middle class standpoint) too much on clothes after coming to America:



I drove to church to-day in the wood-wagon, with Jack and Aleck, Hector being our charioteer, in a gilt guard-chain and pair of slippers to match as the Sabbatic part of his attire. . . . The [male] Negroes certainly show the same strong predilection for finery with their womenkind.


Most strikingly, a free black man from North Carolina peddling tobacco in South Carolina told Olmsted how differently the slaves dressed while on the job compared to church:


Well, master, Sundays dey is mighty well clothed, dis country; 'pears like dere an't nobody looks better Sundays dan dey do. But Lord! workin' days, seems like dey haden no close dey could keep on 'um at all, master. Dey is a'mos' naked, wen deys at work, some on 'em.65


Of course, since they normally worked six days out of seven, bondsmen could not wear good clothes every work day without ruining all they had. Most lacked the necessary changes of shirts and pants to do that. Dressing badly at work compared to church or other special occasions also may have reflected their different attitudes towards the two situations. On the day they are free from work and "own their own time," they dressed to express themselves. But when they are in the fields, six days out of seven, and their time is the master's time, they avoided dressing above average or trying to impress their companions in bondage, unlike at church on Sundays. Doing so might well bring the unwanted attentions of the overseer or master against some "uppity" black.66 Bondsmen and women indulged in what Kemble called "the passion for dress" not everyday, but only on days where the immediate coercion associated with work ceased.


The Factory Versus Homespun: The Master's Decision


Masters acquired clothing for their slaves in two different ways. First, they could place orders with factories in the North or in England. Second, they could make homespun right on the farm or plantation itself. Olmsted time and time again refers to the ubiquity of homespun as worn by whites in the South, including the smaller planters, which he rarely witnessed in the North. When summarizing the economic backwardness of the South, he pointed out: "How is it that while in Ohio the spinning-wheel and hand-loom are curiosities, and homespun would be a conspicuous and noticeable material of clothing, half the white population of Mississippi still dress in homespun, and at every second house the wheel and loom are found in operation?"67 One of Bennet Barrow's most common diary notations describing his slaves' daily work concerned slave women spinning on rainy days which kept them (at least) busy. Slaves and others recalled the making of homespun clothing.68 Here the white population's standard of living constitutes a ceiling on the black/slave population's conditions. Slaves are exceedingly unlikely to have anything routinely better than their white neighbors, outside of exceptional individuals such as the aforementioned "watchman" on one South Carolina rice plantation. Homespun was coarser cloth and required much time to produce, but had the advantage of reducing cash outlays for subsistence farmers. They gained more independence from the market, but at the cost of many extra hours of labor. Submitting to the division of labor, which small farmers accessed through the market, always presents trade-offs: They could stay independent, and either go without or put more hours of their lives into producing at home what could be bought instead, or pay for it, using cash earned from cash crops sold on an open market, knowing that a sustained price drop could ruin them.


Unfortunately for the slaves, when their masters chose to rely on the market, the clothing often specially manufactured for them was of a cheap, low-grade quality. Clothes made of "Negro cloth" were durable but rough on the skin. Even clothes made of this material may not last that long, since they often had only one or two sets of clothes to wear, besides any finery they might luckily possess. Having so few clothes made it hard to wash and clean their clothes more than once a week.69 Since they often did not have another full set of clothes to change into, the daily wear and tear on what they did own was nearly ceaseless during the work week. Clearly, since the slaveowners normally chose what and how much the market produced, it was hardly a savior in providing better clothes for the slaves.


Slaves and Shoe Shortages


Slaves also suffered from not having enough pairs of shoes or boots. The South's warm climate fortunately mitigated this shortage's negative effects, especially in the Deep South. Old freedwoman Nicey Kinney recalled that the freedmen after emancipation when going to church were "in their Sunday clothes, and they walked barefoots with their shoes acrost their shoulders to keep 'em from gitting dirty. Just 'fore they got to the church they stopped and put on their shoes . . ." This obviously implies that many slaves preferred to go barefoot at times, at least in summer. Still, Barrow knew the dog days of August could torment even his blacks' feet: "ground here verry hot to the negros feet." But when cold weather closed in, lacking adequate protection for the feet suddenly became dangerous. Once the jealous mistress of Harriet Brent Jacobs ordered her to take off her creaking new shoes. Later she was sent on a long errand during which she had to walk in the snow barefoot. After returning and going to bed, she thought might end up sick, even dead. "What was my grief on waking to find myself quite well!" As a slave child, Frederick Douglass recalled what going barefoot did to
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