You are here

Slave Clothing

In December 1794, Thomas Jefferson first recorded in his farm book the clothing distributed to each member of the enslaved community at Monticello.12 Because he noted the quality and quantity of materials beside the name of each individual, it is possible to imagine not only the appearance of Monticello's enslaved community, but also the ways in which their clothing became a visual indicator of age, gender, and — most importantly — status. Peter Fossett, an enslaved house servant at Monticello, recalled: "As a boy I was not only brought up differently, but dressed unlike the plantation boys."3

Jefferson began his 1794 clothing allotment entries with the household staff, the most privileged of the enslaved community. Jefferson's personal servant headed the list, a documentary position that corresponds precisely to the quality of the clothes he received. For Jupiter, there was a coat, waistcoat, cloth breeches, and over 10½ yards of Irish linen to have fashioned into shirts and cravats. These items constituted the basic pieces of any stylish Virginian's wardrobe, but the fabric and trim along with cut and fit would distinguish the garments as servants' livery.

Jefferson next listed the brothers James and Peter Hemings, both of whom received the same clothing as Jupiter, but instead of breeches, they received "overalls of cloth." A surviving pair of Jefferson's own overalls confirms that such garments were similar in cut to the fashionable knee breeches, but they were secured with buttons from waist to knee along each outer leg, were made of a sturdy cotton, and represented a much more utilitarian garment.

If Jefferson's notations concerning clothes are a reliable indicator, the sisters Critta and Sally Hemings and their niece Betsey Hemmings stood just beneath Jupiter, James, and Peter in the Monticello hierarchy. Like their male counterparts, each woman was issued a quantity of Irish linen with which to make shirts. Unlike the men, they were not issued any ready-made garments. Rather, they received wool flannel to fashion warm undergarments; for outerwear, they were provided with callimanco, a worsted wool fabric with a fine gloss finish and often patterned with stripes or flowers. A garment made of such cloth would have distinguished these three house servants from the women who worked outside wearing coarsely woven, solid-colored woolens.

Among the enslaved domestic servants were four boys — Joe Fossett, Wormley Hughes, Burwell Colbert, and Brown Colbert — who ranged in age from nine to 14. In quality and cost, their clothing ranked below that of the adults but was superior to that of the majority of their fellow enslaved individuals. Instead of Irish linen for shirts, the boys received osnaburg, an unbleached linen-hemp fabric. Then, for their outerwear, they received a more costly fabric called "bearskin," a durable napped woolen that was, according to Jefferson's notes, blue in color. Since they were the only individuals issued this particular fabric, their clothing would have given them a visual identity as boys who worked in the house.

By far the greatest portion of the 1794 clothing distribution list pertains to the 93 enslaved artisans and field laborers — adults as well as children — who lived at Monticello. This majority received osnaburg coupled with a coarse, plain woven wool cloth for their outer garments. Along with this cloth, each person — even the children — received several skeins of thread. Although not listed on the distributions, it appears that the tools need needed to make their clothes, as sewing implements such as thimbles, straight pins, scissors, and bone buttons were also provided as evidenced by their appear excavation in archaeological investigations of the shops and dwellings along Mulberry Row.

Jefferson issued a total of 60 pairs of shoes to Monticello in 1794. Excluded from the shoe allotment were adulst too old to work, in this instance Old Aggey and Juno, and children under ten.

Further Sources

Filed In: 
Slavery
Related Links:
Plantation Archaeological Survey
Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery
Textile Shop
Monticello Classroom: An Enslaved Craftsman
Overview of Mulberry Row

Participate

Login or register to participate in our online community.