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Slave Clothing

In December 1794, Thomas Jefferson first recorded in his farm book the clothing distributed to each of his slaves.1 Because he noted the quality and quantity of materials beside the name of each slave, 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. Monticello slave Peter Fossett, a house servant, recalled: "As a boy I was not only brought up differently, but dressed unlike the plantation boys."2

Jefferson began his 1794 clothing allotment entries with the household staff, the most privileged of Monticello's slave hierarchy. 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 of household slaves. 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 household slaves 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 adult household slaves but was superior to that of the majority of Monticello slaves. 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 slaves 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 artisans and agricultural slaves — 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 slave — even the children — received several skeins of thread. Although not listed on the distributions, the slaves were obviously provided the tools they needed to make their clothes, as sewing implements such as thimbles, straight pins, scissors, and bone buttons have surfaced in archaeological investigations of the shops and dwellings along Mulberry Row.

Jefferson issued a total of 60 pairs of shoes to Monticello slaves in 1794. Excluded from the shoe allotment were slaves too old to work, in this instance Old Aggey and Juno, and children under ten. It was perhaps in imitation of the young slaves around them that Jefferson's grandchildren Anne Cary and Thomas Jefferson Randolph once refused to wear shoes. In January 1795, Jefferson wrote to his daughter that her three year old son "has not worn his shoes an hour this winter. If put on him, he takes them off immediately .... Within these two days we have put both him and Anne into mockaseens, which being made of soft leather, fitting well and lacing up, they have never been able to take them off ...."3 Possibly this solution occurred to the caretakers of Anne and Jeff because it was one to which slave parents sometimes resorted.

-Gaye Wilson, 1999. Originally published as "Slave Clothing at Monticello," in Monticello Newsletter, 10, no. 1 (Spring 1999).

Further Sources

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


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