Plantation Life. Slave Life and Slave Codes. Slave life varied greatly depending on many factors

Plantation Life Slave Life and Slave Codes The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Interpretation of Slave Quarter, Carter's Grove Plantation, Williams...
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Plantation Life

Slave Life and Slave Codes

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Interpretation of Slave Quarter, Carter's Grove Plantation, Williamsburg

Slave life varied greatly depending on many factors. Life on the fields meant working sunup to sundown six days a week and having food sometimes not suitable for an animal to eat. Plantation slaves lived in small shacks with a dirt floor and little or no furniture. Life on large plantations with a cruel overseer was oftentimes the worst. However, work for a small farm owner who was not doing well could mean not being fed. The stories about cruel overseers were certainly true in some cases. The OVERSEER was paid to get the most work out of the slaves; therefore, overseers often resorted to whatever means was necessary. Sometimes the slaves would drive the overseer off the plantation in desperation. When slaves complained that they were being unfairly treated, slaveholders would most often be very protective of their "property" and would release the overseer.

Slaves who worked inside the plantation homes often had better living and working conditions than slaves who worked in the fields.

In some cases, a driver was used rather than an overseer. The difference between the overseer and the DRIVERwas simple: drivers were slaves themselves. A driver might be convinced by a master to manage the slaves for better privileges. Drivers were usually hated by the rest of the slaves. These feelings often led to violence. Large plantations often required some slaves to work in the plantation home. These slaves enjoyed far better circumstances. DOMESTIC SLAVES lived in better quarters and received better food. They sometimes were able to travel with the owner's family. In many cases, a class system developed within the slave community. Domestic slaves did not often associate themselves with plantation slaves. They often aspired to arrange courtships for their children with other domestic slaves.

This Slave Code booklet for Washington D.C., was published in 1862, only one month before Lincoln abolished slavery in the nation's capitol. More lenient than most states' slave codes, the District's code allowed slaves to hire themselves out and live apart from their masters. As the Peculiar Institution spread across the South, many states passed "SLAVE CODES," which outlined the rights of slaves and the acceptable

treatment and rules regarding slaves. Slave codes varied from state to state, but there were many common threads. One could not do business with a slave without the prior consent of the owner. Slaves could be awarded as prizes in raffles, wagered in gambling, offered as security for loans, and transferred as gifts from one person to another. A slave was not permitted to keep a gun. If caught carrying a gun, the slave received 39 lashes and forfeited the gun. Blacks were held incompetent as witnesses in legal cases involving whites. The education of slaves was prohibited. Anyone operating a school or teaching reading and writing to any African-American in Missouri could be punished by a fine of not less than $500 and up to six months in jail. Slaves could not assemble without a white person present. Marriages between slaves were not considered legally binding. Therefore, owners were free to split up families through sale. Any slave found guilty of arson, rape of a white woman, or conspiracy to rebel was put to death. However, since the slave woman was chattel, a white man who raped her was guilty only of a trespass on the master's property. Rape was common on the plantation, and very few cases were ever reported. Source: Plantation House Video Drayton Hall Online tour Short video of a Tennessee plantation house.

Plantation Life "There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these...They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day's work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,--the cold, damp floor,--each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver's horn." Frederick Douglass, from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

Slaves pictured in southern plantation slave quarters.

For slaves, life on the plantation was grueling work, with little respite from the tyranny of the master or overseer's watchful eyes. Depending on their size, plantations comprised a multitude of buildings: the homes of the master's family, overseer, and slaves, as well as outbuildings, barns, and workshops. Large plantations operated like self-sustaining villages, and thus, were often isolated from the outside world. Work on these plantations was never-ending for slaves. Adult male slaves were primarily relied on to tend the fields, pastures, and gardens. Overseers on horseback equipped with whips monitored slaves, always threatening to punish "stragglers" with a flogging. Plantation owners also exploited the work of skilled slaves, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, for their own ends. Lastly, female slaves and young children usually served as domestics, tending to the master's family as cooks, servants, and housemaids, and were often starved, whipped, and even raped.

Slaves at work: women picking cotton (left), and kitchen tended by a female slave in a Georgia plantation (right).

Music and religion were sources of strength for slaves, and they infused both with African culture and meaning. Because slaves often did not have the means to obtain many musical instruments, they often improvised and used their feet to tap out a tune in coordination. "Patting juba," or jubilee beating, took the form of a variety of dances that were usually accompanied by song. Despite white southerners' attempts to "Christianize" blacks, slaves infused Christianity with their own African tribal and folk customs, creating a religion that spoke to their suffering and promised freedom in the afterlife.

Slave chapel in South Carolina (left), and an unidentified banjo player (right).

Despite the squalor they were forced to live in, many slaves nevertheless attempted to eke out a life as best they could. And even though their master's claimed their bodies, slaves resisted complete domination of their mind and soul by keeping their African traditions and customs alive. Source:

Ladies 1850s-1860s Never-ending Dress - # 9761: Day or Tea This is a 3 piece outfit, skirt and bodice /blouse, and unlike the pattern. We made modifications to correct this to fit into this time period, which include under sleeves, which has a different cut as you can tell from the pattern vs. pictures below. The picture of the bodice/ top has caps, at the top of the sleeves for design. The sleeves were made for the use as under sleeves, like it probably was originally. The under sleeves are detachable to remove at dusk if desired or to wear during daytime activities. The skirt is 3 flounces over a under skirt of heavy gathers and trim in solid cotton to have the design stand out. This material IS NOT available There is so much material used in the skirt, most don't need an over hoop slip. CAUTION: this dress SHOULD NOT be made from heavier drapery material, as the weight of the dress would be excessive. It can be made from the lighter drapery/home decor fabrics, although the weight may still exceed the capacity of a normal hoop and require a steel cage hoop. Collar, can be matching or contrasting. Suggestion; a 6 bone hoop or better. Material cotton (print or plaid), taffeta (taffeta needs to be found first), collar (solid, or matching), color, measurements, sleeve caps or not? Single or just two flounces instead of three. Ladies 1850s-1860s Never-ending Dress - # 9761: Day or Tea Click an image below for a larger view

Front Side Front, close-up Front We DO NOT make identical dresses. DO NOT ask for a dress "just like" one that

we have already made. Something must be changed: color, trim, fabric design or dress pattern. Also many of the fabrics shown are no longer available. That is why we don't list specific fabric choices.



Front, close-up


Period Fashion & Fabrics Many Images on this page, please be patient while page loads     

"The Look" of the Period in Dresses Types of Dresses Fashion Elements Fabrics & Notions GITW Factor

The Look Women in Victorian society were taught from an impressionable age to conform to society's norms via serious amounts of peer pressure. To deviate from the norm was to be considered less than a lady and no one wanted to be shunned for being less than a lady. Doing your best to look your best was important, and all who could afford it aspired to attain the latest fashions. One of the measures of beauty for this look was to appear to have a small waist. To this end, women constructed gowns to accentuate this feature. The jewel neckline and center front openings were universal. Armscyes went very low onto the arm, making the shoulders look wide and sloping, thus accentuating the smallness of the waist. Side and shoulder seams were moved to the back to make a smoother line to the waist. Skirts were full to make the waist seem smaller by comparison. Sleeves were full at the elbow, to make the waist look smaller by comparison.

It should be noted that waistlines were of the period were "normal" in size. The cliché of corsets tightened to the point of permanent injury belongs to a later era, not the civil war era. Since gowns were designed to accentuate the smallness of the waist, tight corseting was not needed. Look carefully at period images, although most of these ladies' are wearing corsets, their body shape is not so different from our own. This look was the norm and most women aspired to it. The affluent bought gowns made up in the latest styles from Mantua Makers. Those who sewed their own fashions worked tirelessly to create new gowns with "the look." Poor women would rebuild old dresses to reflect the new fashion whenever possible. Some of the exceptions to this might be older women who would be wearing fan-fronted dresses from the fifties. Frontier women, farm women, nurses and working women would adapt this fashionable look into a looser, more functional version without hoops or wear wrappers and aprons. Emigrants might retain all or portions of their folk dress from their country of origin.

Dresses, Gowns and Wrappers There are many sources of information on how women of the Civil War era dressed. Fashion magazines of the day abound, and Godey's Ladies Book and Peterson's Magazine were two of the most popular. Paper patterns as we know them were not yet in use, so women were expected to view the pictures and figure out how to make them (or have their dressmaker/mantua maker make them up). Most of these fashion images were very elaborate styles, you can compare Godey's to the Vogue magazine of today. Most women could not afford to wear those styles, but they would be inspired by the silhouettes and style elements and adapt them to a simplified, more attainable look. Period photographs of women provide an excellent, detailed look at what women actually wore. To be sure, they wore their best dress (if they had one) for their photograph--a very special occasion. But comparing these "best dresses" to the elaborate styles of Godey's brings us back to reality. Pay attention to style and cut-although the fabric and design elements may vary, the basic silhouette and look remains the same. This website focuses on the styles worn by middle and working class women--the women in the majority. Those privileged few who could afford elegant, elaborate gowns were in the minority although all women, except for the very poor, had at least one good dress for church and social functions.

Fashion Elements, The Basics from Head to Toe Necklines: Jewel necklines were universal and when visible were finished with an edging of piping or tape. Most necklines were enhanced with a removable

white collar. Collars were basted in so that they could be removed from the dress for laundering. The exceptions were black collars for women in mourning and an occasional upright or frilled collar. Collars were generally enhanced with a brooch at the throat or a nice ribbon tie. Sleeves: Most sleeves were very wide, with exaggerated width at the elbow. Some were gathered at the shoulder seam and at the wrist. The Bishop sleeve was gathered at the shoulder, wide at the elbow and tapered to a narrow wrist. Others were of the "coat sleeve" variety-made of two pieces, they were smooth at the shoulder seam, wide at the elbow, then tapered to a narrow wrist or with a wide opening above the wrist and undersleeves beneath. Most photos show undersleeves worn with sleeves--a look that is under-represented at reenactments. Sleeves are often trimmed with ruching or braid in period images, another look that is not often seen on reenactors. Pagoda sleeves with huge sleeve openings over undersleeves were a holdover from the 50s that was seen throughout the 1860's. Bodices: Most bodices were fitted closely to the torso with darts from the waistband up to the bustline. Other bodices were gathered or tucked for a looser fit. Shoulders were cut very wide and extended down the arm to a dropped armscye. Bodices were generally constructed separately from the skirt, then basted to the waistband of the skirt to make the dress. Other bodices were sewn to the skirt with a single waistband, more practical for those who are active. Bodices closed with a center front opening, using hooks and eyes or buttons. Bodices were lined to give them body. Skirts: Fashionable skirts were as wide as possible, this width was accentuated with the support of hoops or multiple starched petticoats. With a very few exceptions, no trim was applied to the skirt. Skirts were not lined, nor were they hemmed as we do today by turning under a portion of the fashion fabric. Hemming was done by applying a wide band of fabric (old dress fabric, muslin, even flour sacks) to the underside to give the skirt weight for a smooth fit. This hem band was usually quite wide-6 to 12 inches were the norm. Tape was often sewn into the seam between skirt bottom and hem band to prevent wearing of the fabric edges. Skirts were fashioned to be very full, and that meant a lot of fabric must somehow be gathered up into the waist band with minimal bulk. Generally, knife pleats of various widths were used to fold the bulky fabric into a smooth line at the waist. The knife pleats were directional to the front of the skirt, where they formed an inverted box pleat.

Period Fabrics & Notions Wool was the most widely available. It came in a variety of weave, from fine to coarse. It seamed and accepted dyes well and was durable. Well made wool fabric was so closely woven that cut edges did not ravel. The standard choice for a well made and durable garment.

A type of fabric called "Linsey-woolsey" was used by farm wives and frontier women due to its durability and low cost. This fabric used cotton or linen as the warp thread, and wool as the weft thread. Considered by some to be coarse & ugly, it was, nevertheless, very important for the construction of work clothing. Silk was the standard for fine dresses, and most ladies aspired to a silk dress as their "good" dress. Silk held dye colors well and raw silk garments were quite sturdy. Fine silk was more delicate, but all the more desired. Elegant brocades were made up into beautiful gowns for the wealthy. Jean Cloth was a stout, round-twilled cloth, woven with cotton warp and woolen weft but often composed entirely of cotton. Used mainly for men's wear, it became a standard fabric used in the South. Homespun Most fabric at this time was purchased "ready made", and the art of spinning & weaving were all but forgotten in developed areas. It was essential in areas where bolt fabrics could not be purchased or blockades prevented shipments of cloth. Southern women revived the art of spinning and weaving and wore dresses made of homespun with a special pride - it was considered patriotic to make your own fabrics rather than pay high prices for Northern wool. Wool or cotton homespun was used on farms, the frontier, and in the South during the later years of the war. Cotton fabrics were always available. This soft, easy to seam fabric was much desired. Some types of cotton were ironed with steam to give it a polished, shiny finish. It accepted dyes well and could be printed with elaborate patterns. Woven cottons with plaid, stripes, windowpane plaids and gingham plaids were available. Linen made some of the loveliest fabrics for fine dresses and gowns. As this fabric wrinkled easily and required pressing with a high-heat iron it was relegated to "good dress" and fancy gowns. All fabrics were sold as lengths from bolts, and bolts were very narrowonly about 20-30 inches wide. Fabrics were available mostly as solid colors, stripes, and plaids. After viewing hundreds of period photographs, probably 80% of them feature solid color gowns, with stripes coming in second, then plaid, dots & prints. Lovely printed fabrics were used for the gowns of the wealthy, as much fabric was required to match the patterns. Remember also that Calico was considered only suitable for the lowly, and was at times referred to as "slave cloth" for it's use in slave clothing, though it seems to have been more accepted in the west. A letter from an Army wife traveling west in 1865 remarks "all the ladies are attired in calico, and I felt sorry for them that they could afford nothing better"

Fabric Colors Fabrics were available in a variety of prints, but mostly as solid colors, stripes, and plaids. After viewing hundreds of period photographs, probably 80% of them feature solid color gowns, with plaids coming in second, then stripes & prints. Lovely printed or brocaded fabrics were used for the gowns of the wealthy, as much fabric was required to match the patterns. Buttons were used as fasteners and decorative touches. Buttons were made of shell, mother of pearl, glass, bone, leather, metal, and ceramics. Selffabric covered buttons were frequent. Some fancy buttons featured exquisite portraits and designs. Ribbon was of silk cut on the bias or narrow bands of silk woven as tapes. A grosgrain type of ribbon was available, sometimes referred to as tape. Satin ribbon was featured on bonnets, and some gowns featured strips of velvet sewn on as embellishment. Braid was featured in swirling patterns on bodices, sleeves and jackets. Most trim was sewn to the bodice and sleeve. In fact, most period images show trim applied to sleeves, a look underrepresented at reenactments. Skirts were rarely trimmed (probably due to the miles of trim needed for those full skirts!) Self-piping was used frequently in bodices, to strengthen and highlight seam lines. Armscyes on bodices were generally piped, to accentuate the seam, make the shoulders appear wider and add strength. Boning was used generously, particularly in fancy or ball gown bodices. Boning was placed in casings along seam lines. Linings Period gowns were lined-sleeves and bodices but rarely skirts. Linings were not generally made of self fabrics. Women used fabric scraps, bits of old gowns, or even flour sacks for the purpose. Skirts were hemmed with a wide band of lining fabric rather than a turned under hem. This gave the skirts weight and saved on precious fashion fabric. Lace I have only rarely seen images of lace applied to gowns. Lace tends to show up attached to accessories such as daycaps, handkerchiefs, collars or cuffs. Hooks & Eyes Gowns & bodices fastened with hooks & eyes. These metal fasteners were sturdy and inexpensive. Source:

Plantation Tobacco Field

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Slaves Working in Cotton Fields

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