"Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry" by Madelyn Shaw (2012)

In 1860 the federal census counted nearly four million enslaved men, women, and children across the American South, most of them born in the United States, and the majority working in the cotton fields of the lower South. Clothing that enormous population was an industry in itself—indeed, several industries—connecting many segments of the American economy with the institution of slavery. In the absence of an authoritative, period account describing these industries, our understanding of the complex processes and systems required to clothe enslaved individuals in the early South must be gleaned from surviving letters, memoirs, extant objects, and other documentation.

Enslaved workers usually received most, if not all, of their clothing as an allowance from their owners. Some owners issued fabric, expecting the slaves to cut and sew their own clothing; some plantation mistresses cut out or supervised the cutting out of garments from plantation-made or purchased cloth, to be made up by slave seamstresses or by the mistress and her daughters; and sometimes ready-made garments or pre-cut garment pieces were imported from northern manufacturers.

Mississippi slaveholder Stephen Duncan Jr. allowed the slaves on his Carlisle plantation what one historian has called a “comparatively generous” annual allotment in the 1850s: Men and boys were given eight yards of cotton cloth to make three shirts; five and one-half yards of Lowells or osnaburg for two pair of summer pants; and two and three-quarters yards of jeans for winter pants; plus a coat made from blanket cloth and two pairs of shoes. Girls and women received thirteen yards of shirting for three shifts and a gown; two and one-half yards of Lowells or osnaburg for a petticoat; five yards of linsey for a winter gown; and, if she was a field worker, a blanket coat and two pair of shoes. Women who worked inside received only one pair of shoes and no coat. All children regardless of gender were given one linsey and three cotton “slips” made of about a yard and a half of fabric.[2]

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