The Material Culture of Slavery

The material culture of slavery acts as a unique lens with which to view the domestic life of enslaved people and the development of a new American subculture. While most raw materials were supplied by the master of the plantation, labor was primarily provided by the slaves. This resulted in a unique, and often subtle and endurable, expression of African culture in the everyday physical landscape of plantation life.

Lodging proved to be one of the most important material objects that a plantation master provided to enslaved people. Housing not only offered shelter from the elements, but also helped establish and maintain a much-needed sense of privacy. The quality and composition of slave housing varied immensely, often depending on the size of the plantation. Cabins were made out of everything from wood, to brick, to wattle-and-daub (sticks and cornstalks, covered with clay or mud). Roofing was usually made from handmade wooden shingles or was thatched, while floors were made of either packed dirt or wooden planks often provided by the plantation. While cabins often resembled English buildings, African and African American architectural styles remained common and were frequently preferred over their European counterparts.

Trade tools and crafts were also significant aspects of material culture, often helping to define the jobs and projects that were commonly left to enslaved people. Unlike urban artisans, however, plantation slaves rarely specialized in a trade skill. A leatherworker often created saddles as well as leather-based clothing such as shoes. Likewise, the blacksmith made everything from candle molds and nails, to bathtubs and balconies. Carpenters also prepared barrels and even built and manned boats. The tools and materials used by African slaves resembled traditional objects used by West African communities. Natural materials were often adapted to make domestic items, while new substances were assimilated to fit traditional African models and techniques.

Clothing and textiles, while made primarily according to function rather than appearance, often demonstrated a traditional artistic heritage and produced attractive results. Even so, a typical slave's clothing remained rough and monotonous. It was usually provided by the master or made by other slaves. Most plantation slaves in British Virginia received a new set of clothes once in the fall and once in the spring. For men, this could include one pair of woolen hose and one pair of summer breeches, one waistcoat, two coarse linen shirts, a blanket and a pair of shoes. For women, one might be given an overcoat and petticoat, a summer petticoat, one pair of woolen hose, two coarse linen slips, one blanket, and a pair of shoes. The fabric was almost always very plain - brown linen, brown cotton, and coarse wool, usually unbleached. Shoes, if worn, were usually wooden-soled clogs that were replaced annually. Aside from clothing, textiles were frequently used for bedding. Blankets covered straw or feather mattresses or were stuffed with old rags and linen bedding. The master sometimes provided generic linen pallets, though slaves were also known to make their own.

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