United States Slavery: Slave Children's Clothing

Figure 1.--The children pictured here are Rebecca, Charley, and Rosa. All three were slave children from New Orleans. This photograpg was probably taken in 1864. Click on the image to see the full card. Here we are discussing clothing, but the image here raises the question of light-complexioned slave children, obviously children fathered by slave masters in this case apparently over several generations.

A sizeable number of Americans through the mid-1860s lived in slavery. These black Americans lived mostly in the southern and border states. The fashions discused on HBC for the mid-19th century are those worn by free whites. Some blacks lived in northern and even southerm states as free, but not all franchised citizens. The vast majority of blacks, however, were slaves living in the South. The clothing worn by these Americans need to be addressed. It is probably fair to say that slave children were dressed poorly. The principal concern here almost certainly was money. Thus with most slave holders the primary concern about clothing was cost. The clothing slave children received depended somewhat on the conditions of servitude. No examination of historical boys' clothing styles in America would be complete wihout an examination of slavery which was a legal institution until 1863-65. HBC has very limited information on slavery and how slave children were dressed at this time, but it is an issue we hope to persue. There are limitations here as there are few photographs of slave children until he arrival of Federal troops in southern slave states. Some of the photogrphs that were taken are of light-complexioned children. These are course are the offpring of white masters and lave women. These children often became houuse servants are were quitely shipped north by theie fathers. The limitations to the photographic record mean that we have to rely hevily on the written record. Here of course considerable must be taken as the philosophical and political orientation of contemporary authors hs to be considered. Slave children were normally provided one or two simple garments. These might be referred to as "shirts" for boys or "dresses" for girls. In fact there was only little difference.

CDV Series

There are limitations in assessing slave children because there are few photographs of slave children until he arrival of Federal troops in southern slave states. Some of the photogrphs that were taken are of light-complexioned children. These are course are the offpring of white masters and slave women. These children often became houuse servants are were quitely shipped north by theie fathers. The image shown here was published by the New York photographer Paxson (figure 1). The history of the image and effort to raise funds for the "slave children" pictured is printed on the reverse of the card. The proceeds from the sales of these images were to be used for the "education of Colored People in the Department of the Gulf now under command Maj. Genl. Banks" as indicated on the reverse.

Inadequate Clothing

It is probably fair to say that slave children were dressed poorly. The principal concern here almost certainly was money. Thus with most slave holders the primary concern about clothing was cost. The clothing slave children received depended somewhat on the conditions of servitude.

Plantation slaves

The clothing received by plantation slaves in the Deep South was the most inadequate. Profits on large plantations were achieved in part by keeping costs low. (This can be seen in the North where industrialists attempted to keep wages low and to break unions.) Thus finding cheap clothes was much more important than than style and comfort. Another former slaves writes, "The children of both sexes usually run around quite naked ... only with an old shirt, which they would put on when they had to go anywhere very particular for their mistress, or up to the great house." [Brown, p. 325.] One notable factor here was modesty. Modesty had become a major aspect of clothing and fashion. Adults and even children were normall clothes from neck to toe, with some exception for younger children. Another exception was how slave children were dressed on large plantations. Visitors, especially northern and foreign visitors were often shocked with how children were dressed. An example is an officer in the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment visiting a plantation in Virginia. He was shocked with how teenagers serving dinner were dressed, "I am surprised this does not hurt the feelings of the Fair Sex to see young boys of about Fourteen and Fifteen years Old to Attend them. Their whole nakedness Exposed and I can Assure you It would Surprize a person to see these d-- d black boys how well they are hung." [King, p. 58.] This was most pronounced on plantations which normally had only a limited number of outsiders visiting.

Small-holder slaves

Not all slaves worked on large plantations. Some slave holders might own just one or a small number of slaves. This included both farmers and individuals in town. These slves were employed in a wide range of activities. Some were involved in agricultural labor, but in towns jobs included both domestic service as well as occupations includig various types of skilled labor. The slave children growing up in towns were commonly dressed better than plantation slaves. The reason here was that they were not largely hidden away like plantation slaves. Some slave holders might have been under social pressure to clothe and feed their slaves adequately as so many other people could observe the condition of the slaves. But at even more powerful factor was probably modesty. Away from the plantations it was just not socially acceptable for children beyond a very young ge to be seen naked or nearly naked. Thus town slaves were likely to be dressed similarly to poor whites. Or some owners mike tke a special interest in a child. The situation could be quite different for the owners of a small number of laves, especially when affectionate bonds developed. Tryphena Fox for example delighted in her l5 year old slave--Adelaide. Fox loved to make the little girl "dress up" garment, which she "ruffled ... & took pains to make it fit her very nicely." She also described plans to make a "nice white apron" (this may have been a pinafore) for Adelaide which she explained was mostly meant to be a fashionable addition. [King, p. 56.]

Household slaves

Another group of slaves were the household servants. Normally they would be dressed better than the field hands. Some plantation owners even outfitted coachmen and postillions in elaborte livery. A variety of factors were involved here. Not uncommonly light-skinned slaves were selected for the household servants. In some cases they were actually the children of the slave holder or his sons and other relations. Commonly they were dressed better than the field slaves because they might be issued better quality garments not issued to the field hands. Or they might be given old clothes from the slave holding family. In the same way they might get garments for their children.


Just how slave children's clothing varied is difficult to assess. Therewere variatins from slave holder to slave holder. A major factor must have also been the conditions of servitude. The slaves most poorly dressed must have been slaves on the large plantations of the Deep South. The nature of the owner was also a factor. Some owners were more benevolent than others. We notice that on some plantations, the chikdren essentially webn naked. In the warm weather of the Deep South this was not a health issue. We supect that the owners did just not want to spend money unecessarily.


Chronology is normally a factor we like to follow in detail. As concerns slave children this is virtualy impossible. There are several issues here. First of all, photography only existed for a little over two decades after the invention of photography (1839) and the appearance of photographic studios. And the early photographic formats, especiually Daguerreotypes, were relativly expensive. As a resul, there are few photographic images of slave children. And the few we have are either household slaves or slaves recently liberated by Federal forces during the Civil War. As we rely heavily on photography in our website, this is a severly limiting factor. Second, fashion which is normally a major motivating factor did not apply to slave clothing. The slaves themselves were not doing the purchasing. It was their master who was not concerned with fashion. Rather he was usually concerned with practical matters like cost and durability. Third, most slaves were involved in mannul labor. Thus the clothes they wore were selected with thiuz i mind, practical, durable clothing. And pratical styles varied far less than fashionable styles. Fourth, economics did vary and affected the ability of slave owners to provide for his slaves. Slavery was asoocited with cotton only after the turn of the 19th centurry. The American South became dominated by King Cotton as as the plantations moved west after the War Of 1812 into Alabama, Mississippi, Laousiana and eventually Texas, enense fortions were made. Slave owners were in a much better position to provide for their slaves. As far as Inknow, this isue has not been addressed in the extensive literature on slvery. We have no evidence that slave living conditions improved. A complicating factot here was rising fear among slave oners of aebellion and the passage of laws in the southern states placing increasing restrictions on the lives of slaves.


While we believe it is a reaonable assumption to say that slave children were dressed poorly, one hs to be careful here. One needs to compare how slave children were dressed with a comparable strata of free children. Photography in the era of slavery was primarily studio photography. And mothers dressed up heir childen in their best clothes. In addition, until the CDV appeared in the early-1860s, photogrphy was exensive. Thus there is an overepresentation of children od the well-to-do. Thus you do not want to compare slave children with children from affluent families in the fashionable northeastern cities. The comprison should be with the ordinary children of working-class chilren especially rural children because slaves at the time of the Civil War lived in the rural South. The best comparison would be with white rural children in non-slave holding families. Obtaining such photographs is a complicated matter. And in the North there were major changes as the developing industrial economy began lifting wages and living standards. It is notable how much better northern children are dressed in the CDVs of the 1860s hant the Dags and Ambros of the 1840s-50s.


The fabric used for slave clothing was mostly cotton. I'm not sure if the plantations made cotton fabric or bought cheap fabric from northern mills. It was in any case coarse fabric. Some s'aves might have osnaburg (homespun wool). Booker T. Washington vividly reclls the shirt fabric that he was issued was "largely refuse' which felt like "a dozen or more chestnut burrs" chaffing against his skin. Surprisingly, he recalls this as the "most trying ordeal" which he was "forced to endure as a slave boy."


Practices varied from plantation to plantation. Commonly slaves were issue fabric rather than actual garments. The fabric for children was issued to their mothers. Slave mothers might received cloth to make clothes rather than the actual garments. One plantation slave holder, McDonald Furman, had the fabric for slave children cut before the annual distribution of material to the adult slaves. He thought this kept the parents from "wasting or trading off their cloth." The wives of slaveowners on some plantations had the responsibility for supervising the making of the slave clothing.


Slave children were normally provided one or two simple garments. These might be referred to as "shirts" for boys or "dresses" for girls. In fact there was only little difference. One noted slave account describes the allotment on one plantation, "two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes". Children got much less. "Children under ten years old had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers. They had two coarse tow-linen shirts per year, and when these worn out they went naked till the next allowance day." [Douglass, p. 44.] Plantation slave children did not normally wear shoes and went barefoot much of the year. This was possible because most slaves lived in the South and thus the warm weather made it feasible to go barefoot most of the year. Shoes were a special problem for slave children. Because shoes are relatively expensive garments, there was a desire to avoid cosly outlays for shoes. This was especially true for children who as a result usually went barefoot. But even in the Deep South there were a few months in which shoes were needed. Some slaveholders purchased inexpensive brogans or attempted to mke hem on the plantation. [King, p. 55.] When shoes were provided, children soon outgrew them. One former Louisdiana slave recalls, "Shoes was the worstes' trouble. We weared rough russets when it got cold, and it seemed powerful strange they'd never git them to fit ... they got me a new pair and all the brass studs in the toes. They was too li'l for me, but I had to wear them. The trimmin's cut into my ankles ... the scars are there to this day". [Reynolds]

Southern Views

There were comments in Souther magazines and newpapers about slave clothing, including the clothing of slave children. Some of this was prompted by the comments of visitors and travelers, especially when the comments were published in northern or European books and pereodicals and read in the South. One Southerner wrote, "A lot of ragged little negroes always gives a loud impression to strangers." He went on to discuss the relationship between material well being and manageability. [Gilmer]

Personal Hygene

Visitors to Southern plantations sometimes described ragged, filty children. This led to a discussion poorly cared for children and negligent patents. In fact, slave parents had little ability to keep their children clean. Active chlidren were constantly getting dirty. Smller children were crawling on the floor amnd most slave cabins had dirt floor. Mothers of young children will appreciate what would be involved in keeping young children clean with dirt floors and no running water. In addition slave mothers worked in the fields or at other jobs all day and thus had little energy or time to attend to their children.


Modern laundry detergents had not yet been invented. Lye soap and beating on rocks caused the small clothing allocation to rapidly deteriorate. [King, p. 57.]


Brown, John. "Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown." I was Born a Slave: An anthology of Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Yuval Taylor. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 322-411p.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995).

Gilmer, W.W. Southern Cultivator (April 1852).

King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in 19th Century America (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Reynolds, Mary. "Mary Reynolds: Dallas, Texas." American Slave Narratives: An online Anthology. May 6, 2004. Unfortunately as is often the case, the page has been taken down. This is one reason that we are hesitant to make links to interesting psites, so often they are fleeting posts. It was, however, a valuable source. oprfully only the URL has changed and the anthology is available elsewhere.


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Created: April 7, 2002
Last updated: 2:25 PM 4/17/2015