Eric V. Snow



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In twenty-nine cases out of thirty-one noted [by ministers making additional comments on a survey checking the effects of enclosure on grain production], the poor, in the opinion of the ministers, were sufferers by losing their cows, and other stock. . . . [In some cases] allotments were assigned them; but as they were unable to be at the expense of the enclosure, it forced them not only to sell their cows, but their houses also. This is a very hard case, though a legal one; and as instances are not wanting of a much more humane conduct, it is to be lamented that the same motives did not operate in all.
These Anglican clerics (members of a group known to be generally unfriendly to the laborers' best interests, as Cobbett and Arch made clear) made comments that indicate enclosure's role in worsening the diet of the poor in various areas following the loss of cows and other animals. One for the parish of Souldrop, Bedford observed: "The condition of the labouring poor [is] much worse now than before the enclosure, owing to the impossibility of procuring any milk for their young families." Another added, for Tingewick, Buckingham: "Milk [was] to be had at 1d. per quarter before; not to be had now at any rate." Repeatedly they saw many had to sell off or otherwise lose their cows (sixteen of the thirty-one mentioned this specifically). For Passenham, Northampton, one commented: "[The poor were] deprived of their cows, and great suffers by loss of their hogs." A man of the cloth for Cranage, Chester remarked: "Poor men's cows and sheep have no place, or any being." Such deprivations helped to breed resentment one laborer expressed against almost anyone richer than himself. While attacking farmers, lords, and parsons, he additionally brought Somerville into his line of fire: "I see you ha' got a good coat on your back, and a face that don't look like an empty belly; there be no hunger looking out atween your ribs I'll swear."53 Clearly, enclosure robbed meat and milk from the mouths of many farm laborers and their families, and was a major cause for eliminating animal foods from their diets as the enclosure movement gained steam after 1760 in areas with a labor surplus, such as southern rural England.

Allotments returned some of what enclosure had taken. These small pieces of land gave underemployed and unemployed farmworkers something to fall back upon financially. Because of the Swing riots of 1830-31 and the rising burden of poor rates caused by laborers applying for relief when their wages were insufficient to support them, the movement to rent out fourth- or half-acre pieces of land picked up speed as the nineteenth century passed. Intensively cultivated, small amounts of land could produce impressive amounts of food, as the 1843 Committee reported. One rood of land--usually one-fourth of an acre--could grow six months' worth of vegetables! Perhaps one-half would be planted in potatoes, with the rest being beans, peas, and other vegetables. One-eighth of an acre could grow five pounds' worth of crops--equal to ten weeks or more of wages for many laborers in southern England. In at least once case, such a tiny parcel produced eighty bushels of carrots, fourteen-fifteen bushels of other vegetables, which was double or triple what the typical farmer would have raised on the same land. A rood's worth of land could also yield a hundred bushels of potatoes. Young even published calculations suggesting that if 682,394 laborer's families each grew a half acre's worth of potatoes, then England would have required no grain imports in the disastrous 1800-1801 agricultural year. Because of the laborers' enormous desires for parcels to grow potatoes on--Cobbett's hated root--some landlords unscrupulously charged rents up to eight pounds per acre per year, which greatly exceeded what a tenant farmer would pay. Allotments could allow the farmworkers to keep animals such as pigs, as noted above (pp. 39-40), potentially enabling them to eat meat more regularly. One M.P. for Lincoln helped tenants by renting out small allotments to keep animals on. The 1867-68 Commission reported that in Yorkshire some laborers benefited from having "cow gates" to pasture cows in lanes nearby.54 Allotments often made a major difference in the diets of English agricultural laborers fortunate enough to have them. These were unquestionably more important in their lives than the patches of land slaveowners allowed many American slaves to cultivate. Unlike for the farmworkers, masters and mistresses automatically gave to the slaves the standard rations, which was most of what they ate, excepting some in task system areas, unlike in England unless the worker was a live-in farm servant.


Comparing the Diets of English Paupers, Slaves, and Their Government's Army
Indicating that many southern English agricultural workers arguably had a diet worse than that of many slaves, consider this comparison between the food they received and what their respective governments gave to lowly privates in their armies. The laborers per family on parish relief received less than what one soldier in the Royal Army did, but at least some slaves received rations that compared favorably to the American army's. As Cobbett vehemently protested:
The base wretches know well, that the common foot-soldier now receives more pay per week (7s. 7d.) exclusive of clothing, firing, candle, and lodging; . . . [and] more to go down his own single throat, than the overseers and magistrates allow [in parish relief] to a working man, his wife and three children.55
As a growing population raised unemployment rates and enclosure eliminated agriculture's subsistence economy, many laborers, probably a solid majority in the south, were on parish relief for extended periods during their lives, especially during the winter.56 Since arable agriculture was a highly seasonal business, many more laborers were out of work in winter than in summer, causing many to depend on parish relief or at various parish make-work jobs such as stonebreaking on the highways or flint gathering in the fields. The disproportion between at least some slaves and the U.S. Army's rations for privates appears smaller than the ratio between farm laborers on parish relief and average English soldiers. Olmsted cited an advertisement in the Richmond Enquirer which listed one and a quarter pounds of beef and one and three-sixteenths pounds of bread--presumably hardtack--as the daily ration, with an additional eight quarts of beans, two quarts of salt, four pounds of coffee, and eight pounds of sugar distributed out over each hundred days. In contrast, the Daily Georgian noted the rations for slaves being hired for a year to work on a canal. Each was to receive "three and a half pounds of pork or bacon, and ten quarts of gourd seed corn per week." At least some masters would beat this ration of pork: Planter Barrow Bennet gave "weakly" "4 pound & 5 pound of meat to evry thing that goes in the field--2 pound over 4 years 1 1/2 between 15 months and 4 years old--Clear good meat."57 Evidently, the disproportion was greater between what the British government gave its privates and its laborers in parish relief (admittedly, those not working) and what the American government gave its soldiers and a number of slaveowners gave their slaves.
Better Bread Versus Little Meat?: The Slave Versus Farmworker Diet
Many bondsmen in America had arguably better diets than many farmworkers in England, at least when living south of Caird's wage line. Three pounds of pork or bacon routinely appeared in the diet of most adult slaves, while many southern English agricultural workers, once both population growth and enclosures took off, had meat generally eliminated from their diets during the period c. 1780-1840. On the other hand, the grain the slaves ate often was coarser, and (perhaps) more nutritionally suspect. Wheat bread, often made by a baker, which most southern farm workers mainly subsisted upon, was clearly a more refined and tasty product than maize crudely pounded and cooked in the forms of hoecake and johnnycake. Reflecting how the laborers had lost meat, but had a much finer grain product compared to the slaves, J. Boucher, vicar of Epsom, observed in late 1800: "Our Poor live not only on the finest wheaten bread, but almost on bread alone."58 It remains unclear who ate more vegetables. In this regard, those laborers fortunate enough to have allotments--a serious possibility only towards the end of the period being surveyed here--probably were better off than a majority of the slaves, many of whom lived almost exclusively on the "standard rations" of corn and pork. Most farmworkers were not this lucky, and the stories of privation noted above (pp. 30-32) suggest what vegetables they had were limited to potatoes. Regional variations within England complicate this picture: The minority of farmworkers fortunate enough to live in the north near where competition for labor by industry and mining pushed up their wages were certainly better off materially than most American slaves, even before considering any more ethereal quality of life criteria. As for American regional variations, the Border States such as Virginia or Kentucky may have treated their slaves better. But the difference may have been been more in the form of less brutal treatment than in better food, since Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Charles Ball in Maryland and Virginia describe rations similar to the evidence encountered from elsewhere in the South. (Regional variations in the food given to slaves, however, need much more research). The differences between America, a sparsely populated, newly settled country, and England, a relatively densely populated and intensively farmed land suffering from the Malthusian effects of rapid population growth during its period of industrialization (and the mismanagement of enclosure), helps explain this supreme irony: The free farm laborers of southern England arguably had a diet worse than that of American bondsmen in Mississippi or Georgia. If those kept in slavery--the worst American human rights abuse, all things considered--may have eaten better than English rural laborers, that is deeply to the shame of England's elite--"old corruption."59
Clothing for Slaves
The amount of clothing slaves received is relatively well-documented, because it was a significant item of expense often bought off-plantation and then shipped and issued to the slaves instead of being made right on it. This generalization does not deny how prevalent homespun clothing was in the South, but shows planters and other masters often chose not to run truly self-sufficient plantations or farms in matters of clothing. Because low quality purchases were made, not many months passed before the slaves' "new" clothes became loose-fitting half-rags. Bennet Barrow dispensed a not-atypical clothing ration per year, at least for larger planters. In his "Rules of Highland Plantation" he stated: "I give them cloths twice a year, two--one pair shoues for winter evry third year a blanket--'single negro--two.'" His relatively frequent issue of blankets was perhaps unusual. He dutifully noted their issuance sometimes in his diary. Escaped slave Francis Henderson, from "Washington City, D. C.," recalled that his master dealt with blankets less generously--he received only one before running away at age nineteen. "In the summer we had one pair of linen trousers given us--nothing else; every fall, one pair of woolen pantaloons, one woollen jacket, and two cotton shirts." In Virginia, Olmsted learned that:
As to the clothing of the slaves on the plantations, they are said to be usually furnished by their owners or masters, every year, each with a coat and trousers, of a coarse woollen or woollen and cotton stuff (mostly made, especially for this purpose, in Providence, R. I.) for winter, trousers of cotton osnaburghs for summer, sometimes with a jacket also of the same; two pairs of strong shoes, or one pair of strong boots and one of lighter shoes for harvest; three shirts, one blanket, and one felt hat.
This optimistic description probably pertained to the more ideal masters and what slaveowners by reputation were supposed to do, or reflected the better treatment of slaves the Border States such as Virginia were known for. Later, in a conversation with an old free black man, he observed: "Well, I've been thinking, myself, the niggars did not look so well as they did in North Carolina and Virginia; they are not so well clothed, and they don't appear so bright as they do there." Additionally, Christmas gifts of certain finery could supplement the basic yearly ration of two summer suits and one winter suit, as he noted about four large adjacent plantations "situated on a tributary of the Mississippi" owned by one normally absentee planter. Slaves also could purchase clothes with earnings from working on Sundays, holidays, or late at night.60 Hence, the slaves normally were issued a certain amount of clothing yearly, but was it enough?
Bad Clothing Conditions for Slaves
Evidence repeatedly points to the everyday work clothes of enslaved blacks being near rags. The semi-tropical weather of the Deep South no doubt contributed to slaveowners' complacency with ill-dressed slaves. Perhaps the reason why Olmsted had observed better dressed slaves in Virginia and North Carolina was because planters and other slaveholders knew these states had harsher climates compared to the Deep South, which encouraged them to distribute more and/or better clothes. Even so, ragged slaves were common throughout the South. Born free in North Carolina, Thomas Hedgebeth had worked for various slaveholders. He saw how badly dressed the slaves were at one place. They had no hats while having to work in the fields in summer. As he described:
They were a bad looking set--some twenty of them--starved and without clothing enough for decency. It ought to have been a disgrace to their master, to see them about his house. If a man were to go through Canada [where he was living at the time] so, they'd stop him to know what he meant by it--whether it was poverty or if he was crazy,--and they'd put a suit of clothes on him.
The slaves Olmsted saw while passing by on a train in Virginian fields were "very ragged." At one farm in Virginia, "the field-hands wore very coarse and ragged garments." A different problem appeared on the rice-island estate Kemble stayed at. The slaves issued a fair amount of thick cloth to turn into clothes. But in coastal lowland Georgia's hot climate the resulting garments were virtually intolerable during summer, even to the blacks accustomed to the climate.61 Simply put, their clothes were so bad because their owners basically determined how much would be spent on them, not the slaves themselves. Their masters' self-interest naturally led to them to minimize "unnecessary clothing expenditures."
Slave children suffered most from inadequate clothing rations. Often they ended up with just a long shirt, although nakedness was not unknown. Aged freedwoman Mary Reynolds of Louisiana recalled what she wore when she was young: "In them days I weared shirts, like all the young-uns. They had collars and come below the knees and was split up the sides. That's all we weared in hot weather." Frederick Douglass recalled his want of clothing when he was a child:
I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked--no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees.
He found the thought of owning a pair of trousers at the age of seven or eight--offered because he was being sent to Baltimore to work as a servant--"great indeed!" Aged freedman Cicero Finch of Georgia remembered how both slave boys and girls wore the same basic piece of clothing:
An' de chillun? When dey big 'nough ter put on anything, it's a shirt. Boys an' girls de same. Run roun' in dat shirt-tail. Some de gals tie belt roun' de middle, an' dat's de only diffrunts.
In an upbeat recollection presumably blurred by nostalgia, old ex-slave Kike Epps of South Carolina described a still lower standard that prevailed for children's clothing on his master's plantation: "Dis hy'ar [banyan] shu't . . . wuh made jus' lak a sack. Got hole in top fo' de haid, an' holes fo' de arms. Pull it over yo' haid, push yo' arms t'rough de side holes, an' dar yo' is!" They would wear this bag with holes "till dey mos' growed up!" Due to South Carolina's warm climate even in winter, he wore this outfit without complaint, making for a decidedly different memory from Frederick Douglass's bitter experience in Maryland's much harsher winters. Although this pattern had exceptions, generally little was spent on children's clothes because they did no field labor when young, causing the less forward-looking "entrepreneurial" slaveowners to "invest" less in their "human capital" at this point in their lives, to use desiccated cliometric terminology.62
Differences in Clothing Provided for Slaves with Different Positions
Just as for food, different groups of slaves received different kinds and/or amounts of clothing. Most obviously, the larger planters issued better clothes to servants than to field hands, since they had to look presentable to the big house's visitors.63 They also received the cast-offs of the master's family, in the same way they enjoyed the scrapings and leftovers of the master's table. After being made a servant as a child, old freedman Henry Coleman remembered his mother told his father about one of his new needs: "That black little nigger over there, he got to git hisself some pants 'cause I's gwine to put him up over the white folks's table." His job was to swish away flies from a swing with a brush of peacock feathers over his owner's table. To wear only a shirt from that elevated position just might prove to be too revealing! Slaves with managerial duties also acquired better attire. Olmsted described the "watchman"--the top slave who served virtually as a steward and storekeeper for a large South Carolina rice planter--as being as well-dressed and as well-mannered as any (white) gentleman. One ex-slave said his father, a driver, was "de only slave dat was give de honor to wear boots."64 So at the cost of living under a master's or mistress's closer supervision, drivers and domestic servants enjoyed greater material benefits such as having better food and clothing.
Many slaves saved their best clothing for going to church on Sundays or special occasions, but reserved the worst for work. Gus Feaster, a South Carolinian freedman, remembered:
Us wore the best clothes that us had [at church]. . . . Us kept them cleaned and ironed just like the master and the young masters done theirn. Then us wore a string tie, that the white folks done let us have, to church. That 'bout the onliest time that a darky was seed with a tie.
Solomon Northrup, held in bondage in Louisiana, recalled that on Christmas slaves dressed up the best they could:
Then, too, 'of all i' the year,' they array themselves in their best attire. The cotton coat has been washed clean, the stump of a tallow candle has been applied to the shoes,  . . . [and, perhaps] a rimless or crownless hat  . . . [was] placed jauntily upon the head.
Many women wore red ribbons in the hair or handkerchiefs over their heads then as well. Kemble saw a similar phenomenon, comparing it to poor Irish immigrants who spent (judging from her middle class standpoint) too much on clothes after coming to America:

I drove to church to-day in the wood-wagon, with Jack and Aleck, Hector being our charioteer, in a gilt guard-chain and pair of slippers to match as the Sabbatic part of his attire. . . . The [male] Negroes certainly show the same strong predilection for finery with their womenkind.


Most strikingly, a free black man from North Carolina peddling tobacco in South Carolina told Olmsted how differently the slaves dressed while on the job compared to church:
Well, master, Sundays dey is mighty well clothed, dis country; 'pears like dere an't nobody looks better Sundays dan dey do. But Lord! workin' days, seems like dey haden no close dey could keep on 'um at all, master. Dey is a'mos' naked, wen deys at work, some on 'em.65
Of course, since they normally worked six days out of seven, bondsmen could not wear good clothes every work day without ruining all they had. Most lacked the necessary changes of shirts and pants to do that. Dressing badly at work compared to church or other special occasions also may have reflected their different attitudes towards the two situations. On the day they are free from work and "own their own time," they dressed to express themselves. But when they are in the fields, six days out of seven, and their time is the master's time, they avoided dressing above average or trying to impress their companions in bondage, unlike at church on Sundays. Doing so might well bring the unwanted attentions of the overseer or master against some "uppity" black.66 Bondsmen and women indulged in what Kemble called "the passion for dress" not everyday, but only on days where the immediate coercion associated with work ceased.
The Factory Versus Homespun: The Master's Decision
Masters acquired clothing for their slaves in two different ways. First, they could place orders with factories in the North or in England. Second, they could make homespun right on the farm or plantation itself. Olmsted time and time again refers to the ubiquity of homespun as worn by whites in the South, including the smaller planters, which he rarely witnessed in the North. When summarizing the economic backwardness of the South, he pointed out: "How is it that while in Ohio the spinning-wheel and hand-loom are curiosities, and homespun would be a conspicuous and noticeable material of clothing, half the white population of Mississippi still dress in homespun, and at every second house the wheel and loom are found in operation?"67 One of Bennet Barrow's most common diary notations describing his slaves' daily work concerned slave women spinning on rainy days which kept them (at least) busy. Slaves and others recalled the making of homespun clothing.68 Here the white population's standard of living constitutes a ceiling on the black/slave population's conditions. Slaves are exceedingly unlikely to have anything routinely better than their white neighbors, outside of exceptional individuals such as the aforementioned "watchman" on one South Carolina rice plantation. Homespun was coarser cloth and required much time to produce, but had the advantage of reducing cash outlays for subsistence farmers. They gained more independence from the market, but at the cost of many extra hours of labor. Submitting to the division of labor, which small farmers accessed through the market, always presents trade-offs: They could stay independent, and either go without or put more hours of their lives into producing at home what could be bought instead, or pay for it, using cash earned from cash crops sold on an open market, knowing that a sustained price drop could ruin them.
Unfortunately for the slaves, when their masters chose to rely on the market, the clothing often specially manufactured for them was of a cheap, low-grade quality. Clothes made of "Negro cloth" were durable but rough on the skin. Even clothes made of this material may not last that long, since they often had only one or two sets of clothes to wear, besides any finery they might luckily possess. Having so few clothes made it hard to wash and clean their clothes more than once a week.69 Since they often did not have another full set of clothes to change into, the daily wear and tear on what they did own was nearly ceaseless during the work week. Clearly, since the slaveowners normally chose what and how much the market produced, it was hardly a savior in providing better clothes for the slaves.
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