Eric V. Snow



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The softest couches in the world are not to be found in the log mansion of the slave. The one whereon I reclined year after year, was a plank twelve inches wide and ten feet long. My pillow was a stick of wood. The bedding was a coarse blanket, and not a rag or shred beside. Moss might be used, were it not that it directly breeds a swarm of fleas.
In Georgia on the rice-island plantation, Kemble saw slave women freely hazarding these risks from moss by placing it upon "a rough board bedstead." Meanwhile, some servant boys slept on the hearth by the kitchen fire. Such rough accommodations--near Washington, D.C., escaped slave Francis Henderson similarly had "enjoyed" a "board bed" like Northrup's--could become comfortable, "being used to it." So even though Evans and Johnson recalled better bedding conditions than Henderson or Northrup, nostalgia and acclimation combined presumably caused them to overstate how well off they were. Olmsted's encounter with vermin in the bed of a fairly typical white family's home indicates what many slaves undoubtedly suffered when sleeping on anything softer than boards.112
Besides beds, slave cabins normally were sparsely furnished or equipped. Kemble saw no chairs or tables in the cabins of the servants--presumably the materially better-off slaves--who waited on her at her husband's rice-island estate, where conditions were better than the average of other nearby plantations. The slaves also often owned various ceramic objects, such as pots, cups, bowls, and plates. Their distribution on plantations reflected the slaves' and overseers' positions in Southern society as subordinate to the planters. Domestic servants predictably possessed better crockery than field hands. In his area of Louisiana, Northrup said slaves were "furnished with neither knife, nor fork, nor dish, nor kettle, nor any other thing in the shape of crockery, or furniture of any nature or description." Only by working on Sunday, their day off, could slaves earn the money to buy the utensils needed for food storage and civilized cooking. Note one reason why Rose Williams of Texas found her master's quarters pleasing: They were furnished with tables, benches, and bunks for sleeping. A mixed picture emerges, since some masters provided more than others, and the slaves themselves found ways to get or even make furnishings, including chairs, and utensils, depending on their individual initiative. For example, Mary Reynolds said the men sometimes made chairs at night. Similar to their split on slave housing, Genovese portrays the situation for furniture and utensils more optimistically (but here accurately) than Stampp's dire picture. Nevertheless, the better-off slaves acquired basic cooking utensils, furniture, and kitchen crockery often through their own efforts and resourcefulness, not necessarily because supposedly paternalistic masters generously handed out these items.113
English Agricultural Workers: Home Furnishings, Utensils, and Crockery
The farmworkers' cottages were unlikely to be better equiped with furniture, utensils, or crockery than the bondsmen's quarters. While testifying before the parliamentary committee investigating the operation of the New Poor Law, Mark Crabtree's description of what furnishings the laborers had resembled reports about what slaves owned. He found one cottage, occupied by a laborer who had worked twenty years for one farmer, to have one chair, a chest, three stools, a table of two boards and a piece placed on four hedge-stakes, and two straw beds without blankets for nine people. The beds were attached to the wall on one side, and supported on two posts on the other, similar to the beds of many slaves. The home of one unemployed man presented a similar but perhaps more desperate situation because his family had pawned possessions in order to buy food. It had two chairs, a similar table built on hedge-stakes, four beds of straw with one blanket for all of them, four coverlets, and two basins. Its kitchen utensils amounted to two broken knives, one fork, one tea-kettle, two saucepans, three plates, and two broken plates. Apparently, these pathetically few possessions were all fourteen people had. Somerville's semi-apocryphal "ploughman" living in Wilton, Wiltshire, complained about having a "wretched home . . . . without any comfort, almost without furniture."114 For him, this grinding poverty characterized even a fairly normal year! The furnishings and utensils of the agricultural laborers could not be plentiful when so many of them already lived so close to subsistence, which their ordeal in buying clothes when paid such low wages demonstrates.
In times of crisis, such as high prices due to crop failure, the laborers emptied their cottages in order to fill their stomachs. In Dorset, when the port of Poole lay nearly at a standstill in 1843, in the surrounding countryside many of the laborers' cottages were nearly or literally empty. Evidently, at least the pawnbrokers were doing brisk business. Visiting the pawnbroker was also necessary to fulfill a condition for going into the workhouse: A family or elderly couple had to sell off their furnishings, because otherwise they were too "rich" to get parish relief. Knowing firsthand the severe financial stress of laborers under such stress, Somerville commented:
It has always seemed to me a grievous error to deny out-door relief to families in temporary distress, whereby they are compelled to undergo the most cruel privations, or submit to break up their little homes, sell off their furniture, . . . and become thorough, confirmed, irredeemable paupers.
Similar dilemmas still face the clientele of today's welfare state bureaucracies. The English poor law was designed only to relieve the most desperate, including those who sold off nearly everything besides the clothes on their back in order to make themselves sufficiently "desperate."115 As a result, the homes of laborers may prove to be nearly empty of household items because of high food prices or long spells of unemployment. By contrast, since the slaves did not have to fend for themselves, they never suffered the calamity of selling off their furniture in the event of financial disaster, but they were denied the advantages of independence and freedom in increasing their self-respect.
Fuel--the Slaves' Supply Versus the Farmworkers'
The bondsmen had undeniably better fuel supplies than the farmworkers. In the United States, the problem was having too many trees, not too few. Trees had to be chopped down and the stumps removed before cultivation began. Here the slaves most clearly benefited from living in sparsely populated frontier areas, as opposed to a long-settled region where most of the trees were already cut down, such as in southeast England. Even on Kemble's husband's rice-island estate, where a priori one might think trees would be scarce, a preserve of trees and other vegetation was allowed to remain so that her husband's "people" could still easily get firewood. Perhaps best illustrating the attitude of the owners of forested land in the frontier South, one master told Olmsted while he paid (because it was the holidays) his slaves to turn wood into charcoal, "that he had five hundred acres covered with wood, which he would be very glad to have any one burn, or clear off in any way." Masters and mistresses normally just let their slaves collect their own firewood from uncleared land on or near their property, feeling no need to supply it to them. According to Olmsted, since the slaves uncommonly liked having fires, they took extra opportunities to create them. On one Virginia plantation, the hands made "a fire--a big, blazing fire at this season, for the supply of fuel is unlimited," which they used to cook their food also.116 Due to this natural resource's abundance, it cost little or nothing to use, allowing the slaveholders to grant the slaves this minor indulgence. Indeed, the slaveholders could even benefit as it helped clear the land for crops. At least in this one case, the New World's material abundance clearly benefited the slaves, since wood approached being a free good like air in America's eastern forests.117
By contrast, the agricultural workers of England often endured a truly desperate fuel situation, especially in arable areas in the southeast after enclosure. First of all, England had been chopping down its forests excessively for centuries; real shortages of wood had developed in many areas. One inn-keeper Olmsted encountered, of a village near Chester in 1850, thought America's "wood fires" were an unusual phenonemon. Indeed, growing wood shortages helped to push the English to replace charcoal with coking coal in iron making, which Abraham Darby in 1709 was the first to use successfully. A number of decades passed, however, before English ironmakers used coke extensively for smelting iron, as Deane notes.118 Because of wood shortages, many agricultural laborers burned other vegetation as fuel, such as furze, turf, or peat. Compared to coal or seasoned firewood, these were inferior fuels.119 The hedges which fenced off one farm from another often provided fuel, as Young knew. Farmer and former relieving officer Edward Butt recalled for the 1837 Poor Law Report that in his youth (c. 1790), laborers got fuel by paying a half guinea to get a thousand turf from a nearby commons in the Petworth, Sussex area. At that time, the farmers charged nothing to their laborers for transporting it to the latter's homes. Fuel cost much less then. In arable areas, the laborers were normally worse off, for reasons Cobbett saw: "No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes: a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farm-house. All the rest is bare of trees; and the wretched laborer has not a stick of wood." One plowboy of about sixteen near Abington in southern England said he had hot food only once a week, when his master let him and other boys working for him boil potatoes. Otherwise, he only ate bread and lard--cold. No fire warmed him in winter as he slept in the loft of the farmer who employed him, excepting sometimes when he stayed with local cottagers.120 Hence, fuel shortages hurt the poor by chilling them in winter and by limiting how they prepared their food year around. It promoted the buying of more expensive ready-made food such as baker's bread. Furthermore, money spent on fuel was not money spent on food. In southern England, the high cost of fuel helped to lower the quality of the laborers' diets.121 Shortages of wood or other materials for fuel could extract the ultimate cost: In southern Northumberland, where the laborers had lots of fuel, their death rate rose less than that of others in the harsh year of 1864.122
Shortages of wood or other vegetation provoked major conflicts between laborers and local landowners, especially after enclosure eliminated wastelands or commons that the former had used to get fuel. Landowners often imposed restrictions on gathering fuel in order to protect their game's habitat. For example, in 1825, the Earl of Pembroke ordered the villagers of Barford to take no dead wood from his forest, Grovely Wood. He had "discovered" they had no legal right to do so. Yet, as a customary right, they had taken wood from this forest for centuries. In retaliation, Grace Reed and four other women she led resisted the Earl. After defiantly gathering sticks from the Woods, they returned home. They were sentenced to jail after refusing to pay the fines imposed. But the next day, the women were freed, and Pembroke quickly declared, following further investigation, that the people of Barford had the right to remove dead wood from the forest after all. Clearly, their act of civil disobedience saved them their customary right. Elsewhere, the poor were less lucky. In Wiltshire, those living in villages next to the Fonthill and Great Ridge Woods were not allowed to gather dead wood for the same reason--protection for game animals such as pheasants and rabbits. Because the rabbits multiplied after this area was made off-limits, the forest's hazelnut trees soon died off after being stripped of their bark. This forest soon stopped supplying nuts to those who came even from long distances to gather them. In this case, having no recourse for decades afterwards, the poor lost out on both fuel and food. Hudson saw (c. 1910) its dead wood lying around as if it were an undisturbed primeval forest. The cases in which the rich gave away or sold fuel to the poor non-profitably hardly compensated for the losses inflicted by enclosure, game protection, and general deforestation. Although in America the slaves continually struggled with their masters for material advantages, an overabundance of wood ensured conflicts over it were rare or non-existent. But in England, disputes over fuel supplies were endemic. There, a child breaking a bough from a tree for any reason could be sentenced to the House of Correction, as the Hammonds noted.123 Since slaveholders felt little need to protect the wild animals in areas only recently hewed from the wilderness, the slaves were usually free go hunting. In contrast, the agricultural workers constantly disobeyed their overlords' restrictions on hunting and its spillover effects on obtaining fuel supplies (see below, pp. 367-69).

Slave Medical Care
Whether done out of financial self-interest or paternalistic altruism, slaveholders often had (white) physicians treat the slaves. Masters and mistresses usually wanted no treatable diseases or injuries to reduce or eliminate their human property's financial value. (But, as Kemble knew, their rationality could not be assumed).124 Sometimes the master or overseer gave medicine or some treatment such as bleeding to his slaves. The blacks also had their own resources: many larger plantations boasted homegrown "conjurors" using herbs or spells to help cure fellow slaves of afflictions. Since slave midwives assisted other women at birth, they did not necessarily rely on doctors for deliveries. Unfortunately for the slaves and just about everyone else in Southern society excepting perhaps the physicians themselves, the crudeness and backwardness of antebellum medical science ensured it delivered at least as much harm as cure. For many sick bondsmen, the plantation's resident witch doctor's rituals and herbs arguably were more effective than the white physician's bag of tricks, which included leeches for bleedings. Despite its general ineffectiveness, even lethalness, large planters such as Barrow still could pile up the doctor's bills. In a day and age when doctors charged around $1 to $5 per house call, Barrow spent (assuming accurately kept figures) just $69.18 for 1838-39, but $288.25 for 1839-40 and routinely $300 or more annually afterwards.125 The slaveholders' investment in their bondsmen encouraged high expenditures on their medical care, even when paternalism did not.

Masters willingly had the same doctor treat both their families and their slaves on the same visit, which shows some surprising impartiality in providing medical help. Planter Bennet Barrow noted in his diary: "Dr King practising on two of my negros--& my family &c."126 This "race mixing" he took for granted despite his rigid insistence on enforcing the color line other times.127 So long as they were the absolute rulers of blacks, white slaveholders readily and necessarily accepted situations that would have appalled diehard post-reconstruction segregationists. Correspondingly, Barrow (as well as the doctor himself) lightly pass over a white physician treating blacks and whites during the same visit living on the same land.
The General Backwardness of Antebellum Medical Care
Although slaveholders paid doctors good money to treat their slaves, positive outcomes from treatment were hardly guaranteed. Between bad treatments (e.g., bleeding and questionable "medicines") and professional incompetence, it was frequently safer not to have a doctor in the house. Barrow condemned one doctor who visited his place during a small epidemic: "number of sick ones, asked Dr Hail to see Marcus and a more undecisive man I never saw. made great many attempts to bleed him, but failed & large veins at that, Died at 11 ok." Other planters evidently placed less faith in bleeding than Barrow, at least when the overseer did it. Plowden C. J. Weston, rice planter of South Carolina, prepared a standard contract that his overseers signed which included this statement: "Bleeding is Under All Circumstances Strictly Prohibited, Except by Order of the Doctor." Counting a completed bleeding as an accomplishment and a botched one a failure, as Barrow did, accepted the premises of a backward medical "science" still practicing treatments more suited to the Dark Ages than to the nineteenth century's spirit of progress. Despite the general crudeness of antebellum medical science, it still performed some recognizably modern treatments. One day planter Barrow noted in his diary: "Number of cases of Chicken Pox, Vaccinated all my negros, Old & Young Most of them with good taking scars, but have now the appearance genuine." Regardless of what treatments the doctor gave, still patients died sometimes. Overseer George W. Bratton wrote to his employer, planter (and later U.S. President) James Polk, about the fate of one of his slaves: "Losa died the sixteenth of this month [November 1838] I had good atten[tion] paid to her I call in and other phisian to Loosa she died with the brest complaint."128 Good intentions sometimes still brought bad results!
Masters Sought Ways to Reduce Medical Expenses
Undoubtedly, many masters and mistresses cut corners by calling in physicians only when their slaves were really sick or injured. After describing the Old Miss as stingy with the food rations, freedman Tines Kendricks of Georgia said she acted similarly about getting a doctor to help Mose, a young slave boy:
Aunt Hannah, she try to doctor on him and git him well, and she tell Old Miss that she think Mose bad off and ought to have the doctor. Old Miss she wouldn't git the doctor. She say Moses ain't sick much, and, bless my soul, Aunt Hannah she right. In a few days from then Mose is dead.
Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered getting cheap medicine and a doctor's visit being a last resort:
We didn't have much looking after when we git sick. We had to take the worst stuff in the world for medicine, just so it was cheap. That old blue mass and bitter apple would keep us out all night. Sometimes he have the doctor when he thinks we going to die, 'cause he say he ain't got anyone to lose, then that calomel what that doctor would give us would pretty night kill us. Then they keeps all kinds of lead bullets and asafetida balls round our necks.129
Apologists for slavery might have claimed that the slaves automatically got medical care from their owners, unlike the North's "wage slaves" from their employers. But since slavery also gave the masters practically unlimited freedom in determining how to control their bondsmen, no guarantees existed for the provision of medical care regardless of any possible laws stating otherwise. The slaveholders cannot be given total freedom to make the slaves' will their will, yet easily stop those neglecting to give what supposedly gave the slaves material security (here, medical care) that replaced the uncertainties of freedom. The slaves really had neither security nor freedom because the master had practically nearly 100 percent freedom to order them about and to treat them as he wished, excepting the extreme cases where white neighbors mobilized against his excessive cruelty by their (likely low) standards.

Masters and Overseers as Amateur Healers for Slaves
On his or her own a slaveholder might provide medicines or even an infirmary. By administering medicines himself or herself, a slaveowner could avoid calling in a doctor to begin with, thus possibly save a dollar or two. Certainly they had financial motives for seeking medical information, since it could save the lives of their human property while simultaneously keeping the doctors away. Freedwoman Mary Reynolds of Louisiana remembered the (rather dubious) medicines her owner gave out: "Massa give sick niggers ipecac and asafetida and oil and turpentine and black fever pills." As Stampp observes, often overseers or the masters themselves diagnosed and treated sick slaves, using doctors only as a last resort. Granted this, Fogel and Engerman sensibly infer: "Planters sought to be, and overseers were expected to be, knowledgeable about current medical procedures and about drugs and their administration." Planter Weston had his overseers pledge to refrain from using strong medicines, "such as calomel, or tartar emetic: simple remedies such as flax-seed tea, mint water, No. 6, magnesia, &c., are sufficient for most cases, and do less harm. Strong medicines should be left to the Doctor." Because overseers' low educational levels usually corresponded with a minimal knowledge of medical science, this master avoided entrusting too much of his slaves' lives and health to their medical judgment. But Kendricks' mistress dispensed medicine where he lived: "Old Miss, she generally looked after the niggers when they sick and give them the medicine. And, too, she would get the doctor iffen she think they real bad off 'cause like I said, Old Miss, she mighty stingy, and she never want to lose no nigger by them dying." This mistress knew being penny-wise may be pound-foolish. But she still hesitated to admit a slave may be really sick because they frequently shammed sickness to avoid toiling by the sweat of their faces: "Howsomever, it was hard sometime to get her to believe you sick when you tell her that you was, and she would think you just playing off from work. I have seen niggers what would be mighty near dead before Old Miss would believe them sick at all." Kemble's husband's rice-island estate had a six-room infirmary. Despite looking good on paper, in reality it was filled with weakened bodies scattered amidst an appalling spectacle of filth and rubbish, darkness and cold. This place was, supposedly, where its "patients" went to recover from sickness! Some bondswomen attempted to receive a little warmth from a feeble fire in its enormous chimney, while "these last poor wretches lay prostrate on the floor, without bed, mattress, or pillow, buried in tattered and filthy blankets, which, huddled round them as they lay strewed about, left hardly space to move upon the floor." The "hospital" on her husband's sea island cotton estate was still worse.130 Hence, between the crude medicines and primitive buildings used for medical treatment, the provision of health care by masters and mistresses for their slaves did less good than what might be claimed.
Black Medical Self-Help: Conjurors and Midwives
By having their own resources in the form of conjurers (i.e., shamans or witch doctors) and midwives, the slaves did not entirely depend on their owners for medical help. The black community did not just passively wait for what "ole massa" might hand out, but also looked to help themselves in health care and other needs. Like the slave preacher, the plantation conjurer served as an independent source of authority (religious, not just medical) to the slaves. Unlike drivers and domestic servants holding more prestigious positions (at least to the whites), the conjurer's activities did not fully fall under the white chain of command. Sometimes white medical science even adopted the "cures" slaves used on themselves in its own practice. According to Kemble, one physician told his white patient to bind the leaves of the poplar tree around his rheumatic knee, "saying he had learned that remedy from the negroes in Virginia, and found it a most effectual one." "Auntie Rachael," living in a cabin near Raleigh, North Carolina, gave a long list of treatments for diseases based on black folk wisdom. She had learned them from her mother, who had been a "docterin' woman." Her "cures" included giving mare's milk for whooping cough, smearing the marrow of a hog jowl on the skin lesions caused by the mumps, putting on a mud plaster and wearing little bag around the neck with a hickory nut to cure shingles, various buds and herbs for making tea to cure bad colds, and tying a charm around a child's neck to ward off disease: "A bag o' asafetida is good [as a charm]; er, de toe-nails of a chicken is mos' pow'ful!"131 Although these "cures" seem positively naive and superstitious nowadays, they may have often followed better the principle of medicine that states "First, do no harm" than the white doctor's bag of tricks.
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