well-made and comfortable log cabins, about thirty feet long by twenty wide, and eight feet tall, with a high loft and shingle roof. Each divided in the middle, and having a brick chimney outside the wall at either end, was intended to be occupied by two families.
They even had windows with glass in the center, an unlikely sight on the frontier for anyone's dwelling, but not surprising in a long-settled country. Housing that reflected frontier conditions--"log huts" many of the slaves lived in--began to be replaced by "neat boarded cottages," reflecting a more settled life, on four large adjacent plantations by a "tributary of the Mississippi." For whites, the frontier offered a means of getting ahead financially in exchange for the privations of living in the wilderness. But for the slaves, pioneer life merely meant having to endure more work and less comfort, especially in housing, without gaining anything more than they initially had if they stayed back east toiling on some large planter's estate. Consequently, for this reason and others, slaves much more commonly lived in a house where they could count the stars through the cracks, as Marion Johnson did, "the usual comfortless log-huts" (Olmsted), not a three-room wood frame duplex.83 Although some slaves enjoyed such exceptional housing conditions, these were hardly representative for most living in the South's interior, away from the lowland coastal areas of Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina, where (as Kemble's descriptions show) conditions often were hardly ideal as well.
How Much Better Was the Poor Whites' Housing than the Slaves'?
The crude housing many southern whites had perhaps best serves to indicate that slave housing was not all its apologists might have claimed. Even the master's home might be unimpressive, especially when he was a small slaveholder and/or lived on the frontier. After visiting a neighboring mistress's home on a sea island of Georgia, Kemble said typical farmhouses in the North were certainly better: "To be sure, I will say, in excuse for their old mistress, her own habitation was but a very few degrees less ruinous and disgusting [than her slaves' homes]. What would one of your Yankee farmers say to such abodes?" Similarly, although noting the homes may have signs of a former splendor or elegance, she observed, using her Englishwoman's eyes to make a comparison while calling on a mistress's home in a nearby village in Georgia: "As for the residence of this princess, it was like all the planters' residences that I have seen, and such as a well-to-do English farmer would certainly not inhabit." Considering she was living in a long-settled region of the South, this condemnation is particularly noteworthy. Olmsted stayed overnight in one old settler's home in Texas. It was a room fourteen feet square, which "was open to the rafters." The sky could be seen between its shingles. He actually spent the night in a lean-to between two doors, keeping on all his clothes in the winter weather. While in Mississippi, he deliberately decided to spend a night in a poor white family's cabin seen as typical judging from all the other ones he had passed that day. Since this family had a horse and wagon, a fair amount of cotton planted, but no slaves, they likely beat the poor white average some. Measuring twenty-eight by twenty-five feet, their log house was open to the roof. It had a door on each of its four sides, a large fireplace on one side, but no windows. In northern Alabama, an area where more whites than blacks lived, most of the houses he passed were "rude log huts, of only one room, and that unwholesomely crowded. I saw in and about one of them, not more than fifteen feet square, five grown persons, and as many children." The conditions whites in the South experienced have major implications for how the slaves lived. The poor whites' standard of housing indicates the basic ceiling on what the enslaved blacks could normally expect at best. Bad housing conditions (admittedly, in part a function of a frontier environment) for many whites indicate most bondsmen likely had nothing better, and normally had something noticeably worse.84 Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic View of Slave Housing Fogel and Engerman describe optimistically the average slave house. Measuring eighteen by twenty feet and being made of logs or wood, it had one or two rooms. It likely had a loft for children to sleep in. The floors were "usually planked and raised off the ground." But is this description justified? They considerably exaggerate the size of the slaves' homes, since the free white rural population often lived in a home of comparable size. The travelers' accounts that mention the specific size of slave cabins rarely name a figure this high. After scrounging through various travelers' accounts, secondary sources, etc., Sutch properly maintains fifteen by fifteen feet was typical, with sixteen by eighteen "an occasionally achieved ideal size." The housing Kemble encountered at her husband's rice island estate was the best of the housing conditions on his two estates. It surpassed other places she visited or knew of locally. Nevertheless, while naming a specific size, she described appalling conditions of crowding:
These cabins consist of one room, about twelve feet by fifteen, with a couple of closets smaller and closer than the state-rooms of a ship, divided off from the main room and each other by rough wooden partitions, in which the inhabitants sleep. . . . Two families (sometimes eight and ten in number) reside in one of these huts, which are mere wooden frames pinned, as it were, to the earth by a [huge] brick chimney outside.
On the new Polk estate in Mississippi, some eighteen men, ten women, seven children, and two evidently half-grown boys, thirty-seven in all, crowded into four rough-hewn houses, built in a mere eighteen days. As Bassett describes: "The trivial character of the buildings on the plantation is shown in the fact that a few years later, 1840, all these buildings were abandoned and others built in what was considered a more healthy location." As cited above (p. 57), Olmsted saw slave houses measuring twelve by twelve in South Carolina and ten by ten in Texas. Genovese maintains, based on his sources, contrary to Fogel and Engerman's claims above, that slaveholders even into the 1850s usually did not "provide plank floors or raised homes . . . although more and more were doing so." According to Blassingame, most slave autobiographers said they lived in crude one-room cabins which had dirt floors and lots of cracks in the walls that allowed the winter weather to enter. Although admitting the existence of some with higher standards, Stampp still maintains: "The common run of slave cabins were cramped, crudely built, scantily furnished, unpainted and dirty." Those that fell beneath this "average" were "plentiful" as well.85 Fogel and Engerman clearly overstate how good the slaves' housing conditions usually were.
Genovese's Overly Optimistic Analysis of Slave Housing Like Fogel and Engerman, Genovese puts an overly optimistic spin on slave housing, but here compared to the rest of the world's:
Their [the slaveholders'] satisfaction [with their slaves' housing] rested on the thought that most of the world's peasants and workers lived in dirty, dark, overcrowded dwellings and that, by comparison, their slaves lived decently. . . . During the nineteenth century such perceptive travelers as Basil Hall, Harriet Martineau, James Stirling, and Sir Charles Lyell thought the slaves at least as well housed as the English and Scottish poor, and Olmsted thought the slaves on the large plantations as well situated as the workmen of New England. . . . Even Fanny Kemble thought conditions no worse than among the European poor. . . . The laboring poor of France, England, and even the urban Northeast of the United States . . . lived in crowded hovels little better and often worse than the slave quarters.
Although his point has merit about the conditions of the southern English farm laborers, or those of the Eurasian masses, peasants and artisans, it ignores how most slaves were worse off materially than typical American free laborers. If they had not been enslaved or discriminated against, the conditions of blacks in the United States would have been better than those in most of the world because America was largely a vast wilderness full of raw natural resources awaiting exploitation by (then) modern technology. These conditions made for an intrinsically higher standard of living compared to (say) England, which suffered from the Malthusian effects of rapid population growth. Furthermore, as Sutch's reply to Fogel and Engerman over the quality of housing in the North generally demonstrates, including even New York's slums in the depression year of 1893, Genovese is too pessimistic about Northeastern urban housing standards.86 Genovese also reads too much into his citations of Olmsted and Kemble. Olmsted was not making a general point about all slaves living on big plantations having housing as good as that of New England workers when he said this about a sugar plantation in Louisiana: "The negro houses were exactly like those I described on the Georgia rice plantation [quoted above, p. 58], except that they were provided with broad galleries in front. They were as neat and well-made externally as the cottages usually provided by large manufacturing companies in New England, to be rented to their workmen." Such good conditions were hardly automatic even on large plantations, as Kemble's already cited account shows. On the page Genovese cites of Kemble, she was describing sanitary conditions and rebutting the (racist) contention that the smell of blacks and their quarters was intrinsic to their race rather than being due to their poverty and ignorance of proper habits of cleanliness. She was not discussing so much the intrinsic size or construction of the house in question, but how the peculiar institution created "dirty houses, ragged clothes, and foul smells." After comparing between the smells of slaves and a "low Irishman or woman" and maintaining both resulted from "the same causes," she said:
The stench in an Irish, Scotch, Italian, or French hovel are quite as intolerable as any I ever found in our negro houses, and the filth and vermin which abound about the clothes and persons of the lower peasantry of any of those countries as abominable as the same conditions in the black population of the United States.
Although this description likely displays some class or national bias, clearly she distinguished between the cleanliness and the intrinsic quality of building construction by saying she was "exhorting them to spend labor in cleaning and making [their homes] tidy, [yet admitting she] can not promise them that they shall be repaired and made habitable for them." She also felt that the difference between the homes slave servants lived in and their master's house was much greater than that between where free white servants lived and where they worked: "In all establishments whatever, of course some disparity exists between the accommodation of the drawing-rooms and best bedrooms and the servants' kitchen and attics; but on a plantation it is no longer a matter of degree." Focusing on their lack of furnishings in particular, she said the slave servants
had neither table to feed at nor chair to sit down upon themselves; the 'boys' lay all night on the hearth by the kitchen fire, and the women upon the usual slave's bed--a frame of rough boards, strewed with a little moss of trees, with the addition of a tattered and filthy blanket.87 After analyzing his citations of Kemble and Olmsted, Genovese clearly reconstucts too optimistically how good slave housing was relative to many free workers. As shown below, this place is hardly alone where Genovese's work draws conclusions startlingly similar to not just Fogel and Engerman's generally discredited work, but the equally discounted Slavery by Stanley Elkins as well, yet Roll, Jordan, Roll has avoided similar opprobrium and presently reigns as the leading general work of the field.
The Moral Hazards of Crowded, One-Room Slave Houses Often living in one-room cabins or shacks, slave families had to undertake special measures to help preserve their children's sexual morality. In language reminiscent of the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture in England that described the hazards of promiscuously mixing the sexes of different ages together (see p. 67 below), Olmsted cites similar Victorian reasoning on sexual matters about slaves by a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology. Although rarely put so bluntly, the basic problem was figuring out how to shield the children from the sights and sounds of parental love-making and its resulting negative moral effects. Since slave families had such limited space available--one room and (perhaps) a loft to place the children being typical--these concerns were legitimate, but slaveowners usually ignored them in their general quest to reduce housing expenses. But these wretched conditions promoted the slave father and mother's inventiveness, so they found their own solutions to this problem. Some hung up clothes or quilts to create privacy, while others used scrap wood in order to subdivide a one-room home into something closer to two. A few resourceful slave parents even made special trundle beds to ensure at least some sexual privacy. According to Genovese, these measures had at least some success.88 The poor housing masters and mistresses provided to their slaves clearly failed to promote the Victorian ideals of sexual purity that they generally professed.
Slave Housing--Sanitation and Cleanliness Housing quality can also be judged by its cleanliness and how much it lived up to the principles of sanitation. A relatively spacious or well-built home could still have terrible standards of cleanliness. Especially in rural areas, this aspect of housing quality more clearly burdens the occupants, not the owners. In other words, the master has no duty to enforce good housekeeping practices among his bondsmen besides setting up some basic guidelines to help them keep themselves (i.e., his property) from getting sick. In the quarters, the slaves should be cleaning up after themselves, not the master or mistress. After seeing two old slave women living without "every decency and every comfort," Kemble then visited the home some of their younger relatives. That home was "as tidy and comfortable as it could be made." Since this difference arose under the same master, it shows the slaves themselves had some level of responsibility for cleanliness. But admittedly, the intrinsic burdens of bondage, of working for their owners often six full days a week, ensured the slaves could only wring limited amounts of time during a typical work week for housecleaning anyway. Since the master class believed the ideology of "separate spheres" was inapplicable to field hands, housekeeping was inevitably neglected because both sexes were driven out into the fields to work. The depressing scene Kemble paints of the quarters on one of her husband's estates undoubtedly was found throughout the antebellum South:
Instead of the order, neatness, and ingenuity which might convert even these miserable hovels into tolerable residences, there was the careless, reckless, filthy indolence which even the brutes do not exhibit in their lairs and nests, and which seemed incapable of applying to the uses of existence the few miserable means of comfort yet within their reach. Firewood and shavings lay littered about the floors, while the half-naked children were cowering round two or three smouldering cinders. The moss with which the chinks and crannies of their ill-protecting dwellings might have been stuffed was trailing in the dirt and dust about the ground, while the back door of the huts . . . was left wide open for the fowls and ducks, which they are allowed to raise, to travel in and out, increasing the filth of the cabin by what they brought and left in every direction.
Kemble herself knew sheer ignorance and lack of education produced these appalling conditions, a cause which the master or mistress was more responsible for than the slaves. Having been born and raised in a deprived environment, the latter could not be expected to know better. After mentioning how some slaves were so dirty and smelly she disliked being attended by them at meals, she denied that smelling bad was intrinsic to the black race, but blamed it on "ignorance of the laws of health and the habits of decent cleanliness."89 An archeological discovery at Monticello suggests (but fails to prove fully) another pest slave housekeeping faced: Rodents left gnaw marks on the bones found where slaves had lived in or around, especially in the root cellar of one of their homes. True, some masters wished to improve conditions. For example, planter Bennet Barrow once inspected his slave quarters. Although finding them "generally in good order," he reproved some of his slaves as "the most careless negros I have." Another time he gave them an evening to "scoure up their Houses" and "clean up the Quarter &c." Some slaves themselves kept their homes fairly clean, at least by their own standards (not the higher ones a middle class observer such as Kemble judged by).90 Although Fogel and Engerman like to think otherwise, deep concern by bondsmen or masters about cleanliness was not typical.91 For good reasons most slave dwellings were neither especially neat nor orderly places.92 Although the bondsmen shared the blame for their homes' unsanitary conditions with their owners, factors mostly outside the slaves' control loomed larger than their own untidiness in spreading disease and dirt in the quarters, such as the failure of indifferent masters and mistresses to instruct them on the habits of cleanliness, the long workweek for both sexes that reduced the time available for housekeeping chores, and the flaws in building construction that let the elements in.
English Farmworkers' Housing--Quality/Size In England, the economic dynamics of building housing for farmworkers differed sharply from America's when constructing homes for slaves. The poor law, both old and new, gave the (major) ratepayers of a parish a financial incentive to avoid erecting new cottages in their parishes, and to pull down those already extant. By reducing how many were eligible for relief, they lowered their taxes.93 Ideally, the "powers that be" in a given parish wanted no more workers living in a parish than were employed year around, thus consistently keeping them off the dole. In "their" parish they strove to reduce how many could claim a settlement.94 Since the poor (under the Elizabethan poor law) could have a settlement in only one parish at a time, and could claim relief only from that one parish, these laws encouraged the ratepayers to unload "their" poor onto other parishes to be cared for. In order to lower the rates, the parish elite could combine to keep out new migrants to their parish. Ratepayers, normally the gentry and (large) farmers who rented from the former, created "closed parishes" when they were few enough in number that they, by coordinating their efforts, set up a "cartel" that kept out all newcomers without a settlement in their parish.95 When the ratepayers were too numerous and/or unequal in income to conspire successfully to keep out the poor without settlements in their community, an "open parish" resulted. Under the settlement laws, a new migrant to another parish could be "deported" (removed) to the parish of his origin (where he did have a settlement legally) when he became chargeable to his new parish.96 Consequently, the ratepayers of open parishes, which included the better-off artisans, professionals, and tradesmen, paid through the rates poor relief for the seasonally discharged/underemployed laborers who worked in nearby closed parishes for at least part of the year during the spring and/or summer months.97 Although the deeper intricacies of the local elite's machinations to lower their taxes under the poor law (old and new) has to await further explanation below (pp. 278-79, 281-85, 287-99), the impact of the poor laws on the availability and quality of housing is considered here.
Undeniably, the English farmworkers generally endured miserable conditions in housing. The conditions they suffered were less excusable than what the slaves faced: Unlike the harsh frontier conditions many slaves and their masters suffered, England was hardly a newly settled land. Although recognizing how poor much of English rural housing was, Rule nevertheless still says: "Housing is as much a matter of existing stock as of production." On the other hand, much of England, especially in the southern arable counties, had a serious wood shortage, which increased the poor's problems in finding wood for building or even cooking. Arch contrasted his father's fortunate situation, who actually owned the home his family lived in, with conditions commonly found elsewhere in England:
In one English county after another I saw men living with their families--if living it could be called--in cottages which, if bigger, were hardly better than the sty they kept their pigs in, when they were lucky enough to have a young porker fattening on the premises.
While the farmworkers' union grew, he described their housing: "The cottage accommodation was a disgrace to civilisation; and this, not only in Somersetshire, but all over the country. As many as thirteen people would sleep all huddled up together in one small cottage bedroom." According to Somerville, in most counties "the meanest hovels are rented as high" as two pounds ten shillings per year, while in Dorset the landlords charged three and four pounds a year without any garden ground for "the worst of houses" that "the poorest of labourers" occupied. Emma Thompson in 1910 recalled how life was in Bedfordshire some 80 years earlier: "I well remember three families living in one house and two families, and only one fire place. When I was first married I had one room to live in." In a two-room house (which includes the loft), she had ten children, seven surviving into adulthood. In 1797 some cottages were noted as so bad they let in the elements--a problem hardly unfamiliar to many American slaves. Examined by the Select Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act (1838), Mark Crabtree described one typical laborer's cottage as having a dirt floor, half of a window's diamond squares of glass missing, and an outside wall which had nearly fallen down. Although observing specifically of his native area in southern Scotland, Somerville still generalized to overall British conditions when he said some new cottages were built of stone and plastered inside, "with a boarding over-head, instead of the bare roof, which is so common."98 Clearly, England's farmworkers and American slaves suffered from similar housing problems.
Poor Housing Leads to Sexual Immorality? Because housing space was so limited, Anglican clerics feared the poor would be (literally) de-moralized in their sexual standards of conduct. Overcrowding mounted as, among other factors, the decline of service lowering marriage ages and the tying of relief payments to being married promoted increased population growth. The pulling down of cottages to reduce poor law taxes as the first half of the nineteenth century passed added more problems, as Rule notes. One vicar, for Terrington in Norfolk, said most of his parish's cottages had two or three rooms. Often in the latter case, a lodger rented one of the three rooms, thus requiring the family to squeeze into the two remaining rooms. Some homes had only one room. The vicar focused on one case in which a father, mother, three sons, and a grown-up daughter shared a single room. He "fear[ed] that much immorality, and certainly much want of a sense of decency among the agricultural labouring classes, are owing to the nature of their homes, and the want of proper room."99 In the general neighborhood of Farnham, Surrey and Maidstone, Kent, where the hop harvesting season in September brought in hordes of temporary migrant workers, Somerville found that bad housing conditions prevailed even before the temporary workers arrived. The migrants simply worsened pre-existing crowding still further. As a result, segregating the sexes then rated as a low priority. "The undivided state of the larger families acting upon the scantiness of house room and general poverty, or high rents, often crowds them together in their sleeping apartments, so as seriously to infringe on the decencies which guard female morals." Hart, a professional gentleman of Reigate, was appalled that brothers and sisters lived in the same room until they moved out as teenagers or adults. But still worse overcrowding appeared elsewhere: Commonly in Cuckfield, Sussex, the children of both genders slept not merely in the same room, but the same bed. Clergyman W. Sankie of Farnham knew a case in which two sisters and a brother, all over fourteen, routinely slept in the same bed together. Since general housing situations approached this nadir, the laboring classes understandably never acquired "that delicacy and purity of mind which is the origin and the safeguard of chastity." Similarly, some certainly voiced similar concerns about packing American slaves into crude one bedroom shacks. But since they were generally regarded as inferior beings with stronger animalistic desires than whites, masters and mistresses in the U.S. South more easily rationalized crowded housing conditions than their English counterparts. The latter often just simply ignored the poor conditions and the agricultural workers' correspondingly degraded character. Olmsted encountered a "most intelligent and distinguished Radical" who said about them: "We are not used to regard that class in forming a judgment of national character."100 Two surveys, one in 1842 and another in 1864 of 224 cottages in Durham and Northumberland, found most had just one room. Hence, while one part of the elite and middle class (justifiably) moralizes about the effects of bad, crowded housing, another determinedly ignores the need to improve such conditions altogether to save money, or to find ways to keep the poor permanently dependent on them.101