Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).


The involuntary immigration of African slaves to America in the early nineteenth century had a secondary impact on the slaves as well as slaveholders related to the possession and use of clothing and textiles in daily life. The slaves were not allowed to bring their clothing, or other attributions of their native culture to America. Rather, the slaveholders were required by law to provide for their slaves' adequate "clothing and basic needs." These requisitions were influenced by the slaveowner's philosophy of slave management, wealth, and temperament. Dependency for these basic necessities of life on the slaveowner reinforced the dichotomy of power in the slave system and the allocations of these goods were ritualized to dramatize this aspect of the established economic and social order.

Recently published women's diaries and letters of the nineteenth-century South contain numerous references to the clothing and textile allowances or provisions made seasonally to each slave on the plantation in the antebellum South. Detailed descriptions and enumeration of the type and amount of these allotments are well chronicled as well as the writers' evaluations of their suitability and, at times, scarcity. Acquisition or production supervision and record keeping related to textile provision procurements for the extended plantation population were major responsibilities for these women. The importance of this function and officiousness of the textile presentations belies these simple textiles as a symbol of economic and social power.

This study focuses primarily on references to textile presentations and allotments found in the published diaries of three prominent women in the early 19th century South Floride Clemson; Mary Chesnut; and Frances Ann Kemble.

The rural fiefdom of a rice, cane, or cotton plantation drew its order from the economic purpose of the unit. The paternalistic society, well protected by the legal system, channeled land, wealth and power through the elitist white family structure. The black slave population was the means of production; acquired, maintained , and evaluated as they increased crop output. Paramount in all decision making concerns was preservation of the slaves as productive units. Hiring immigrant workers was a common practice for especially hard and/or dangerous work. An overseer noted: "It was much cheaper to have Irish do it, who cost nothing to the plantation if they died, than to tie up good field-hands in such severe employment" (Campbell, E.D.C., 1991:41).

The distribution of clothing and textile supplies to the slaves was a matter of plantation policy, strictly supervised by the plantation mistress, and usually was accompanied by a formal presentation. The allotments were typically bi-annual, a summer and winter supply.