Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Buttons and Breeches Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

[image] Late eighteenth-century fieldworkers under watchful eye of overseer (Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland. Sketch by Benjamin Latrobe) [LARGER IMAGE]

Archaeology at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, coupled with the third president's fastidious record keeping, are opening the closet door on the clothing of enslaved Africans. At Monticello, each slave, even children, was given several skeins of thread, though there is no mention in Jefferson's records of doling out thimbles, straight pins, scissors, and bone buttons, all of which were found in excavations of shops and dwellings on Mulberry Row, on the south slope of Monticello just below the mansion.

Sewing implements appear to have been evenly distributed among the free white and enslaved black artisans and household slaves who lived and worked there. This may suggest that all workers made or at least mended some of their own clothes.

Jefferson's records reveal that in 1794 his personal servant, Jupiter, was favored with a coat and waistcoat, cloth knee breeches, and 10 1/2 yards of Irish linen--all the trappings of a fashionable Virginian, although the low quality of the fabric and trim would have revealed his status. Female household slaves were allotted Irish linen for shifts, wool flannel for underwear, and patterned worsted wool for outerwear (stylish ladies of the day wore solids). Household slaves wore overalls; Jefferson had a pair of these sturdier breeches himself. Boys assigned to the house, agricultural workers, and artisans were given unbleached linen hemp. Sixty pairs of shoes were doled out in 1794; children under ten and slaves too old to work were passed over that year.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America