Fashion of the Forgotten: Researching the Dress of Indentured and Enslaved Women, 1750–90

How do you study the material culture of 18th-century indentured and enslaved servants?

Clothing of the lesser sorts prior to the 19th century is rarely preserved in museum collections and is even less likely to have any sort of provenance. This lack of preservation of the tangible heritage of my research group presented me with an interesting scenario upon my arrival at Winterthur: I research material culture that no longer exists. The study of the working class is one of an assembly of fragments, perhaps including a runaway advertisement, a scrap of preserved textile, a rare sketch of a street or farm scene, or a rarer journal entry listing textiles purchased to clothe servants.

Fig. 1. A runaway advertisement from The Pennsylvania Chronicle, 8 February 1768. Occasionally a woodcut of a woman or a fleeing figure was used to draw the reader’s attention to the advertisement. This woman is depicted wearing a cuffed gown, handkerchief around her neck, cap, trimmed hat and mitts, a garment rarely noted in runaway advertisements. Newspaper Collection, Serial & Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (v. 1248) United States of America. Photograph: The Author.

Fig. 1. A runaway advertisement from The Pennsylvania Chronicle, 8 February 1768. Occasionally a woodcut of a woman or a fleeing figure was used to draw the reader’s attention to the advertisement. This woman is depicted wearing a cuffed gown, handkerchief around her neck, cap, trimmed hat and mitts, a garment rarely noted in runaway advertisements. Newspaper Collection, Serial & Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (v. 1248), United States of America. Photograph by Rebecca Fifield.

Since 2000, I’ve been assembling a database of 1,000 indentured and enslaved women who ran away from their masters. Owners would post an advertisement for the eloped servant in the newspaper, listing not only her physical characteristics but also her clothing (Fig 1). These advertisements provide one of the few glimpses into what possessions a working woman might have owned.

The bulk of female servants from 1750–90 who are advertised in newspaper runaway advertisements are from the Mid-Atlantic. Philadelphia was a major center for indentured labor, not only due to its role as a major port but also from expansive agricultural activity around the city. Annapolis, Maryland, received the bulk of transported convicts from England. South of Williamsburg, Virginia, only enslaved women are listed in runaway advertisements, indicating that female indentured labor had been phased out south of Virginia by the second half of the 18th century. Only five percent of the runaway advertisements collected represent New England women, and many of these were enslaved. This is perhaps due to the labor shortage in New England prior to the Industrial Revolution and the fact that that many apprenticeships and indentures were established either as education for local children or relief for the poor.

Fig. 2. This pocket in the Winterthur collections (60.248) is printed with a pattern known as “shell,” which was mentioned occasionally to describe fabrics runaway servants wore. Catherine Preden ran away from Newport, Delaware on Sept. 24. 1757, wearing “a striped Calicoe Gown, with Shells.”

Fig. 2. This pocket in the Winterthur collection (60.248) is printed with a pattern known as “shell.” Catherine Preden ran away from Newport, Delaware, on Sept. 24. 1757, wearing “a striped Calicoe Gown, with Shells.”

Organizing descriptive data for 6,000 garments worn by women in the study within a database provides new opportunities for analysis, such as common colors for certain garments, how textiles were used, and how women assembled garments of different pattern and color together on their person. The database reveals that approximately 40 percent of all upper body garments – gowns, jackets, and the like – were made from coarse printed textiles (Fig 2). Several women also used printed textiles to ornament their jacket cuffs and underpetticoat hems, including Ann Dawson, who wore a “coarse Linen Petticoat, with a double border of Calicoe on it” when running away from Eastown in Chester County, Pennsylvania (3/14/1765, The Pennsylvania Gazette) (Fig 3).

 

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: This petticoat suggests what Ann Dawson’s petticoat, with a printed-fabric border, looked like. Dawson was a runaway servant in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1765. This petticoat, made of plain-woven linen, has a five-inch border of fabric printed in blue with a resist method.  Museum purchase with funds provided in part by Mrs. Vietor, Mrs. Ruth Lord, and Mrs. Porter Schutt 1995.0028

It would be wrong to assume that poorer women were uninterested in fashion due to their circumstances. Not only did they seek inexpensive luxury in purchasing printed and silk handkerchiefs for wear around their neck and silk ribbons to trim caps, hats, and as a cheap alternative to jewelry, but many mixed printed, striped, and checked materials to achieve a colorful and loud appearance, based on the inexpensive garments available to them. Eleanor Armstrong ran away from William Evitt’s Philadelphia household in October 1771 wearing a plethora of patterned garments:

a long chits [sic] wrapper, of a yellow ground, with large red and brown sunflowers the pattern, the sleeves pieced near the cuff, with red and brown spotted calicoe, and broke under the arms; and over said wrapper, a short gown, with some red and white stripes and sprigs through it, a good deal worn, and pieced under the arms with check linen, the colour much faded; a new camblet skirt, of a deep blue . . . and one old ditto, of a light blue colour, a good small check apron, of a bad colour, a green Barcelona handkerchief, much faded, one large blue and white check ditto, marked in one corner E.E. a clean cap, with a black sattin ribbon, tied round her head, and brought under her chin, a blue cloth cloak, with a cap to it, tied at the neck with a narrow worsted tape; an old changeable silk bonnet, lined with blue silk, and tied with a white ribbon.

Fig. 4. Sally Bronsdon Clothing List. Joseph Downs Collection. Winterthur Museum. Doc. 1136.

Fig. 4. Sally Bronsdon Clothing List. Joseph Downs Collection. Winterthur Museum. Doc. 1136.

Runaway advertisements describe the women’s appearance and belongings at the time of their elopements, but while at Winterthur, I wanted to investigate how textiles were supplied to servant women. A short list of clothing kept by Sally Bronsdon, a New England girl who served as an apprentice to Mr. and Mrs. Davenport for almost seven years, is preserved in the Joseph Downs Manuscript Collection. The clothing list is extensive (Fig. 4). Among some of the first garments she received were items both old and new, including “1 Calico Long gound old” and “1 grean Base gound New” [sic].

Henry Melchoir Muehlenberg complains about the inflation of prices during the American Revolution, especially when it comes to the cost of clothing for his maidservant. He wrote in his journal on February 27, 1779,  “In the evening I settled accounts with our maid, Susanna Klein, who has now worked for us six months, since August 15, 1778. Wages at £3 per month total £18. During this time she has worn out two pairs of shoes, which cost £6, and she had to pay £9 for an ordinary, necessary hat, called a Bonnet, so she has only £3 left. Food and clothing are fabulously expensive; they are asking £15 for a hundred weight of flour for bread.” Muehlenberg wrote his journals in German, but used the English word for Bonnet, generally denoting a often baseball cap or scoop-shaped hat with a stiffened brim and poufed crown, often made of black silk (Fig. 5). In comparison, silk bonnets are sold by Edward Dixon in Port Royal, Virginia, for 12s. in 1768.

Fig. 5 - A SOCIETY of PATRIOTIC LADIES./ AT/ EDENTON in NORTH CAROLINA. Robert Sayer & John Bennett (Publisher), Philip Dawe (Mezzotinter). March 25, 1775. Winterthur Museum 1957.1255. The woman bending forward to sign the petition is wearing one style of bonnet popular during the 2nd half of the 1770s. Another woman standing to the background beyond her is wearing a different version, with a shirred crown and peaked top. This print, depicting an American subject, was printed in England.

Fig. 5 – The woman bending forward to sign the petition is wearing one style of bonnet popular during the second half of the 1770s. Another woman standing to the background beyond her is wearing a different version, with a shirred crown and peaked top. This print, depicting an American subject, was printed in England. A SOCIETY of PATRIOTIC LADIES./ AT/ EDENTON in NORTH CAROLINA. Robert Sayer & John Bennett (Publisher), Philip Dawe (Mezzotinter). March 25, 1775. Winterthur Museum 1957.1255.

John Wistar stocked textiles of a variety of grades in his Philadelphia shop. Some of the textiles he specifically intended for women who had smaller clothing budgets but still had a need for style. Within his order book, he notes on June 26, 1764, that he wants shalloons (a cheap twilled worsted, often glazed) in blue, white, light cloth color, green, and copper brown “all of the lowest prices.” Upon ordering printed calicoes and cottons, he repeatedly entreats, “Let all those cottons & calicoes be small running sprigs, set flowers, & spots & full of work & of the lowest prices.” He orders a variety of patterns each time, describing in an order to David Barclay and Sons on March 1, 1766, both the more expensive to produce textiles, “printed calicoes 2 color & blue solid & shagrine ground” with those that would be simpler and therefore cheaper “printed cottons single purple.” The former textile would have required multiple processing with mordants and repeated dyeing in order to exact the colored ground and two- color patterning, followed by application of pencil blue, whereas the later textile would have only required one process to print it with a single purple pattern. Printed purple fabrics were popular among working women, and they figure prominently in runaway advertisements, such as Jane Scott’s elopement from New London, Pennsylvania, on June 29, 1765, when she wore a “Cotton Gown, light ground and purple sprig.”

Investigating the clothing of working women illustrates not only their desires in personal embellishment and how this community molded their own dress trends outside of that of mainstream fashion but also their participation and influence on American commerce.

For further reading:

Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal; The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002.

Fifield, Rebecca. “Had on When She Went Away: Expanding the Usefulness of Garment Data in American Runaway Advertisements 1750–1790 through Database Analysis,” Textile History, 42, 1 (May 2011), pp. 80–102.

Galenson, David W. “White Servitude and the Growth of Black Slavery in Colonial America,” The Journal of Economic History 41, no. 1 (March 1981).

Jonathan Prude, “To Look upon the ‘Lower Sort’: Runaway Ads and the Appearance of Unfree Laborers in America, 1750–1800,” The Journal of American History 78, no. 1 (June 1991).

Salinger, Sharon, V. “Send No More Women: Female Servants in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 107 (Jan. 1983).

Styles, John. The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Rebecca Fifield is a former Winterthur Research Fellow (July 2013) and Collections Manager for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more posts from Rebecca, please visit her personal blog, thestillroomblog.com.

This entry was posted in Academic Programs, Decorative Arts, Students & Alumni, Textiles and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Fashion of the Forgotten: Researching the Dress of Indentured and Enslaved Women, 1750–90

  1. This was fascinating! I hope you will be publishing a longer version of your results. I’d be interested in what differences existed between the clothing of enslaved and indentured women.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>