Background and Sources
Other reminiscences of enslaved house servants also have survived. Paul Jennings labored as an enslaved footman at Montpelier, the Orange County plantation of James Madison, and later in the White House. In 1865 he published A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison. Bethany Veney cooked for her owners in the Shenandoah Valley before her manumission and the publication, in 1899, of The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman. Elizabeth Keckley, a skilled seamstress of elite women's clothing, published Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868). The story of Shadrach Minkins, an enslaved house servant who escaped from Norfolk in 1850, became a cause célèbre when he later was arrested in Boston, while Mary Richards Bowser labored as an enslaved servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond during the Civil War. She is believed to have spied on behalf of her Union-sympathizing owner, Elizabeth Van Lew. The stories of both Minkins and Richards appeared in newspapers. The experience of Sally Cottrell Cole, who served the domestic needs of faculty at the University of Virginia, can be pieced together from public records and in the letters of her owners.
Among their many tasks, house servants were charged with maintaining fires. At a mansion such as Monticello, for instance, there were as many as eleven fires burning during the winter months. Houseboys and housemaids, some as young as eight years old, every day hauled firewood into the house and ashes out of it, in addition to sweeping interior hearths and blacking andirons and the tools associated with indoor fires. They also carried fresh water to bedroom ewers and pitchers for washing, and emptied the dirty water after use. Houseboys cleaned all the outside shoes of the house's residents and guests. They emptied and rinsed chamber pots for family and guests. In some settings such utensils had to be emptied into a common bucket and carried some way from the house to be emptied. At Monticello Jefferson paid one particular man, Nace, a regular salary for cleaning out the sewer that led away from Jefferson's suite of rooms. Each bedroom and hallway was swept and dusted at least every other day and fresh linens put on beds likely once a week.
Servants regularly swept and then, on hands and knees, scrubbed and waxed the floors. With no screens to cover open windows, insects and dust made such tasks even more frequent and onerous during the summer months and led to yet another job: covering often costly art and furniture with gauze or linen sheets to protect them in between uses or the arrival of visitors, when the coverings were removed.
Seamstresses sewed sheets and towels and repaired all rips and tears. They also darned stockings and repaired or remodeled children's and women's clothing. In addition, seamstresses cut, sewed, and repaired clothing for the larger enslaved community. This could be a demanding task if a report from Mount Vernon was typical. On December 23, 1792, George Washington wrote to one of his overseers that the seamstresses had fallen behind their weekly quotas of shirts, singling out an enslaved woman, Caroline, who "(without being sick) made only five; Mrs Washington says their usual task was to make nine with Shoulder straps, & good sewing." Washington then threatened to remove some seamstresses to the fields.
Butlers and cooks communicated with their masters or mistresses during the day about their responsibilities, the number of guests to be expected for meals, and the food stuffs necessary for various menus, which were planned several days in advance. Butlers directed the work of the house staff, announced meals and sometimes served in the dining room, and answered the door to guests. It was necessary for butlers to understand the social status of guests—whether a new arrival was a member of the family, a dignitary, or an important local person—in order to lead them to the appropriate reception space in the house.
A cook was given charge of the kitchen, with one or more scullions working under him or her. The job of a scullion was, above all, to obey the cook, but also to kill, scald, gut, and prepare chickens, wash and pare vegetables, feed the fires, clean pots and pans, stir pots, rotate spits, and to learn the kitchen skills that might allow them to apprentice to the cook. The kitchen staff produced the major daily meal along with breakfast, and a later evening tea or supper. They might be called upon to cook meals for any invalids in the household, as the sick were thought to need special foods.
Household work was so necessary and time consuming that even during the wheat harvest at Monticello in June 1794, when Jefferson tasked all available hands to bring in the crop, the women of the Hemings family were excepted. At that time they formed the core of the household staff, expertly performing difficult work. As the harvest was brought in, they kept the mansion running smoothly, tending to the white family and guests, preparing meals, washing laundry, and supervising children. They handled the firewood, slops, and foodstuffs, swept the floors, made the beds, and served all meals.
Part of the Larger Enslaved Community
The enslaved men and women who worked in the house appeared to have received similar food rations as other slaves. Monticello records show the same weekly issues of corn and meat to both house servants and field hands. And work in the kitchen did not mean access to leftover food. An important part of a mistress's duty was to see that all foodstuffs for the white dining table were doled out with strict adherence to quantity needed for specific recipes. The leftovers from the dinner were reserved for other family meals and were likely not consumed by the kitchen staff. Instead, like all enslaved laborers, the household servants sought to balance their diet through gardening and the raising of chickens for eggs and meat.
In an oral history provided during the Great Depression by the former slave Henrietta King, of West Point, she notes that field hands actually received more to eat than house servants because of her particular mistress's stinginess. King also recounts the horrific punishment she received as a child for stealing a piece of candy from the kitchen. White owners' worries about theft were pervasive, but it is difficult to detail the particulars or common occurrence of such thefts. House servants likely felt pressure to find adequate food, and it's not always clear how they prepared their meals. Some masters regularly gave part of each person's ration to the cook to make a communal dinner. Others may have let their servants make arrangements within family networks to cook enough to feed them and their young children every day.
At Monticello, members of the mixed-race Hemings family, many of whom were related to Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, largely labored in the mansion house. But contrary to popular tradition, house servants at elite plantations were not more likely to be mixed race. The historian Winthrop Jordan speculated that the proportion of enslaved people who were mixed race was about the same among household servants as in the larger enslaved population. Thus in some regions of the South and at some elite plantations they would have been very common, at others not. Being noticeable and remarked upon by visiting whites and possibly teased or bullied by enslaved peers has given the mixed race house servant more of an historical emphasis than the actual numbers warrant.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Sorensen, L. Enslaved House Servants. (2019, February 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Enslaved_House_Servants.
- MLA Citation:
Sorensen, Leni. "Enslaved House Servants." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Feb. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 14, 2019 | Last modified: February 4, 2019