Types and Construction of Housing
The terms "quarter" and "cabin" were most often used to refer to slave housing. The former, developed out of the seventeenth-century "quartering house" for indentured servants, came to be associated with slave housing more generally, while cabin implied a small domestic building of inferior construction, often made of logs. Both log cabins and quarters typically were one-story structures with one or two rooms. In addition to an individual building, the term "quarter" could refer to a clustered group of slave houses physically separated from masters and often under the charge of an overseer. The term also was applied to a division of a larger farm or plantation that encompassed crop fields, woods, housing for slaves and perhaps an overseer, and other agricultural or industrial support buildings.
Slave houses varied in size and layout, and many different types of houses could exist on a single plantation, especially those with large enslaved populations and wealthy owners. House servants and craftsmen usually lived in quarters near the owner's main dwelling and residential complex, collectively known as the home house quarter. Enslaved agricultural workers, or field hands, resided in smaller cabins near fields. The most modest of these had unfinished interiors and dirt floors, shuttered windows, and chimneys formed of wood and mud. These so-called farm quarters also included an overseer's house and related outbuildings such as barns and corn cribs. Slave quarters or cabins could be placed in single file along a road or plantation "street," in parallel rows, or randomly distributed as a "slave village." Quarters located near the main house on elite plantations were likely to have been built of more durable materials and often echoed the generally more elaborate architectural design schemes adopted there. Thus, home house quarters tended to be sturdy frame structures set on masonry foundations, while some were even built entirely of brick or stone.
The earliest cabins had no foundations and were erected around timbers set in the ground. This method of construction was shared by most other Chesapeake buildings, including the homes of slaveholders. The posts supported a relatively slight wooden frame, which was enclosed by clapboarded sides and roof, and heated by one or two fireplaces with wooden chimneys. Other cabins were made of logs, joined together at the corners and supported by only a slight masonry foundation, or none at all. Most of this housing was poorly built—described by the Englishman Edward Kimber, who visited Virginia and Maryland in 1736, as "Huts or Hovels"—and there was little expectation that it would last for more than a few decades. Quarters sometimes were constructed of brick and stone, although in most of Virginia this seldom occurred outside of elite plantations or in urban settings where wooden housing was subject to threat of fire. Roofs were predominantly covered with wood: split shingles, clapboards, slabs, or rough boards. This was the case even in urban areas, although fire insurance policies dating to the antebellum period indicate greater use of terra cotta tile, metal, and gravel roofs, again largely due to the concerns over fire.
The violent and disruptive nature of the international slave trade and the Middle Passage meant that enslaved Africans were likely to be separated from their families either before or after their arrival in America. Masters often resorted to housing large numbers of unrelated individuals together in barracks-like structures in order to supervise and impose control over their workers. Archaeological evidence from a site dating to about 1690 in James City County has revealed such a quarter. The relatively small structure (26 by 16 feet) was supported by posts set into the ground and included a single interior fireplace that probably was serviced by a wooden chimney. As such, it is typical of the type of impermanent construction in use throughout the region at this time. Of particular interest is the discovery of fifteen features within the building footprint that are interpreted as sub-floor pits used for storing personal items. Similar features have been found with regularity in the Tidewater in association with the houses of enslaved laborers. The remarkable density of pits in the James City County example suggests that a large number of unrelated individuals were housed there.
A duplex was a double cabin or quarter with exterior doorways providing entry to each room, and no interior access from one space to the other. Each room had its own fireplace, with chimneys positioned either at the ends of the structure or with a single chimney placed in the center with flues to serve both fireplaces. The relatively large number of surviving duplexes that date to the 1820s–1850s are generally more substantial and weather-tight, with continuous foundations or masonry piers, raised wooden floors, glazed windows, and brick or stone fireplaces. Some duplexes had interior wall plaster and trim boards, but the majority were more cheaply built. Their interiors were enclosed with plain sheathing or were left with the framing exposed and covered with whitewash, and the garret above was unheated and could be accessed only by a ladder.
In the nineteenth century quarters were often "improved," reflecting a new attitude among masters that combined Christian duty, paternalism, scientific agricultural reform, and a sharp business approach to slave management. Whereas earlier quarters generally had few and small windows, covered only with wooden shutters, new houses tended to feature windows with glass panes. Some masters may have used such improvements to signal to their peers that they were rich enough and moral enough to invest in higher-quality accommodations for their slaves. More importantly, though, glazed windows provided improved light and ventilation that kept slaves healthier, and allowed for extra indoor work as well.
Slave houses ranged widely in size, although they became more standardized over time. Masters may have preferred smaller slave houses, such as the 12 by 14 feet (168 square feet) cabin that survives in Stafford County. But the range in the sizes of slave quarters was nevertheless quite broad, from distressingly small buildings measuring only 8 by 8 feet, to those 18 by 20 feet and larger. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, quarters with a single room often measuring only 140 square feet of interior space became the norm. In the early to mid-nineteenth century the sizes of quarters expanded to about 230 to 250 square feet. While duplexes provided more space overall, commonly measuring 16 by 32 feet (512 square feet), these buildings were designed to accommodate two separate households.
As they did on rural plantations, some urban slaveholders erected separate quarters for their enslaved laborers outside of the main house. With the more confined setting the quarters were generally pushed to the side or rear portions of the house lot. Because most urban slaveholders owned only one or two workers, accommodations often could be found within the main house, usually in spare and sparsely furnished spaces. One common strategy, on plantations as well as in towns, was to require that laborers sleep in the buildings where they worked, including kitchens, laundries, smokehouses, and stables. Kitchens were particularly popular as mixed-use buildings and featured either two rooms on the first floor, separated into the kitchen and quarter, or a kitchen below and quartering room above.
Slave Quarters as Creole Architecture
African traditions were not invisible, however. Even while the large majority of houses were designed in the European-American style, some scholars have suggested that certain architectural characteristics found in slave housing are African-inspired. These include spatial units of 10- or 12-foot squares, thatched roofs and wattle walls, and the one-story, linear "shotgun" house type.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Pogue, D. J., & Sanford, D. Slave Housing in Virginia. (2016, September 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Slave_Housing_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Pogue, Dennis J. and Douglas Sanford. "Slave Housing in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Sep. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 15, 2016 | Last modified: September 20, 2016
Contributed by Dennis J. Pogue and Douglas Sanford. Dennis J. Pogue is an adjunct associate professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland. He was formerly the director of archaeology and then vice president for preservation at Mount Vernon.