Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Cassandra's Circle #8: Molly's Cotton Boll

Cotton Boll for Mollie (Chesnut?)

One reason Mary Boykin Chesnut's book that reworks her Civil-War diaries is such a classic is her skillful development of character in the dialogue. The reader falls for a few of the dramatis personae, among them Molly her personal maid during slavery and a long-time friend and business partner.

Molly, probably photographed in the early 1860s at the
Quinby Studios in Charleston, from 
Mary Boykin Chesnut's photograph album

In 1860 Kershaw County, South Carolina had 8,000 black inhabitants and 5,000 white.

It's so hard to get even a glimpse of the African-American life during slavery
but Molly's story as told by Mary gives us much.

Mary's manuscripts at the South Carolinia Library 
University of South Carolina

Despite her professed distaste for slavery Mary was totally dependent upon slaves, particularly at Mulberry plantation---doing just about nothing all day but reading and a little sewing of slave clothing for her mother-in-law, the plantation mistress. During the war when Mary's world expanded to Richmond and Columbia Molly often was in attendance, the behind-the-scenes genius of the Chesnuts' fabled parties.

"My Molly" ran Mary's household, took care of her clothes, cooked her meals in gourmet fashion and gave her much advice, welcome or not. On a train trip in 1863 Molly decided to take on the bad manners of the Chesnut plantation overseer Adam Team. The train was crowded. Team got Mary two chairs, the extra for her feet and she slept. Molly got the floor with her head against a chair. She woke up when she heard Team bragging about the Chesnuts:
" 'Listen, Missus, how loud Mars Adam Team is talking. And all about old Master and our business, and to strangers. It's a old old Master is and how rich he is and all that. I am going to tell him stop.' Up stalked Molly. 'Mars Adam, Missus say please don't talk so loud. When people travel they don't do that away."
The Yard

Molly, married to Lige, had several children, mostly cared for by her mother while she and Mary traveled. Mary mentioned a sick baby in 1861 and  Molly had a six-month old in February, 1865, meaning she could not accompany Mary in her post-war escape from South Carolina. Instead young  Ellen went as Mary's personal maid with Laurence, James Chesnut's valet. Molly was probably sorely missed as Ellen was new at the personal maid business, although enthusiastic to learn.

Cotton Boll by Pat Styring

Molly stayed behind with her children at the Mulberry plantation. "She remained to look after my things---Mrs. Preston's cow, etc.etc." 

Woman in the egg business

Molly and Mary had been in the dairy business for a while. An 1861 entry in the manuscript diary:
Molly come...the chicken business goes on finely. If I can only raise eggs & chickens & butter---a great fall off for a cotton planter. [Molly] says the negroes say nobody shall touch my poultry. 'Missis' things,' nobody shall meddle with.' " 

Plantation scene by the Quinby & Company Studio in Charleston

In the fall Molly reported that the poultry business paid splendidly, but there was a problem with  overseer Adam Team (she didn't like him--with good reason we can assume.)
He took the best of their butter and "will not pay her for it." "Gesticulating round the room like the orator she was born...'He takes my butter and your things. His wife has grown so fat she has to go through the big gate---the little one too narrow for her now. No wonder Sundays they put two of your hams on their dinner table. Bless god! Two hams they eat." 

Sketch of a woman on the street in New Orleans

In the butter and egg partnership Mary seems to have paid for the livestock and feed; Molly made butter, collected eggs and marketed them to their mutual benefit. This partnership on shares lasted long after the war, giving both cash in the terrible post-war economy. In the Chesnut's 1878 account book Colleen Glenney Boggs found an entry for Molly's wages: 3 dollars.

Freedpeople outside their cabin near Camden, 1880s.
Much of the Chesnuts' postwar income was based on rent for the
 former slave cabins at Mulberry to the former slaves.

Portraits from Quinby's in Charleston

Quinby Studios background includes a monumental column, a studio setting often seen in Southern portraits from the war years. Molly's has the column but a painted railing different from the rail seen in most Quinby photos like Mary Chesnut's on the left. We can guess Mary who collected photos commissioned Molly's portrait there.

Block #8 Cotton Boll by Susannah Pangelinan

Two of Mary's albums

The Block

Mary & Molly's joint endeavor, the butter and egg business, was certainly a step down for people connected at any level with an enormous cotton plantation. Molly's status was also connected to the extremely wealthy family she served. A cotton boll to recall the antebellum days seems appropriate. 

Late-19th/Early 20th Century Cotton Boll
The Cotton Boll is a traditional regional Southern design. Quilters
felt free to interpret it in many ways.

20th-century cotton boll

Frances Johnston, North Carolina Museum of History
Late 19th century
Note the partial blocks.

Applique to an 18-1/2" square or cut it larger and trim later.

The Patterns

One way to print these JPGS.

  • Create a new empty JPG file that is 8-1/2" x 11" or a word file.
  • Click on the image above.
  • Right click on it and save it to your file.
  • Print that file out 8-1/2" x 11". Note the inch square block for reference.
  • Adjust the printed page size if necessary. Do not use tools like "Fit to page."
  • Make templates.
  • Add seams when cutting fabric.

One block in a small quilt found in the Minnesota quilt project.
Photo from the Quilt Index

Pat Styring's center
No rose but a bee.

See a post on Cotton Boll quilts here:

And Kathlyn Sullivan's chapter on the pattern in Mary W. Kerr's Southern Quilts

An Issue with Molly

The important issue with Mary Chesnut's diaries is that there are several versions---some edited by others, one drawn from Mary's actual manuscript diaries and the most famous her reworking of her memories and diaries into the large book Mary Chesnut's Civil War, published in 1981, edited by C. Vann Woodward.

Molly's role (and name) varies from book to book.
The first published edition (1905) tells us of an encounter with a runaway on March 8, 1861. The actual manuscript diary:
"Yesterday I met Mr. DeSaussure run away William. He dodged into a shop---but I saw him peeping at me from behind the door. He looked old and weather beaten & the very expression of his face has changed for the worse."
The first edition was edited by friends after Mary's death from her reworked manuscript in which Mary enlarged upon the story, recording her memories of William and his skills and a remark Molly made.
"Met a distinguished gentleman... William, Mrs. de Saussure's former coachman.... Night after night we used to meet him as fiddler-in-chief of all our parties. He sat in solemn dignity, making faces over his bow, and patting his foot with an emphasis that shook the floor. We gave him five dollars a night; that was his price.... Now he is a shabby creature indeed. He must have felt his fallen fortunes when he met me - one who knew him in his prosperity. He ran away, this stately yellow gentleman, from wife and children, home and comfort. My Molly asked him 'Why? Miss Liza was good to you, I know.' I wonder who owns him now; he looked forlorn."
In the 1981 book Molly is called Polly and William replies to Molly's impertinent question.
"My Polly asked him "Why? Miss Liza was good to you, I know."
I wonder who owns him now; he looked forlorn.
'Yes, but Marster was so mean. He was not bad. He was mean. In the twenty years I lived in his yard he never gave me a fourpence---that is, in money.' "
 Well, what are we to make of this? What actually happened and who is "My Molly"? who appears so often in the reworked book and less often in the actual diary, which refers to Molly 6 times in the index. The 1981 Woodward version has 67 references in its index.

Some critics think of the final Molly character as a conduit for Mary's thoughts (particularly those on slavery), an effective literary device. Imaginary Molly or not, she is one of the most endearing characters in a book rather sparsely populated with them. 

An 1883 letter to Varina Davis from Mary tells her to be grateful for her children.
 "I have nothing but Polish chickens---and Jersey calves."
Sue Garman had a pattern
The original sketch 1-8

Extra Reading

Read about Mary's photo albums here:

Mary Chesnut's Illustrated Diary Mulberry Edition Boxed Set: Volume 1: A Diary from Dixie and Volume 2: Mary Chesnut's Civil War Photographic Album by Martha Deniels, Barbara McCarthy & James Kibler.

In her book Teaching the Literatures of the American Civil War Colleen Glenney Bogg has a  thoughtful discussion of Molly and the meaning of Molly's photo in the album.

A Post Script: Another Mollie Chesnut


Two 20th-century documents, a 1921 death certificate for a baby named Jessie Mae Jackson who died of  "colitis" at 11 months; her mother's maiden name Mollie Chesnut---perhaps a descendant of the earlier Mollie. The younger Mollie and husband Willie Jackson were not lucky. Another daughter was stillborn in 1925.


The Jacksons lived in Cheraw, about 100 miles northeast of Columbia.
On this form Chesnut is spelled with two T's. 

Temperance Neely Smoot's version of the cotton boll.
Alamance County, North Carolina, late 19th century?


Ingrid said...

Me encanta leer las historias de los personajes que quizás no son conocidos por los niños en las escuelas. Hacen unas excelentes recopilaciones y siempre las espero. Que interesante la historia de Molly. Una mujer fuera de su época, definitivamente. Gracias por compartir.

Susan said...

Such an interesting history presented in this post. Sometimes, I wish we could go back in time and view actual happenings and people - not actually be there, just view it. =) I like this block a lot.

coveyslc said...

Anyone know where I can get a pattern for a cotton boll quilt