Saturday, December 19, 2020

Charleston's African-American Seamstresses


Looking at Southern chintz quilts and particularly those from Charleston and the Carolinas one might conclude that bedcovers attributed to various wealthy women from 1825 to 1850 were in actuality purchased luxury goods stitched by professional seamstresses.

But who were those seamstresses?

Seamstresses, about 1650
Things did not change much until the sewing machine about 200 years later.

Sewing for a living was one of the standard occupations for women before the industrial age. A look at one small group of women---pre-Civil-War African-Americans in Charleston offers some context in an unusual city known for its chintz-style bedcovers.

We can classify Charleston's African-American seamstresses as belonging to four economic categories:

1) Enslaved seamstresses

2) Free women of color (as they were called)

3) A category rather in between, hired-out women whose owners allowed them to work for others

4) Escapees who tried to blend into the last two categories.

Seamstresses, about 1850

1) Enslaved seamstresses

There are no statistics on enslaved seamstresses, just personal histories. See one at a post here:

2) Free women of color 

Studying censuses and city directories gives us numbers. Many years ago E. Horace Fitchett counted 22 free Black women working as seamstresses in the year 1819 in the city of about 22,000 people, mostly Black. We have no idea how many enslaved women worked at sewing then or later.

In an Audubon shore bird water color, Charleston sits
behind Fort Sumter.

Loren Schweninger looked at "Black Owned Businesses in the South, 1790-1880," examining census and R.G. Dun business rating records, and made a few observations about free Black seamstresses. New Orleans was a center of free-Black-owned businesses (but New Orleans with its French & Spanish heritage did not have much of an antebellum quilt presence). Looking at the lower South in general he noted, "a surge into the entrepreneurial class during the 1850s among free women of color, who opened boarding and lodging houses, seamstress shops, and laundry businesses.... On the eve of the Civil War, Charleston [with a population of about 70,000] boasted 92 free Negroes who ran businesses of various types. Most of them were shopkeepers, storekeepers, skilled artisans, wood dealers, butchers, and boardinghouse keepers."

St. Michael's Alley, Charleston

3) Hired-out seamstresses

Slaves were hired-out and the slave owner received their wages. An orphaned family of white children, for example, might have their slaves hired out and live on the profits. 

Illustrated London News, 1863

Other owners hired out their enslaved workers when they left the city for the summer's sickly season. And some owners had few other assets than these human beings---the laboring classes. The higher classes could not work themselves; it cost them status.

Alice Huger Smith sketched nostalgic Charleston views 
for books published in the early 20th century.

In many cases the hired-out themselves could keep money earned over a certain sum.

Owners who hired out slaves were required to pay a tax (except for the orphans.) The tax was collected by requiring employees to wear a badge indicating their status. Just like dog tags (an unfortunate comparison) the city made money because they charged for the required badges. Charleston was unique in this requirement and Charleston slave badges, which had to be renewed annually, are quite a collectible item.

 Two slave badges in the Smithsonian's collection

Badges described the occupation, here a Servant and a Porter. The holes are added so they can be stitched to a coat.

Charleston Hotel, 1860

If you were looking for a porter to carry trunks you might look around the hotel for a man with a badge prominently displayed.

Grocery vendors, called Fruiters or Fruiterers had
their own badges. This woman carries on produce-selling
traditions fifty years after emancipation.

Charleston Museum Collection
Few actual occupations were noted on the badges.

Fruiterer was one. Other female occupations were Washerwoman, Huckster (food seller) and Fisher, permitted to vend fish in the city. The number 79 here showed the sequence in the badges issued that year (1814).

Fisher a hundred years later by Alice Huger Smith in
Elizabeth Allston Pringle's A Woman Rice Planter, 1913

Were the women fishers permitted to fish or did they just bring fish into the city for sale?

MESDA owns a badge stamped Mechanic from 1842

I had heard there were badges stamped "Seamstress" but read an authoritative book on the topic that refutes that idea. Badge occupations are limited in the surviving authentic examples (counterfeits are plentiful) and the women who worked as seamstresses, dress makers, milliners and upholsterers probably wore badges that just said "Servant." 

Read about the badges: Harlan Green, Harry S. Hutchins , Jr. & Brian E. Hutchins Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston , South Carolina  1783-1865

Runaways might counterfeit their own badges to disappear into the legally sanctioned community of female workers but the majority of the counterfeit badges are recent.

People selling on the streets were called Hucksters,
a word that did not have the negative connotation of a
dishonest or overly persuasive salesperson that it has today.

One institution that hired slaves was the Charleston Orphan House. In her dissertation Felice Knight counted 24 hired-out women working there in the year 1848, most probably doing the plain sewing for clothing, bedding, etc. plus four more-skilled Mantua-makers as dressmakers were called.

 Charleston Orphan Asylum occupied by Union troops, 1865
The building was torn down in 1953.

4) Escapees

New York Historical Society Collection
Sewing while standing up and flirting

The detail above of Eastman Johnson's 1859 idealization of Negro Life in the South shows a common motivation for runaways....
Lewis Miller's sketchbook Lynchburg, Virginia
Encyclopedia Virginia

...Love and subsequent family separations.

From A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the 
United States by Jesse Torrey 1816  

Torrey showed this woodblock of a Washington
woman jumping from the attic to join her husband.
It looks like she is levitating but she couldn't defy gravity. She broke her back.

Amani Marshall at the University of Georgia has studied Charleston fugitive slaves noting that a good proportion of the women's occupations listed were seamstresses. See his articles at the bottom of the page. He followed a woman named Celia who ran away from William R. Taber who described her as a "fine seamstress" in one of his advertisements offering a reward.

Women were often described as excellent Seamstresses and tailoresses
when advertised for sale but less often as runaways.

A New Orleans ad for a 22 year old seamstress with a "Charleston brogue or accent."
New Orleans Daily Picayune, 1845
from the Cornell University website 
Freedom on the Move

Seamstresses had an easy transferrable skill, required few tools and were in demand. Those who ran away hoped they could always make a living.

Did any of them make quilts?

Chintz bedcover associated with Sarah Reynolds Croft,
Charleston Museum

Read the conclusions Merikay Waldvogel and I wrote about these quilts last year:

And read about a professional seamstress Addie Brown (1841 - 1870), a free black woman in New York & Connecticut about the time of the Civil War.
See a short preview of Harlan Green's book Slave Badges:   

Lorinda Boulware Walker & Maggie Belle Gould Penn
20th-century African-American seamstresses
in Columbia.
South Caroliniana Library

Articles by Amani Marshall:
“‘They Are Supposed to Be Lurking about the City’: Enslaved Women Runaways in Antebellum Charleston,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 115, 2 (June 2015).

"‘They Will Endeavor to Pass for Free’: Enslaved Runaways’ Performances of Freedom in Antebellum South Carolina,” Slavery & Abolition 31, 2 (June 2010): 161-180
And his dissertation:
“Female Fugitives: Enslaved Women's Resistance in Georgia, 1815-1835” ...

Loren Schweninger, "Black Owned Businesses in the South, 1790-1880," Business History Review 63 (Spring 1989) 22-60. 


sue s said...

I had never heard of the slave badges. Thanks for an informative post.

Bella and the peeps said...

What a fascinating post. Thank you for collecting all the information to share with us, as well as providing all the links.

Sue in Marion said...

Extremely interesting. I’m currently reading Rachel May’s book, “An American Quilt”. Not quite halfway through. The chronicle of life in Charleston in the 1830’s is fascinating and this article adds to it.

White Eagle said...

Extremely interesting. Our history is not changed by burning buildings nor by statues taken down.