United States Slavery: Slave Children's Clothing--Comparison with White Children

Figure 1.--Any assessment of the clothing worn by slave children requires a comparison with the clothing of comparable children, meaning free white children in rural areas of the South or even the North. This is a tall order because until the appearance of the CDV which occured about the same time Federal military power put an end to slavery (1861-65), photograpy was primarily expensive studio photography and the photographic record is heavily slanted toward well-to-do children in the fashionanle cities. (This was less true in America than Europe, but still a factor.) Here we see some children in Richmomnd, Virginia at the end of the Civil War. They are not rural children and are probably reltively well-to do compared to rural white children, but still it gives an idea how boys dressed ordinarily. After Richmond fell (April 1865), every Civil War photogrpher rushed to the former Confederate capital and photographed just about everything and everyone they found there. Which is why there are no photogrphs of Lee's surrender a few miles to the west at Appomatox Court House. This Alexander Gardner photograph shows the St. Johns Church and an African American man and little girl with white children that Gardner has lined up in front of the church. We even see Gardner and his mobile studio. These Civil War photographs were taken with cameras that had large lenses and produced very large glass plates. As a result, they can be enlarged and still retain incredable resolution. If some of the children's faces are fuzzy--it is not due to Gardner, but the natural tendency of young children to figit. To see the children and their clothes in more detail, click on the image. Source: Library of Contress: LC-B8171-3366.

While we believe it is a reaonable assumption to say that slave children were dressed poorly, one hs to be careful here. One needs to compare how slave children were dressed with a comparable strata of free children. Photography in the era of slavery was primarily studio photography. And mothers dressed up heir childen in their best clothes. In addition, until the CDV appeared in the early-1860s, photogrphy was exensive. Thus there is an over representation of children of the well-to-do. Thus you do not want to compare slave children with children from affluent families in the fashionable northeastern cities. The comprison should be with the ordinary children of working-class chilren especially rural children because slaves at the time of the Civil War lived in the rural South. The best comparison would be with white rural children in non-slave holding families. Obtaining such photographs is a complicated matter. And in the North there were major changes as the developing industrial economy began lifting wages and living standards. It is notable how much better northern children are dressed in the CDVs of the 1860s hant the Dags and Ambros of the 1840s-50s.


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Created: April 7, 2002
Last updated: 2:25 PM 4/17/2015