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South Yard Dwellings: Household Items

Contrary to the idea of a sparsely furnished living space, the enslaved individuals who lived in Montpelier’s South Yard had tools, furniture, and personal items in their homes. Household items range from baskets and pots to textiles and writing materials. Most of these items were handmade by members of the enslaved community on the plantation and doubled for personal and work use. This meant the basket or broom was used twice as much and it was the enslaved person’s responsibility to maintain and fix the tool, dedicating more of their time to the upkeep of the plantation.

Work Tools vs. Leisure Tools

Here, we’re using the term “work tools” for objects used in either household management or work that directly benefits the plantation owner, in this case, The Madisons. Many of these objects pulled double duty and could be used for tasks benefitting both the plantation owner and the enslaved person in different contexts. This excludes anything that primarily benefits the enslaved person, such as fishing or hunting equipment.

“Leisure tools” are objects primarily intended for use during leisure time or for work that primarily benefited the enslaved individual. Since these tools did not contribute to activities that directly benefited the plantation owner, they were often individually acquired by the enslaved person rather than provided by the plantation owner. As such, these objects do the most to show the status and personality of the individual.

Work Tools


Basket making traditions transcend time and space. While basket making in America is associated with Native American and African traditions, the baskets produced by those cultures are coiled, which are the most useful for working with grains such as rice. As such, they are more commonly seen in the coastal deep South where rice was a main cash crop. Baskets seen in mid-Atlantic and northern plantations were closer to the European basket traditions using oak splints.

Basket making was a desirable skill among plantation slaves. Not only were they necessary tools for all aspects of plantation work—from the fields to the house—it was also a task that could be done by the elderly and infirm. The skill was often mentioned as a selling point during slave auctions, showing that it was desirable. 

Based on purchasing accounts, there were almost certainly enslaved workers at Montpelier who made baskets. The only time they are purchased or requested is when the Madisons resided in Washington, where baskets were apparently both hard to find and expensive. This could indicate that basket making was a skill practiced by field slaves rather than house slaves, and rural slaves rather than urban slaves. 

Made from plant materials, baskets did not last as long as ceramics or other wares and they decompose, leaving no archaeological record. Because of that, it can be hard to trace the evolution of forms and specifics of usage (i.e. clothes baskets vs. potato baskets). Much of what is known about distinctions of form and usage in Western basket traditions is still based on “folk” knowledge. 


As today, brooms were an ever-present part of life in the 19th century. While we do not have records of James Madison or any of the enslaved workers purchasing brooms for use at Montpelier, he purchased several during his residency in Washington. This lack of purchasing records could, but does not necessarily, indicate that brooms were being made on-site at Montpelier.

Until 1797, all brooms in America were handmade, and most were made in the same household in which they were used. They were created by weaving natural fibers around a tree branch and secured with rough hemp or flax twine. They fell apart every few months, explaining the constant purchasing of brooms during the presidency. As early as 1757, sorghum was being used for broom fibers. Though it still fell apart regularly, it swept better than the wheat or barley fibers used previously. Sorghum eventually became so commonly associated with brooms that it was often called “broom corn.” We know that by 1791 James Madison was familiar with it by this name since he wrote to Jefferson in France comparing a Jamaican plant’s appearance to that of broom corn.1 

In Massachusetts in 1797, brooms began being manufactured commercially. By 1810, after the invention of the foot treadle broom machine, most places had easy access to broom sellers and brooms were accessible enough for many households to afford single-purpose brooms, such as short-handled brooms specifically for hearths

By the mid-1820s, Shakers (a religious sect based primarily in New England and known for their furniture) were using wire rather than flax to bind the broom fibers to the handle, eliminating woven stems. They also pioneered flat brooms like those we see today; after binding a broom to the handle, the fibers were flattened in a vice and stitched flat. By the 1830s, broom production in America was so prolific that they were being exported to Canada, Mexico, and Europe.

The residents of Montpelier’s South Yard almost certainly would have had some level of access to mass-produced brooms, both round and flat, especially considering that of the supplies purchased during the presidency, brooms were some of the cheapest. Which shape they would have chosen would have primarily been based upon use: flat sewn brooms are better for rough surfaces—such as the swept yard outside the quarters—and round brooms are better for smooth surfaces—such as the inside of the quarters and fireplaces.

The brooms are shown stored with the fibers up (upside down). Storing them with the fibers on the ground bent and broke the fibers, significantly shortening the life of the broom. So, brooms were either stored upside down or hung on the wall. 

Laundry Implements

While washing laundry can still be a chore today, it was much more tedious and difficult in the early nineteenth century. Since the washing process often took all day, if not longer, washing was done in large batches every few weeks to a few times a year rather than once a week. In the spring, a “Grand Wash” or “Great Wash” was a common practice for washing linens and upholstery that dirtied more slowly than clothing. 

Laundry, especially white fabrics, were washed in lye. While lye could be purchased, it was also very easy to make by mixing ashes and urine. Georgina Giwbs, a former slave, briefly described the process in a WPA interview: “[They] had to make [the] soap. [That was] done by letting water drip over oak ashes. [This] made oak ash lye, and [this was] used in making soap.”3  Soft soap, which was primarily only used for the laundry of the wealthy, was made by mixing ash lye and animal fat. It was mixed into the pot of hot water, as we would a modern laundry machine, and used for spot cleaning.

The laundering process was quite involved. A large pot of water would be boiled outside, to which was added first the soap, then the laundry. The laundry was stirred, beaten, and rubbed until the dirt released. This was done with washboards, wash bats, or dollies. Washboards were initially made entirely of wood, with grooves cut into them like the one installed in our space. The metal washboard that we are familiar with was patented in 1833 in New York and commercially manufactured two years later, so while they theoretically would have been available to the residents of the South Yard, it is unlikely that they would have been available in rural Virginia. Wash bats were more common than washboards; they were paddles that could be either grooved or smooth that were used to beat the dirt out of the fabric.

After the laundry was considered clean, it was mangled to squeeze out as much excess water as possible, then hung or laid flat to dry. Since clothespins were not commonly available until the nineteenth century, it was more common to find clothes lying flat on bushes or grass to dry rather than hanging on a line. Drying white fabrics flat allowed for the additional benefit of bleaching in the sun. 

The washing process is mentioned in Georgina Giwbs’ interview, where she says that five women did all the washing and ironing, and “After [the] clothes had soaked in [this] lye-soap and water, [they] put [the] clothes on tables and beat [them until they were] white.”4

Mary Wright, another former slave interviewed in Kentucky for the Work Progress Administration, went into more detail saying, 

“I remember [when] we [used to] wash [clothes with] a paddle. You wet [these clothes and] put soft soap in [them], the soap [was] made [out of] ash lye [and] grease [then these clothes were] spread on a smooth stump [and] beat [with] paddles [until they were] clean. [Then came the] wooden wash board, [it was just] a piece of wood [with] rough places or ridges chiseled in [it]. [When] we [used to] wash quilts we [used to set a molasses barrel over end that] made [the] tub [then] my Mammy would put water in [these] tubs [then] soft soap [the] quilts [then] us [children] would [get] in [the] tubs in our bare [feet and stomp the] dirt out.”5– Mary Wright, 1936, formerly enslaved person. 

Both of these accounts detail laundering clothing and linens for the plantation owner and his family. Washing for the enslaved people themselves happened after working hours, which necessarily often meant in the dark.

Adline White, formerly enslaved person. Adline is seen here with a wash tub and board. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress. 

Leisure Tools

Fishing Tackle

Despite not being close to a significantly large body of water, evidence of fishing has still been found archaeologically at Montpelier, namely in the form of fish scales and fishing hooks. The fishing was likely done in the nearby Rapidan River.

Based on the fishhook found by the archaeology team at Montpelier, seen below, they were likely bait fishing, also called still fishing or bottom fishing. Common bait included worms, certain types of maggots, small fish, cheese, and bread dough.

While reel-poles were in existence by this time, it does not appear as though they were widely used by enslaved people, although fishing was common for supplementing insufficient food rations. WPA interviewees recounted using a pole and twine or flax string, with one noting that they “cut [their] poles in the woods,” suggesting that new poles may have been cut each fishing trip rather than stored in the quarters. This is why you can see fishing tackle, but no rod, in the dwellings.

Writing Materials

While in many parts of the US it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read or write, we know that at least some of the people enslaved at Montpelier could do both. Letters written by enslaved individuals to both the Madisons and to each other have been documented. Additionally, writing slates and slate pencils have been recovered archaeologically in the South Yard, suggesting that some amount of reading and/or writing instruction was taking place within the enslaved community. Since the extant letters written by Montpelier slaves  were written with ink on paper, paper and ink have been installed as well.

Sewing Equipment

We know, from both documentation and archaeological evidence, that at least some amount of sewing was taking place in the South Yard. James Madison Sr.’s account book of 1755-1765 records several transactions for “cutting out Negros clothes,” but none for sewing the clothes, suggesting that the precise part of cutting out the patterns was outsourced while the piecing was done on property by the enslaved workers. 6The Barbour-Johnson Daybook shows several purchases by the enslaved people from Montpelier of brown [undyed] thread at four shillings an ounce—the most expensive price for thread in the store. 7They also buy the more expensive option of straight pins (one shilling for a paper of pins versus nine pence or seven pence for a paper of pine) and a thimble at four pence. 

A particularly interesting archaeological find is the lace bobbin, seen above. Bobbins such as these were used for making bobbin lace, a decorative craft usually reserved for the leisure class. The lace could be used to trim both clothing and upholstery, and the lace itself, if well-down, was very valuable.

In addition to the lace bobbin, the archaeology department has recovered several beads from the South Yard, almost all of which are glass. While blue beads are commonly associated with cultural practices of enslaved African-Americans due to the high number recovered from various sites, most of the beads found in the South Yard are black.

Clothing and Textiles

While some articles of clothing or their materials were virtually always provided by plantation owners, enslaved individuals also customized, made and purchased their own clothing to achieve a sense of individual expression. The clothing varied according to rank within the enslaved community, work assignment, being rural or metropolitan, geographic location, changing fashions of the white populace, and local culture. 

In general, slave clothing tended to follow the same fashions as white clothing, except looser, more understated, and in coarser fabric. At Montpelier, the enslaved workers were provided with coarse linens and cottons called Oznaburgs and negro cloth. Through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, oznaburgs—a cheap, coarse linen imported from England or Germany—was the primary fabric used for slave clothing provided by plantation owners. As the cotton industry boomed in America and new technology made production of cotton cloth cheaper, a low-quality milled cotton became available, colloquially called “negro cloth”. The Madisons purchased these cloths at various times for clothing their enslaved workforce. 

After the American Revolution and with agriculture becoming less profitable, a move toward self-sustainability in terms of clothing enslaved people took over southern plantations, Montpelier included. Wool was the easiest fiber to produce in rural Virginia, as neither cotton nor flax are particularly suited to the environment. The process of turning flax into linen is also extremely time consuming and labor intensive, making wool the fiber of choice. 

In addition to the clothing provided to them by the Madisons, the enslaved people of Montpelier actively purchased fabric and other sewing supplies from the Barbour-Johnson store. Contrary to what we would assume, they were not solely buying on the lowest end of the price scale. Of the six different types of clothing fabrics purchased in 1785, only one was a cheaper quality than the oznaburgs purchased there by James Madison, Sr. The most expensive type of fabric purchased by an enslaved person living at Montpelier was calico (a multi-colored printed cotton) priced at five shillings a yard—more costly than the most expensive clothing fabric purchased there by the Madisons at three shillings and six pence a yard. Although most of the Madisons’ clothing fabrics would have been imported rather than purchased locally, this record still says a lot about the purchasing abilities of some enslaved at Montpelier.