Open Daily, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm – Tickets Are Available Online.

The South Yard Dwellings: Furniture

Between 1723 and 1844, more than 300 African Americans, as many as six generations, lived in slavery at Montpelier under the ownership of Ambrose Madison, Frances Taylor Madison, James Madison Sr., Nelly Conway Madison, James Madison Jr., and Dolley Payne Todd Madison. The two South Yard dwellings furnished by the Curatorial & Collections Department we’ll be focusing on here, provided duplex-style housing for enslaved domestic servants. We welcome you to learn more about the research done to furnish these important spaces at Montpelier and the enslaved families whose stories are told within them. Through the reconstruction, furnishing, and interpretation of the South Yard buildings, Montpelier is sharing a more complete history of the Madison legacy and the place that nurtured the American Constitution as well as the horrendous system of slavery.  
Aerial view of the mansion with the South Yard buildings to the right (south).


While not much is known about the specific furniture owned and used in the South Yard at Montpelier, a fully fleshed interior can be theorized based on three factors: the few documentary resources we have, the archaeological evidence, and comparison to other, better-documented slave quarters. The reconstructed furniture in the South Yard dwellings was made based on a combination of the two latter sources, as there is no documentation of the enslaved dwelling furniture at Montpelier. In some cases, Montpelier’s archaeology team has found artifacts that tell us which type of furniture forms the dwelling could have had- such as a chest of drawers and “trunks”.  For the objects that do not leave archaeological evidence, such as all-wooden furniture,  references to the types of furniture generally found in the quarters of house slaves were studied to determine what was most appropriate for our spaces.

Bedsteads and trundles

“I slept in the mistress’ room in a bed that we pushed under the mistress’ in the day or after I arose.” -Annie Young Henson, 1936, formerly enslaved person 1
A trundle bed is stored under the larger bedstead in the South Yard. This saved much-needed space in a single room dwelling. 
While we do not know exactly what, or how often, James Madison provided for his enslaved workers’ sleeping furniture, it was common for plantation owners to provide some sort of bedding. Usually, this was in the form of bed ticks: a striped linen fabric (ticking) often filled with some sort of stuffed padding. In this context, the stuffing was often straw or corn husks (as opposed to the feather stuffing that would have been used in the house). When references to feather beds within the slave context are made, they are usually in regards to “Georgia feather” beds, a sarcastic term for corn husks or unsaleable cotton.2 The only references to Madison providing beds for his enslaved workers are while he was living in Washington when he purchased three-bed ticks “for servants beds” and an additional “servants bed” (likely also ticking).3 It is likely that he continued the practice at Montpelier due to its prevalence. It is important to note that these bed ticks were not provided on a regular basis. For the eight years Madison was president (1809-1817), he only purchased beds for his slaves one year (1815), and that was likely only because of the White House fire.
Trundle bed, 1770-1830, America, maple. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1955-380.
Though we have installed bedsteads- bed frames- in both furnished dwellings in the South Yard, among the wide context of American slavery, bedsteads were uncommon until the mid-nineteenth century, seemingly relegated only to house slaves or those with woodworking skills of their own. More common was a space on the floor, marked out with a board, where the bed tick was placed, or, further south, bunks secured to the wall. Since the South Yard was home to the people who worked in the house, they would have had more access to better furnishings than those working and living in the fields.
“I [slept] in my mistress’s room but I [didn’t sleep] in any bed. Nosir! I [slept] on a carpet, an old rug, [before] the [fireplace].” -Elizabeth Sparks,1936,  former enslaved person4
When bedsteads are mentioned in the Works Progress Administration5 interviews of former slaves, they nearly always describe sleeping in trundle beds- a low, wheeled bed stored under a larger bed. With living space at such a premium, trundle beds made effective use of living space when a large number of people needed to be housed in a small space. Since the WPA interviews were taken in 1930, those interviewed were young children while enslaved, making them a fair representation of one of Montpelier’s enslaved families- the Taylors.
Extant trundle beds show that, unlike modern trundle beds that pull out from the long side, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trundle beds pulled out from the foot of the upper bed, with wheels set into the posts and unable to swivel. While most extant trundle beds do not survive with their upper bed, one WPA interviewee indicated that the one in which he slept was matched with the upper bed.6 This implies that the beds were made in pairs, rather than a trundle bed made separately and paired with an unmatching upper bed. While the latter practice certainly happened, we have chosen to match the upper and lower bedsteads, making them a set.
Low post bed, 1750-1790, Williamsburg, VA, yellow pine. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1967-40.
One interesting aspect of most extant trundle beds is that most of them contain remnants of paint or color washes. The most common color is green. Windsor chairs, a low-value furniture form, were so commonly painted green that they were often called simply “green chairs” regardless of their actual color. Painting these beds green was likely an extension of that practice since they were also low-value furniture forms. The paint would disguise the fact that the pieces were made of mismatching woods. The paint and varnish also helped to mildly waterproof the wood. By the early nineteenth century, red became another popular color for Windsor chairs,  which may account for the red wash found on this Maryland trundle bed, seen below. Unlike the other beds seen inside Montpelier, the bedsteads in the South yard are slated, not roped. While roped bedsteads were definitely more desirable (and more comfortable) than slatted bedsteads, these were cheaper and more simple to construct and maintain: no drilling rope holes or turning or carving knobs, and no periodic tightening of the ropes as they stretched.


Aside from food, blankets were the most common articles provided by plantation owners.7 They were usually provided once a year, though some owners provided them as far apart as every three years. While the blankets were usually purchased in the eighteenth century, by the mid-nineteenth century, most of them were plantation made. While it is not clear whether blankets were produced at Montpelier, it is possible. In 1785, James Sr. purchased a great deal of Dutch blanketing from the Barbour-Johnson store. However, wool was produced, carded, and spun in some capacity on the plantation. When Madison’s overseer Jimmy Coleman’s house burnt down, it destroyed enough spun “stuff” (a period term for wool) to have woven 500 yards of cloth.8 When James Sr. died, he had 199 pounds of wool.9 In 1804 or 1805, Sir Augustus John Foster noted that while the enslaved workers at Montpelier were “unwilling to make their own Clothes,” they made woolen cloth that was better in quality than what was imported from England since they began with better wool.10 However, in 1812 Nelly Willis, James Jr.’s sister, lamented that Dolley did not own “a good yarn spinner amongst yr Women.”11 By 1829, Dolley thought the wool weaving skills of Hariot and Amey were good enough to warrant offering their labor to John Coles Payne. The single reference to the Madisons providing blankets to their enslaved workers does not make it clear whether they are purchasing the blankets whole or overseeing their production on the plantation. In 1826, Dolley writes James, “The Snow Storm has put an end to my hopes of rideing, tho not to my attention to the Blankets.”12
While the blankets’ stripe may seem like a superfluous decoration to modern eyes, it served an important purpose: weaving a stripe at regular intervals in the long, continuous length of fabric easily marked where to cut the blankets apart.
Whether the blankets were made on the plantation or purchased elsewhere, they would have been woven as a single long strip, then cut into individual blanket lengths and bound or hemmed on the plantation. The blankets seen in the South Yard dwellings are typical of the blankets used at all economic levels through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While the blankets’ stripe may seem like a superfluous decoration to modern eyes, it served an important purpose: weaving a stripe at regular intervals in the long, continuous length of fabric easily marked where to cut the blankets apart. Since they were produced as one long piece of fabric, all or most of the blankets provided at a single time would have matched, which is why the blankets found throughout the South Yard match. The blankets found packed into a chest in one of the dwellings, represent blankets from previous years.


Both benches and stools were simple, easily constructed seating forms, useful for their movability and versatility. Made by members of the enslaved community or sometimes by white overseers, they were handmade and irregular.  Broken, well-worn, or out of fashion chairs from the main house were also repurposed to furnish the enslaved dwellings.


Benches would have likely been produced onsite by enslaved individuals or overseers. While not quite as common as stools, benches appear to be nearly always present in gathering spaces and living quarters holding several residents. They are important as multifunctional pieces of furniture: WPA accounts note their use as workspaces, sleeping spaces, and gathering spaces. One account recalls his father sleeping on the bench at night and using it as a workbench for shoe repair during the day. 13  
“I slept on a home-made bed or bunk, while my mother and sister slept in a bed made by father on which they had a mattress made by themselves and filled with straw, while dad slept on a bench beside the bed and that he used in the day as a work bench, mending shoes for the slaves and others.”-Richard Macks, 1936, formerly enslaved person14
Seating in the South Yard dwellings would have been at a premium, with a large number of the occupants and its potential use as a gathering space. Martha Katz-Hyman suggests that any flat surface would have been used for seating when necessary, including benches, stools, chairs, beds, chests, and boxes.15

(From L to R) A reproduction Robert Cockburn side chair in the South yard; an 1804 print featuring a bench; view of the reproduction Cockburn side chairs in the mansion. 


Unlike the stools shown in English prints of lower-class interiors, the stools used in slave contexts were likely, not rush-seated, but rather plank-seated. A rush seat is made by tightly weaving dried grasses around a frame until it creates a sturdy, but the slightly soft seat. While this likely would have been within the range of skills found on most plantations—basket making was widespread and necessary—the task is difficult and time consuming with very little reward. A plank seat on the other hand could range in simplicity from a slice of the unprocessed log to a seat that was carefully carved to mold to the sitter’s form. The plank seats used in this context were likely on the simpler end of the scale: a slice of wood rubbed smooth, but left flat rather than carved.


Enslaved workers could obtain furnishings in a variety of ways: being provided by the plantation owner, purchasing, constructing, etc. The South Yard dwellings include chairs to show the practice of using out-of-date or broken furniture from the plantation owner’s house. 

You may recognize the chair seen here in the Taylor dwelling- it is a reproduction of those used in Nelly’s Dining Room in the main house.  By the period interpreted in the South Yard, the chairs were over seventy years old: very out of fashion and showing seventy years of wear. 

While many scholars argue that slave spaces either did not have chairs or had crude, rudimentary chairs, several upholstery tacks have been recovered archaeologically that point to the occupants of the South Yard at Montpelier owning upholstered furniture.


By the mid-nineteenth century, tables were in enough slave quarters to become fairly expected.16 They were often plantation-made, either by the enslaved owner, overseers, or enslaved artisans. The table seen in the Stewart dwelling is made of locally available woods and emulates the local folk style that would have been prevalent during the time period.

(From L to R) 1783 print featuring a table detail; two examples of reproduction tables and seating in the South Yard; 1804 print featuring a table example. 

While tables were fairly ubiquitous, it doesn’t appear as though they were commonly provided by the plantation owner, meaning they had to be made or obtained by the quarters’ residents. The purchases by enslaved individuals from Montpelier and surrounding plantations at the Barbour-Johnson store show them buying fabric, clothing accessories, and other small objects, with no purchases of furniture. This is likely because stores like the Barbour-Johnson store didn’t tend to carry furniture; furniture was generally purchased directly from the maker.
The closest center of furniture production in the area was Fredericksburg, though there may have been some smaller-scale, country furniture makers in nearby Orange or Gordonsville where the enslaved workers of Montpelier could have purchased the furniture. More likely is that it was produced on-site.


In the archaeological excavations of the South Yard, evidence of padlocks and hardware from wooden chests was found. What this tells us, is that the enslaved living in the South Yard dwellings must have had both means of storing whatever possessions they had, as well as being able to lock and secure these belongings as well.

From L to R) Blanket chest with exterior hinges and a latch; iron lock found archaeologically in the South Yard. 

Blanket Chest

Wooden boxes that are often held clear of the ground by legs, blanket chests are top-opening chests, also sometimes called trunks depending on usage. It appears that during the period, blanket chest forms used in this context were referred to as “boxes.” While the term may refer to the use of shipping crates for storage within a domestic setting, the prevalence of hinges and locks, which were not usually built into shipping crates, indicates that blanket chests were at least present in the South Yard dwellings. 

The images below show a strap hinge that was recovered archaeologically in the South Yard next to an extant blanket chest with visible strap hinges.

The black & white chest image above shows a latch closing that would have been held with a padlock. Because of the presence of multiple padlocks in the archaeological record and the visual prominence of a padlock versus an interior lock, we have chosen to feature locked chests in the dwelling. The padlock may challenge a notion about life in bondage. If a person was the property of another person, wouldn’t all of their belongings then belong to said person as well? The presence of keys and locks found archaeologically and in extant slave quarters show that the enslaved did indeed have ways to lock their belongings out of reach of the plantation owner, suggesting that the belongings were seen as the property solely of the enslaved person rather than the plantation owner. Following the Civil War, many former slaves successfully sued the US government for the loss of property, including livestock, during the war. Though they were enslaved when the property was lost, the US government recognized it as belonging to the enslaved person rather than the plantation owner.

(From L to R) Iron strap hinge found archaeologically in the South Yard; blanket chest with interior strap hinge from Colonial Williamsburg; reproduction blanket chests in the South Yard. 

Chest of Drawers

While there are no documentary references to chests of drawers in the South Yard or slave quarters in general, hardware from chests of drawers has been recovered archaeologically, meaning that at some point, there was definitely one in the South Yard. Most notably, and reproduced on this piece, is a decorative brass pull escutcheon (pictured below). 

The chest seen in the Taylor dwelling in the South Yard is made in a very common style that was well out of date by our interpretation period. This could mean several things: it was acquired new or used by a previous generation and passed through the family; it was originally in the Madisons’ house and passed along as it went out of fashion; it was made by a local craftsman who did not have access to the latest styles; it was purchased used from a source like the Barbour-Johnson Store. All of these methods are ways we know enslaved people could, and often did, acquire objects. Regardless of how it was acquired, its rarity would make it a prized possession and a mark of status within the enslaved community.

(From L to R) Brass lock escutcheon found archaeologically in the South Yard; reproduction blanket chest from the Stewart dwelling; reproduction chest from the Taylor dwelling.