Some of the first field slaves in North America wore very little in the way of clothing. Newspaper notices in Charleston, South Carolina, described runaways dressed in mere scraps of clothing, sometimes no more than an "Arse-cloth."208 Most owners generally dressed slaves in loose fitting clothes of the least expensive possible cloth. In its 1735 Negro Act, South Carolina actually mandated which cloth—the cheapest—was deemed suitable for clothing slaves. This material—coarse wool—was known as "negro cloth," and the lowest-ranking field hand slaves received the simplest garments made from it. These slaves usually received only two suits of clothing each year; one in winter and one in summer. Seventeenth-century male field hands usually received a waistcoat with sleeves, two shirts, and breeches or trousers. Female field hands received a petticoat, jacket, and two shifts (loosely fitting dresses).209 Since they had to make their garments last for six months and needed to stay as warm as possible, some slaves used their precious time off to mend their tattered garb; they had no materials to work with, so they stole sections of cloth wherever they could find them. On George Washington's plantation in 1792, the farm manager complained that the slaves were taking pieces from sacks usually used to transport wheat to the mill.210 Clearly field slaves seemed to have little opportunity for articulating their cultural identity through dress, given their highly controlled environment and their lack of resources or mobility.
On the other hand, some slaves—especially house slaves with more privileges and access to whites' closets—were able to obtain fine clothing by dint of their owners' prominent position. Access to refined fashions afforded these men and women a limited but important means of self-expression and even a lucrative commodity to trade for cash or bartered items in order to gain their freedom. Twelve American presidents were slaveowners, and nine of those brought slaves with them to the White House. George Washington was the first to do so in 1789, when he brought nine bondsmen and women to the Executive Mansion, where each served as personal servant to the president, his wife, and each of their children. Washington also claimed reimbursement from the federal government for his slaves' fine clothing, which was of high enough quality to maintain appearances in elite circles. Two of these nine slaves successfully ran away from the White House, perhaps with the assistance of funds gained from bartering their opulent clothing.211
Through their own cunning, slaves sometimes were able to acquire articles of clothing—like shoes with silver buckles, stockings, and fine cloth waistcoats—that would have been more commonly associated with genteel members of society. Some—such as a slave named Bacchus from Augusta, Virginia, in 1774—took these items with them when they ran away, so as to facilitate their disguise as free men. A North Carolina slave named Lucy ran away in 1777 with two calico gowns, a pair of high-heeled shoes, a petticoat, a gauze-trimmed handkerchief with white ribbon, and more.212 Such clothes could facilitate a bid for freedom, either through disguise or barter for needed cash, but they also embodied a subversion of the social hierarchy that paired elite status with certain types of dress. While slaveowners would not have consciously aided their slaves' bids for freedom, many seem to have exhibited a certain indifference towards their slaves' dress. They might have knowingly passed their secondhand clothes on to their slaves (confidently assuming that their slaves would not betray them by running away), as a sign of affection or a bid for their own elevated social status, since the appearance a family's house servants was considered a reflection of its position. This was clearly an object of concern in colonial society, as the South Carolina Negro Act decried the phenomenon of Negroes donning "clothes much above the condition of slaves," and forbade whites from giving slaves their secondhand wardrobes. Yet such legislation met with limited effectiveness; by 1744 Charleston authorities were complaining that "Negro Women in particular do not restrain themselves in their Cloathing [sic] as the Law requires, but dress in Apparel quite gay and beyond their Condition."213 Some slaves clearly managed to defy the best efforts of white legislators and the conventions of racial hierarchy by dressing "above their condition." They thereby undermined the dictates of white supremacy, which would not countenance the notion of blacks assuming the appearance of civilized people by the standards of Western dress. They also evinced a nascent African-American culture, a sense of individuality, and unequivocal evidence of their own humanity—in direct contrast to the increasingly rigid legal codes and social conventions that sought to define black people as property.
Such rare moments of transgression and defiance were not limited to the small number of house slaves in the United States. In eighteenth-century New York, New Jersey, and New England, slaves were allowed up to one week off work for traditional festivals that occurred in May and June. Known as Pinkster, General Training, and Election Day, these celebrations varied in form and duration but usually crowned one black man king or governor, who would then direct the festival in the ensuing days. All slaves donned their best attire for these events, but the most spectacular clothes were reserved for the king or governor, and even horses and swords could be borrowed from owners for the occasion. A slave crowned King Charles, who officiated at the Pinkster festival in New York during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, wore the garb of an English brigadier, with a jacket covered in gold lace and polished silver buckles on black shoes. As historians Shane and Graham White have explained, "this slave's carefully constructed appearance was an act of cultural bricolage, the imaginative mediation of an African-born slave in a new, European-dominated environment." In other words, American slaves shaped their new fashions and their culture in part from their African origins and also from their contemporary surroundings and experiences in America. They created not simply a hybrid culture but something altogether new. Exaggerated for effect, the slaves' unsettling appropriation of white customs was at times amusing to whites, at other times threatening. Regardless of concerted efforts to exert control through laws, discipline, or force, slaves continued to undermine authority and social hierarchy by co-opting outward markers of social status. In the process they not only carved out a measure of independence and self-expression, they also developed a distinctive African-American culture.
Ironically, given colonial whites' concerns over their apparel, slaves did the work to make the raw materials needed for textile manufacture in the United States and throughout the industrialized world. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, plantation owners cut down on the high cost of imported clothing by using slaves to shear sheep's wool. Slaves then wove the wool into cloth, which enslaved seamstresses sewed into clothes, shoes, and other items. George Washington had some of his female slaves trained to sew linen shirts and shifts, then complained when they produced "only" six shirts per week.214
Until the mid-nineteenth century, synthetic fibers did not exist, and all textiles were derived from either linen, silk, wool, or cotton. Cotton, cultivated and harvested by slaves, became the backbone for the first Industrial Revolution, which occurred between about 1780 and 1861. The technological advance that prompted the cotton boom was Eli Whitney's cotton gin, devised in 1793 in order to facilitate the process of separating the cotton fiber from the cotton seeds. Before the gin, the process of de-seeding the fibers made cotton production very labor intensive, which made it hard to produce on an industrial scale; after the invention of the gin, cotton cultivation became cheap, easy, and highly profitable—especially with an unpaid, enslaved workforce. Eli Whitney's cotton gin, one of the most momentous inventions in history, was soon copied ad infinitum, and it multiplied each individual slave's cotton-cleaning output from one pound a day to 50. In 1790, just before Whitney's invention, American plantations produced 1.5 million pounds of cotton, a relatively small amount that indicated stagnation in the cotton market. By 1800, after just a few years of using the gin, cotton production skyrocketed to 35 million pounds. The introduction of the cotton gin made "King Cotton" the staple crop of the South and ensured that slavery would continue to define southern society for generations. By 1830, some 331 million pounds of cotton were produced in the United States; by the eve of the Civil War, production rose to nearly 2.3 billion pounds.215
Until the early twentieth century, the United States continued to supply most of the world's cotton, providing vital raw materials to the textile mills of both New England and Great Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began. Following the pathbreaking work of scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, historians such as Ronald Bailey have persuasively argued that "slave-produced cotton...fueled both the world and British economies and laid the basis for the rising national economy in the United States."216 Some white farmers did cultivate their own cotton throughout the nineteenth century, but the bulk of U.S. cotton was produced in the fifteen slave states, where by 1850 there were 819,419 white farmers but 3.2 million slaves working the crop. As large-scale cotton production expanded throughout the American South during the nineteenth century, English textile production grew from an artisanal craft to a mechanized, large-scale factory process. This English textile industry relied on the raw material supplied by slave labor in America to create clothing from the cotton fibers. Financing for the first factories was made possible at least in part by the profits that multiple individuals and companies reaped from the African slave trade.217 Thus slaves and their labor played an important role in the international spread of capitalism, the origins of the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of a mass market—along with mass manufacturing—for textiles in the United States and elsewhere.
As described in more detail in Reconstruction, even after the Civil War, black people had little choice but to return to work in tobacco, rice, and especially cotton production. With no vocational training and little if any education, let alone financial resources, the only alternatives that remained for the vast majority of freedpeople were to work as sharecroppers, unskilled laborers, or—especially for women—as domestics, launderers, and cooks. Working these low-wage jobs, freedpeople found it difficult or impossible to save enough money to rise out of destitution. Even if black people did manage to scrimp and save, whites usually interpreted any outward signs of their success—including expensive clothing—as a threat, and blacks were threatened with lynching or other forms of violence. As a result, generations of black families in the South were consigned to poverty and debt peonage.
Throughout the Jim Crow era, when American race relations hit their nadir, southern states arranged International Cotton Expositions to showcase their industrial potential and resources to the world. It was at one of these expositions, the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in September 1895, that Booker T. Washington made his famous "Atlanta Compromise Speech." Washington pledged black cooperation and submission to segregation, in return for the chance to achieve economic uplift. Such gestures of fidelity and devotion were exactly what white southern boosters were looking for. These entrepreneurial southerners needed to make their region's inhabitants appear content and their mixed-race workforce look stable in order to encourage outside investment. Yet boiling beneath the surface of this "New South" was a world rife with black frustration and white paranoia. White profiteers capitalized on the depressed wages of both white and black sharecroppers, who were desperate for income. These entrepreneurs fostered a climate of virulent white supremacy in order to ensure that white and black workers would not unify against their employers. The cotton that southern industrialists relied upon to line their pockets and save their war-torn economy was plunged into the international textile production process (primarily based in northern U.S. and English factories). Those factories turned the cotton fibers into clothing, which American whites purchased at record rates.
In the American South, black women were expected to wash all this clothing; they had been traditionally assigned this task during slavery. African-Americans recognized whites' reliance on their labor—even if they could seldom organize or protest to improve their situation. From the beginning of slavery in the United States, whites had depended on blacks to wash their clothing. In the postwar period, black laundresses came to recognize that reliance and they capitalized on it. This situation produced a historic chapter in fashion and labor history, with the washerwomen's strikes of the 1880s; the first one was tellingly held in the middle of the Atlanta International Cotton Exposition, during the summer of 1881. To reinforce their position in the racial hierarchy, most white southern families engaged at least one black washerwoman to do their laundry; whites who had to launder their own clothes were considered desperately poor in Jim Crow society. Most middle-class families retained a black female cook and a maid as well; upper-class families employed all of these in addition to valets, butlers, nannies, and so on. Thus the manner in which a white person cleaned their clothes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century southern society was a clear indicator of their class status.
Black laundresses were therefore in great demand in southern Jim Crow society. Because of the widespread call for their services, laundresses could, in some cases, manage to exercise some small degree of independence. They could, for example, choose to do laundry four to six days a week, depending on how many households they chose to serve. But economic necessity usually dictated that number, and the washerwomen were usually obligated to work as much as possible. Laundresses made $4 to $8 a month, and theirs was one of the hardest possible domestic trades; the more clothes that people accumulated in the post-industrialized clothing boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the more work was left for the washing women. These women desperately needed the income; in 1880s Atlanta, more than half of the city's black residents—and half of the black wage earners—were women. One-third of all black women living in Atlanta raised families alone.218 They had to make their own soap from lye, starch from wheat bran, and washtubs from beer barrels that they cut in half. They would cook dinner for their families while ironing. Without running water in their homes, the washerwomen had to carry gallons of water from local pumps, hydrants, or wells in order to wash, boil, and rinse customers' clothes. It was backbreaking work.
Because they largely monopolized the industry, black women soon began forming trade organizations based on laundry work in Atlanta and other cities such as Jackson, Mississippi, and Galveston, Texas. In each of these cities, the laundresses also took advantage of their domination in the industry and organized mass labor protests in order to define the terms under which they would work. These acts were truly revolutionary, since there was no precedent for African-American workers or women in the South to organize into trade unions to take united political or economic action.
In the late nineteenth century, black laundresses organized in order to demand a fixed rate of pay for their work, which would provide them with security, independence, and stability for their labor value. Laundresses would still only get paid if they worked, but if they could rely on a steady and fair pay rate, they might maintain more control over their working hours and their savings. Under the existing system, whites had sometimes refused black workers their wages, arguing that they would make up for it later, or they would sometimes force their black employees to accept cheap goods such as food (rather than currency) in exchange for services. Cash payment would afford washerwomen some mobility: that is, the ability to quit, leave labor contracts, work one week and not the next, or move out of the city, and such mobility was—as Frederick Douglass pointed out—a primary facet of freedom. Of course, white families wanted just the opposite from black workers, including laundresses; they wanted to maintain a disciplined, submissive, reliable workforce with no means or ability to act on its own accord.
In response to these injustices, twenty laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia formed the Washing Society in July 1881. They agreed on a uniform rate of $1 per dozen pounds of wash, then employed local black ministers to help them call a mass meeting in which they called for a strike in order to enforce the new pay rate. Throughout July these women canvassed door-to-door across the city in order to recruit new members, and they increased the striking membership to 3,000 people, while critics ridiculed them as "Washing Amazons." White laundresses in Atlanta composed only 2% of the entire trade, but they did join up with their black colleagues in the strike. City officials soon began arresting the strikers, fining them, and visiting them at their homes. The Atlanta City Council proposed that members of any washerwoman's organization pay an annual fee of $25 and then offered nonprofit tax status to businesses that wanted to start commercial laundries. The women agreed to pay the fee, which would amount to several months' worth of their wages, in order to maintain self-regulation over their trade (thus turning a business tax into a protective fee). It is not entirely clear how this struggle was actually resolved, since the newspaper stories began to peter out after about a month, but it does not appear that the City Council actually passed the fee. Nonetheless, the washerwomen's political consciousness spoke volumes in and of itself. The laundresses were well aware of their value and importance in southern society. Whites prized their clothes, and relied upon black people to perform the necessary labor required to keep those clothes well maintained. The laundresses thus successfully used clothing as a means of putting pressure on the entire system, to better their jobs. Their example inspired local nurses, maids, and cooks to demand their own pay increases.