Slave Consumption in the Old South: A Double-Edged Sword


Crossposted from The American Historian Online.

By the Civil War’s last weary winter, Confederate Richmond, had become accustomed to the pounding of artillery echoing across nearby fields. City newspapers noted the Army of the Potomac’s unrelenting pressure on nearby Petersburg, but the siege’s long familiarity muted the panic that dull roar might have incited only three years before. In December 1864, other sounds seemed equally troubling. For decades, the bang of the gavel had broadcast both triumph and tragedy in Virginia’s capital as property—livestock, furniture, human souls—traded in the city’s busy auction houses. But now, the Examiner and the Whig warned, auctioneers’ patter announced something else entirely, “another symptom of the breaking down of the barriers that, until this war, kept the negro in his proper sphere.” Enslaved men and women had taken to gathering at the auctions, using “grossly improper language” in the “presence of, and even to, white women.” Worse, “ladies and gentlemen at auctions [were]forced to bid in competition” with bondpeople, men and women who audaciously “monopolize[d]the most eligible positions and claim[ed]the nod of the auctioneer.” As white Richmonders sold off possessions to make ends meet in hard-pressed times, the city’s slaves were going shopping.[1]

Despite the newspapers’ warnings, white Southerners could not have been surprised to see enslaved buyers browsing goods for sale. Bondpeople in urban and rural areas alike had long sold their labor power, bought property, earned credit, and incurred debts through participation in what historians and anthropologists call the slaves’ “internal economy.”[2] Spending money they earned after and between labor completed for their masters, enslaved consumers sought to provide material comfort to themselves and their kin, to differentiate themselves from their peers, and perhaps most importantly, to acquire material markers of freedom in a world that hemmed them in at every turn. Slaveholders wrestled with the implications of such behavior, sometimes outlawing slave spending outright, but more often looking to manipulate it to their own advantage. Buying goods in the Old South—a piece of peppermint candy, a silk cravat, a stolen watch, one’s own body—revealed the fragile politics at the heart of master-slave relation.

How did enslaved people earn money and what did they buy? The answers to these questions depend on where a person was enslaved and what kind of work she or he performed. In the rice-growing lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, enslaved men and women usually labored according to the “task system.” Under this scheme, planters or overseers assigned each laborer a daily task, hoeing a portion of field, for example, or pounding so many mortars of rice. Once a task was finished, that person’s labor was complete for the day. Make no mistake: this was taxing work in often stifling and deadly environments, but even so, some slaves were able to complete daily tasks early and earn time for themselves. Where allowed, some slaves grew crops of their own to supplement diets or to barter and truck. Others crafted brooms or baskets. Still others performed extra labor for their masters—often called overwork—or for other white people in the community, earning precious cash or credit for purchases of their choosing. In cotton and tobacco regions, enslaved people more often worked from sunup to sundown under the close eye of a driver or overseer. In many areas, however, it was customary for slaves to work Saturday afternoons and Sundays on their own time, devoting daylight hours to cash-earning activities similar to that of their lowcountry brethren.

What enslaved men and women did with that cash or credit—and what it meant—challenged the institution of slavery. In a world where masters doled out rudimentary food and raiment, enslaved people most often spent cash to augment allotments, introduce variety to clothing or diets, and, sometimes, to acquire goods or participate in activities otherwise banned. Provisioning, then, serves as a framework for understanding slave spending. What slaveholders valued as durable and hearty, bondpeople often characterized as rough and plain. One formerly-enslaved woman remembered that she and her family “ain’t had nothin’ but de coarsest food an’ clothes.” Educator and former slave Booker T. Washington commented on clothing in particular, recalling shirts that were “stiff and coarse . . . as if a thousand needle points were pricking [his]flesh.” Knowledge that masters’ material worlds differed so greatly from their own could worsen discomfort. Slaves rued “old coarse shoes widout no linin,” so stiff “you could hardly walk in ‘em.” Masters, they observed, wore finer cloth and donned shoes made of “soft calf leather.” In food provisions, too, enslaved people noted differences. Bondpeople made their bread out of “shorts,” while the “first grade was always used in the master’s house,” one woman recalled.[3]

The internal economy allowed enslaved people to attempt to bridge this material gap. Susan McIntosh remembered that, in contrast to the “coarse and rough” shoes provided by her masters, she and her companions bought “calico, muslin and good shoes, pants, coats and other nice things for their Sunday clothes.”[4] In his 1859 autobiography, escaped slave Charles Ball described this process in more detail, elaborating spending priorities. According to Ball, earned money was

laid out by the slaves in purchasing such little articles of necessity or luxury, as it enables them to procure. A part is disbursed in payment for sugar, molasses, and sometimes a few pounds of coffee, for the use of the family; another part is laid out for clothes for winter; and no inconsiderable portion of his pittance is squandered away by the misguided slave for tobacco, and an occasional bottle of rum.[5]

Most slave purchasing reflected this tension between necessity, luxury, and potential danger. Slaveholders lamented spending on alcohol most of all, complaining that it caused disorder on the plantation and hindered productivity, but memoirs, slave narratives, and court records indicate that rum and liquor were highly sought.

In a burgeoning market society, finding goods for sale was not terribly difficult, as store merchants were more than happy to take slaves’ cash. In urban and rural areas alike, storekeepers petitioned local legislatures to expand trade hours to promote slave shopping, especially during the Christmas season. Describing holidays past, Esther Davis, a South Carolina planter’s daughter, recalled that in Camden’s business district, “those three days were given up to the negroes.” Merchants angled for enslaved customers: “the few stores that were open, were intended just for this trade and did a thriving business.” Indeed, she noted, “the foundations of some small fortunes were laid in those same small stores with their stocks of hardware, crockery, beads and brass jewelry, calico and bandana handkerchiefs, candy, etc.”[6]

Much of what we know about slave spending is anecdotal, but scattered ledgers from rural stores and outposts provide a glimpse of what and how slaves consumed. Records from six antebellum stores across Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia indicate that enslaved consumers spent hard-earned cash on a wide variety of goods. Purchased most often were cloth and sewing supplies—calico, cambric, muslin, shirting, and occasional bits of silk—and ready-made clothing and accessories such as shoes, caps, hats, coats, dresses, shawls, shirts, and cravats. Food items included alcohol, sugar, molasses, flour, coffee, rice, spices, butter, cheese, bacon, candy, cakes, and tea. Tableware, too, attracted slave cash, as did toiletries, watches, and tools.[7]

Enslaved people did not restrict their spending to established merchants. Peddlers and wagoners roved from farm to plantation, selling trinkets, candies, cakes, and often alcohol. More troubling to slaveholders, enslaved people also bought stolen goods in a thriving interracial network of underground exchange. Slaveholders lamented the theft of plantation stores, noting that slaves traded purloined corn, cotton, and bacon for goods of their choosing or cash outright. Too dear to purchase legally, watches in particular found a ready trade, highlighting an important characteristic in the consumption of stolen goods. Certainly, enslaved people found timepieces desirable because they were useful, but also because they were markers of wealth and status. Watches, in other words, were meant to be displayed. But to openly wear or use purloined goods was to risk detection and punishment. Buyers on the black market, then, had to alter behavior so that they could consume goods without discovery. They might change the appearance of an item—removing an owner’s mark, for example, or tailoring a piece of clothing—or they could hide the item away, saving it for future use.

As consumers, slaves challenged slaveholders looking to maintain mastery. Practically speaking, slaveholders contended with the loss of plantation stores and risked unruly behavior resulting from unregulated rum. For men and women so bent on control, slaves with cash—and vendors ready to take it—posed risks far beyond the material, however. Historians have argued that slaves’ participation in the internal economy was a form of resistance, that simply the act of buying property repudiated slaves’ status as property. Choice implied agency and that agency undermined masters’ rule.

There is merit to this argument, as slaves’ consumer behavior tied slaveholders in knots. So, given the risks enslaved consumers posed, why did slaveholders allow their people to trade? Planter James Goodloe posed two questions to readers of the Southern Cultivator in 1860. “What do slaves want with money?” he asked rhetorically. “What good could it possibly do them?” More importantly, he must have thought, “What good does a slave with money do me?” Plenty, he and others like him imagined. A slave who owned chickens or pigs would not run away, some argued. Others hoped that property ownership might induce enslaved people to work harder—for themselves and, by extension, their masters. Still others imagined that allowing slaves the ability to spend money as they chose might make up for restrictions in other parts of their lives. These slaveholders hoped to co-opt the consumer process and turn it into a management tool.[8]

But how could slaveholders take advantage of the consumer process while maintaining some semblance of control? Agricultural journals and plantation records burst with strategies and advice. Slaveholders had long debated the merits of granting small “luxuries” to their charges during the holiday season—extra or special types of food, trinkets and accessories like ribbons or penknives, extra plugs of tobacco, or even drams of liquor. But from the 1820s onward, we see planters strategizing further, introducing choice—or the illusion of choice—as a way to tamp down long-term discontent.

Goodloe, for example, advised slaveholders to allow supervised shopping trips. “Take [your]negroes to the nearest dry goods store (do not let them go alone) and let them select such things as suit their fancies,” he advised. He urged masters to pay for the goods themselves, “always rewarding more liberally those that have performed their duty best.” Other slaveholders took a more relaxed approach, allowing slaves to make purchases with their own money, but restricting when and where they could trade. Some even went out of their way to place money in enslaved people’s hands. Take, for example, Georgia planter James Towns, whose end-of-year celebrations always included a “pay day” for good behavior. Enslaved men and women began the year with a set amount of cash listed in Towns’ log book, deductions being made over the course of the year for disciplinary breaches or property loss. Towns explained to readers of the Southern Planter that those who had pleased him “[went]off with a pocket full of silver,” taking care to note, “and I always pay them in silver.”[9]

Perhaps the easiest way to monitor slave spending was through the operation of a plantation store. In 1836 the Southern Cabinet reported that some South Carolina slaveholders stocked plantation stores with goods “most likely to be in request among the negroes,” selling them “at cost” to enslaved consumers. The system had a good many benefits, as Georgia slaveholder Thomas Clay explained. Their “comfort is promoted,” he reasoned, and it “removes the temptation to visit dram shops.” Most importantly, “it affords the master an excellent opportunity of judging the thrift of each negro.”[10] Here was a powerful opportunity for masters not only to monitor slave spending but to criticize it, too. Slaveholders imagined themselves as models of economic propriety and their memoirs reveal much moralizing over choices made by their slaves. Blacks wasted their money, masters opined, or bought goods impractical for their lowly lives. Purchased clothes were garish and gaudy, they scoffed. Worse, they did not know the value of a dollar, allowing vendors to take advantage of their lack of consumer savvy. Over and over again, we see slaveholders attempt to justify their rule by pointing out the inadequacies of enslaved consumers.

Shopping, then, entailed more than the acquisition of desired goods. Internal economy focused political struggle, and consumption was deeply woven into the tragic and tangled fabric of the master-slave relation. This is nowhere more apparent than in slaves’ purchase of that most precious and intangible commodity, freedom. Choosing to buy control of one’s own body affirmed a slave’s status as chattel, even as that commodity transaction broke the chains of servitude completely. Such paradoxes troubled more than a few, but practical concerns and a desire for labor’s just reward pushed them to work extra hours, save cash, and put plans in motion to make freedom theirs. These purchases took careful planning. How much was their labor-power worth in a market that was weighted against free people of color? Should they free themselves individually or wait until they had saved enough to buy kin as well? Would masters renege on sales or manipulate prices beyond reach? Given the difficulty of saving such an enormous sum, why not spend cash more immediately on food and clothing to make daily life less miserable?  For most, these questions were no more than abstractions, as few enslaved people managed to purchase themselves. Yet even the most thriftless and impoverished must have cherished the thought of that most conspicuous and politically subversive form of consumption.

For masters and bondpeople alike, the internal economy both challenged the institution of slavery and shored it up. Secession in 1860 sharpened this double-edged sword and threw all aspects of southern economic life into crisis. As crops failed and the Union blockade tightened, goods became scarce. The master class scraped to make ends meet. Enslaved people suffered, yet—as bidding in Richmond’s auction houses shows—they recognized opportunity as well. The struggle to “get by” in a regime of growing instability engendered webs of unregulated exchange and distribution. Seemingly unimportant trades ruined old relations and wove together new webs of economic, social, political, and cultural life in a thousand stressed communities. Acts of buying and selling—of crops, goods, cash, and labor-power—would remake the South in freedom’s image. Which is to say, capitalism’s—for better and worse.

Kathleen Hilliard is an associate professor of history at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa and the author of Masters, Slaves, and Exchange: Power’s Purchase in the Old South (2014). Her essay derives from that book and her current book project Bonds Burst Asunder: The Revolutionary Politics of Getting By in Civil War and Emancipation, 1860–1867.

[1] Daily Richmond Examiner, Dec. 2, 1864; Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser, Jan. 3, 1865.

[2] Historians and anthropologists across the Caribbean and the United States have explored the mechanics and meaning of the slaves’ internal economy. For an overview, see Sidney Mintz, Caribbean Transformations (1974); Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan, eds., The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas (1991). For further explication of my own views, see Kathleen M. Hilliard, Masters, Slaves, and Exchange: Power’s Purchase in the Old South (2014) and “Bonds Burst Asunder: The Transformation of Internal Economy in Confederate Richmond,” in Commodification, Community, and Comparison in Slave Studies, eds. Jeff Forret and Christine Sears (2015).

[3] George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 41 vols. (1972–1978), 15, pt. 2: 21; Booker T. Washington and Frank Beard, An Autobiography: The Story of My Life and Work (1901), 16–17; Rawick, American Slave, 2, pt. 2, 23; Ibid., 3, pt. 1, 115; Ibid., 12, pt. 2, 149; Ibid., 12, pt. 2, 297.

[4] Rawick, American Slave, 13, pt. 3: 81.

[5] Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains; or, the Life of an American Slave (1859), 129.

[6] Esther S. Davis, Memories of Mulberry (1913), 15.

[7] Hilliard, Masters, Slaves, and Exchange, 69–93.

[8] A. T. Goodloe, “Management of Negroes,” Southern Cultivator, 18 (1860), 130.

[9] Goodloe, “Management of Negroes,” 130–31; James M. Towns, “Management of Negroes,” Southern Cultivator, 9 (1851), 86.

[10] “Agricultural Survey of the Parish of St. Matthews,” Southern Cabinet, 1 (1840), 202; Thomas S. Clay, Detail of a Plan for the Moral Improvement of Negroes on Plantations (1833), 21–22.


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