Background and Sources
When referring to enslaved people whose tasks included mostly domestic duties, enslavers used the term “servants,” as if to clearly differentiate between work in the house and the outside labor of so-called field hands. Enslaved house servants labored in both large rural plantation households and large urban houses, as well as in urban taverns and hotels. They performed all the jobs involved with keeping a private or public house running, which included the labor inside the house as well as the care of horses and carriages. Under the supervision of the woman of the house, servants divided the work as assigned, with many beginning as young apprentices and advancing up the hierarchy, often inheriting the positions of relatives.
Letters and other written records kept by enslavers rarely mention the names of enslaved house servants. One notable exception can be found in the records of Monticello, the Albemarle County home of Thomas Jefferson. James Hemings, a French-trained chef, his brother the cook and brewmaster Peter Hemings, and Edith Hern Fossett and Frances Hern, the two longtime chefs in Jefferson’s kitchens, are all well documented. Records from Mount Vernon, the Fairfax County plantation of George Washington, also contain the names and occupations of house staff, including the chef Hercules and the ladies’ maid Oney Judge, both of whom successfully self-emancipated late in the eighteenth century. Judge’s own perspective on her life was captured in two newspaper interviews, published in 1845 and 1847.
Other reminiscences of enslaved house servants also have survived. Paul Jennings labored as an enslaved footman at Montpelier, the Orange County plantation of James Madison, and later in the White House. In 1865 he published A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. Bethany Veney cooked for her enslavers in the Shenandoah Valley before her manumission and the publication, in 1899, of The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman. Elizabeth Keckley, a skilled seamstress of elite women’s clothing, published Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868). The story of Shadrach Minkins, an enslaved house servant who escaped from Norfolk in 1850, became a cause célèbre when he later was arrested in Boston, while Mary Richards Bowser labored as an enslaved servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond during the Civil War. She is believed to have spied on behalf of her Union-sympathizing enslaver Elizabeth Van Lew. The stories of both Minkins and Richards appeared in newspapers. The experience of Sally Cottrell Cole, who served the domestic needs of faculty at the University of Virginia, can be pieced together from public records and in the letters of her enslavers.
Enslaved house servants performed the wide array of daily tasks involved in running often large households that frequently hosted visitors. The larger the household, the more specialized the jobs of its enslaved laborers. In small households, servants took on many duties at once, and in both contexts they were always on call to care for their enslavers, often sleeping on pallets on the floors of bedrooms or hallways. The responsibility for producing meals and maintaining the home’s cleanliness required almost constant labor and drudgery, and yet the correspondence of slaveholders is rife with accusations that their enslaved servants were lazy, drunken, clumsy, inept, stupid, reluctant, and slovenly.
Among their many tasks, house servants were charged with maintaining fires. At a mansion such as Monticello, for instance, there were as many as eleven fires burning during the winter months. Houseboys and housemaids, some as young as eight years old, every day hauled firewood into the house and ashes out of it, in addition to sweeping interior hearths and blacking andirons and the tools associated with indoor fires. They also carried fresh water to bedroom ewers and pitchers for washing and emptied the dirty water after use. Houseboys cleaned all the outside shoes of the house’s residents and guests. They emptied and rinsed chamber pots for family and guests. In some settings chamber pots had to be emptied into a common bucket and carried some way from the house to be emptied. At Monticello, Jefferson paid one particular man, Nace, a regular salary for cleaning out the sewer that led away from Jefferson’s suite of rooms. Each bedroom and hallway was swept and dusted at least every other day and fresh linens put on beds likely once a week.
Servants regularly swept and then, on hands and knees, scrubbed and waxed the floors. With no screens to cover open windows, insects and dust made such tasks even more frequent and onerous during the summer months and led to yet another job: covering often costly art and furniture with gauze or linen sheets to protect them in between uses or the arrival of visitors, when the coverings were removed.
Laundresses took care of washing, rinsing, drying, and basic ironing. That ongoing chore was done over a several-day cycle. First came a day of washing—which included the repeated hauling, boiling, and dumping of water until the cleaning was complete—then a day (or more in the winter) of drying, and, finally, a day of ironing. Ladies’ maids often took care of washing their enslavers’ most intimate garments and cleaned, mended, and ironed lace and other costly textiles. Valets removed stains from and brushed and aired the tailored clothing of their male enslavers’ wardrobes. They generally possessed the sewing skills necessary to make minor repairs. Ladies’ maids and valets took charge of their enslavers’ clothes and of keeping their owners’ personal possessions neat. The care of soft-soled inside shoes was left to personal body servants, who also washed their male enslavers’ hair and shaved their faces. On occasion, they also made or decorated their female enslavers’ hats.
Seamstresses sewed sheets and towels and repaired rips and tears. They also darned stockings and repaired or remodeled children’s and women’s clothing. In addition, seamstresses cut, sewed, and repaired clothing for the larger enslaved community. This could be a demanding task if a report from Mount Vernon was typical. On December 23, 1792, George Washington wrote to one of his overseers that the seamstresses had fallen behind their weekly quotas of shirts, singling out an enslaved woman, Caroline, who “(without being sick) made only five; Mrs Washington says their usual task was to make nine with Shoulder straps, & good sewing.” Washington then threatened to remove some seamstresses to the fields.
Enslaved Workers Tending to White Children
Butlers and cooks communicated with their enslavers during the day about their responsibilities, the number of guests to be expected for meals, and the food stuffs necessary for various menus, which were planned several days in advance. Butlers directed the work of the house staff, announced meals and sometimes served in the dining room, and answered the door to guests. It was necessary for butlers to understand the social status of guests—whether a new arrival was a member of the family, a dignitary, or an important local person—in order to lead them to the appropriate reception space in the house.
A cook was given charge of the kitchen, with one or more scullions working under him or her. The job of a scullion was, above all, to obey the cook, but also to kill, scald, gut, and prepare chickens; wash and pare vegetables; feed the fires; clean pots and pans; stir pots; rotate spits; and to learn the kitchen skills that might allow them to apprentice to the cook. The kitchen staff produced the major daily meal along with breakfast and a later evening tea or supper. They might be called upon to cook meals for any invalids in the household, as the sick were thought to need special foods.
All servants who directly interacted with whites in the public rooms such as the dining room or the parlor were expected to be ready to serve but always discreet. Enslavers generally insisted that their servants not appear to be listening to the conversations of white people except to be always ready to take orders. Houseboys and maids, with their loads of firewood or laundry, generally stepped to the side of hallways and kept their eyes lowered when encountering family or guests.
Household work was so necessary and time-consuming that even during the wheat harvest at Monticello in June 1794, when Jefferson tasked all available hands to bring in the crop, the women of the enslaved Hemings family were excepted. At that time, they formed the core of the household staff, expertly performing difficult work. As the harvest was brought in, they kept the mansion running smoothly, tending to the white family and guests, preparing meals, washing laundry, and supervising children. They handled the firewood, slops, and foodstuffs, swept the floors, made the beds, and served all meals.
Part of the Larger Enslaved Community
Enslaved house servants were members of the larger enslaved community. More of them were women than men, and therefore they tended to partner with and marry men who labored outside of the house, including the yard staff and skilled tradesmen such as wheelwrights or carpenters. Other enslaved men and women found spouses at other plantations. While many house servants slept where they worked, others, especially on large plantations, lived in dwellings that were located nearer the mansion house than those of enslaved people who labored in the fields. Because of their proximity to the mansion house, these houses were generally better built, with wooden frames and masonry chimneys and foundations.
House servants tended to receive slightly better cloth and clothing allotments than other enslaved laborers, although this likely varied depending on the size of the home and the likelihood of outside visitors. Records at Monticello, for instance, show that the annual cloth allotments for some of the house servants who worked within the mansion’s public areas were of finer materials. Enslavers occasionally purchased muslin, Irish linen, and calicos for housemaids, while shoes and bought stockings gave their attire a finished look. In general, the clothing of enslaved laborers was expected to be plain, simple, and not attract notice, although butlers or dining-room waiters may have worn suits that had the look of a livery.
The enslaved men and women who worked in the house appeared to have received similar food rations as other enslaved people. Monticello records show the same weekly issues of corn and meat to both house servants and field hands. And work in the kitchen did not mean access to leftover food. An important part of a woman enslaver’s duty was to see that all foodstuffs for the white dining table were doled out with strict adherence to the quantity needed for specific recipes. The leftovers from the dinner were reserved for other family meals and likely were not consumed by the kitchen staff. Instead, like all enslaved laborers, the household servants sought to balance their diet through gardening and the raising of chickens for eggs and meat.
In an oral history provided during the Great Depression by the former slave Henrietta King of West Point, she notes that field hands actually received more to eat than house servants because of her enslaver’s stinginess. King also recounts the horrific punishment she received as a child for stealing a piece of candy from the kitchen. Enslavers’ worries about theft were pervasive, but it is difficult to detail the particulars or common occurrences of such thefts. House servants likely felt pressure to find adequate food, and it’s not always clear how they prepared their meals. Some enslaver’s regularly gave part of each person’s ration to the cook to make a communal dinner. Others may have let their servants make arrangements within family networks to cook enough to feed them and their children.
Perhaps the circumstance that most separated household servants from other enslaved people was their daily, almost constant interaction with white enslavers. This made enslaved women and girls especially vulnerable to sexual predation by male enslavers, their sons, overseers, and male guests. This was most famously the case with Sally Hemings, an enslaved household servant of Thomas Jefferson, who is believed to have fathered at least six of Hemings’s children. The 1860 federal census counted 460,000 mixed-race men, women, and children, the vast majority of whom lived in the South, a circumstance that clearly points to systematic abuse of Black women and girls.
At Monticello, members of the mixed-race Hemings family, many of whom were related to Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, largely labored in the mansion house. But contrary to popular tradition, house servants at elite plantations were not more likely to be mixed race. The historian Winthrop Jordan speculated that the proportion of enslaved people who were mixed race was about the same among household servants as in the larger enslaved population. Thus in some regions of the South and at some elite plantations they would have been very common, at others not. Being noticeable and remarked upon by visiting whites and possibly teased or bullied by enslaved peers has given the mixed-race house servant more of a historical emphasis than the actual numbers warrant.