Mount Vernon’s enslaved people usually had no choice but to wear clothing identifying them as slaves.

Yet some did find ways to purchase or trade for other garments and accessories. For those who owned little (legally, not even themselves) these items could carry great meaning.

...let the better sort of Linnen be given to the grown people, and the most deserving; whilst the more indifferent sort is served to the younger ones and worthless.

George Washington, 1795

Clothing for the Field

Enslaved field workers like Priscilla, a “laboring woman” at Dogue Run Farm, received just one suit of clothes and a single pair of shoes per year, with one or two specialized articles for summer and winter. By necessity, they had to wear the same clothing nearly every day while doing hard physical labor. Made in mass quantities, the linen and wool garments were coarse, plain, and often ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Washington tried to minimize his expenses by purchasing cheap textiles and limiting the number of garments distributed.

Learn More About Priscilla

Annual Clothing Rations for Mount Vernon Workers

Men: One wool jacket, one pair of wool breeches, two linen shirts, one or two pair of stockings, one pair of shoes, and linen breeches for summer.

Women: One wool jacket, one wool skirt, two linen shifts, one pair of stockings, one pair of shoes, and a linen skirt for summer.

Clothing for the Mansion

The Washington Family, engraved by Edward Savage, 1798.  Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012. Conservation courtesy of The Founders, Washington Committee Endowment Fund [W-5298].

The Washington Family, engraved by Edward Savage, 1798. Gift of the Robert E. Wright Family, in memory of Dorothy Walton Wright and Robert Edward Wright, 2012. Conservation courtesy of The Founders, Washington Committee Endowment Fund [W-5298].

Because enslaved house servants were highly visible, Washington provided them more and better-quality clothing than field workers. Waiters like Christopher Sheels wore three-piece white-and-red livery suits, stockings, and black leather shoes with buckles. Housemaids like Ona Judge wore simpler versions of the gowns their mistress owned, made from less costly materials like linen instead of silk. Unlike field workers, housemaids probably wore corsets (called stays) under their gowns.

 

“She has many changes of good clothes of all sorts.”

Advertisement for return of lady’s maid Ona Judge, who ran away in May 1796

Two New Handsome Caps

In November 1790, George Washington ordered new hats for his enslaved coachmen, Giles and Paris. To provide the hatmaker with accurate dimensions, the president measured the old caps of the two men with the strip of paper below. He sent the measurements to his secretary Tobias Lear, requesting that he “have two handsome [caps] made, with fuller and richer tassels at top than the old ones have.” Giles and Paris would wear the elaborate hats as they accompanied Washington’s carriage through the streets of Philadelphia. 

 

“The whole length of this paper is the circumference of Giles cap measured at the bottom and on the inside...being the exact Band of the head...To the black line drawn across the paper is the size of Paris’s cap.”

George Washington, 1790

Hierarchy

Washington paid close attention to the appearance of enslaved house servants, including their skin color. Like many slaveowners, Washington considered enslaved people with lighter skin as more desirable for household work, where they were highly visible.

The general’s house servants are mulattoes, some of whom have kinky hair still but skins as light as ours. I noticed one small boy whose hair and skin were so like our own that if I had not been told, I should never have suspected his ancestry. He is nevertheless a slave for the rest of his life.

–FRENCH VISITOR TO MOUNT VERNON, 1798


About 6% of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population were described as “mulatto,” the 18th-century term for mixed race. They included butler Frank Lee, valet William Lee, waiters Austin and Christopher Sheels, lady’s maid Ona Judge, and overseer Davy Gray

Clothing Production at Mount Vernon

At Mansion House Farm, about 15 enslaved spinners, seamstresses, and knitters produced clothing for their fellow slaves. Washington also purchased large quantities of inexpensive fabric like Osnaburg, a rough unbleached linen textile that was sometimes called “slave cloth” or “negro cloth.”

Enslaved seamstresses like Betty and Alice were required to meet a certain quota of garments per week or they risked punishment. They were supervised by Martha Washington or, in her absence, the wife of the hired gardener.

Search the database to see references to textile production at Mount Vernon.

“Our Spin[nin]g goes on as well as can be expected...we guess that we have thread spun sufficient to make 3 or 4 Hundred yds of Linnen.”

Mount Vernon Plantation Manager Lund Washington, 1776

Personal Accessories

Archaeology at the site of the House for Families slave quarter has unearthed buckles, buttons, beads, watch fobs, and other objects of adornment that the dwelling’s residents left behind.

Buckles 

Washington supplied ornamental buckles for enslaved household workers like Frank Lee and Austin to wear on their shoes and breeches. Field hands were provisioned shoes without buckles, perhaps prompting some to make or acquire their own.

Buttons

Washington purchased buttons in bulk for the clothing of enslaved people. Between 1754 and 1772, he bought more than 8,000 buttons. Decorative metallic buttons likely adorned the coats and waistcoasts of livery suits worn by waiters and butlers. Most buttons excavated from the House for Families were simple undecorated “common” buttons made from bone, pewter, and other metals.

A Distinctive Style

A group of decorative glass button inlays may reveal what enslaved people purchased when they had a choice. These glass discs were originally set into a metal frame and used as linked sleeve buttons, or cufflinks. They are stylistically different from anything Washington acquired for himself or as allotments for his slaves. Enslaved people may have bought these buttons at local stores with money earned by selling poultry or produce from their gardens.

A Matching Pair

These two glass button inlays were found at separate sites associated with Mount Vernon’s enslaved community: the House for Families slave quarter (left) and the slave cemetery (right). They feature nearly identical molded coral branch designs.

Colorful Beads

Enslaved people used glass beads to decorate clothing and make earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and hair ornaments. Archaeologists have discovered a variety of red, green, and clear glass beads at Mount Vernon sites, as well as a coiled wire, perhaps once part of a piece of homemade jewelry.

 



Watch Fobs

The excavation of the House for Families slave quarter unearthed two watch fobs: decorative elements for the end of a watch chain. Likely unable to acquire a costly watch, enslaved people may have used these fobs as independent decorative objects.

A Lone Fan Blade

In the 18th century, fans served as symbols of gentility and femininity. Delicate ivory fans were popular accessories for elite women like Martha Washington. Curiously, a single bone fan blade was excavated from the House for Families slave quarter. It is unclear whether this blade was used as part of an intact fan, or if it served another ornamental function. Its owner may have added the carved decoration.

Food

The standard rations Washington allotted enslaved people were cornmeal and salted fish—almost all harvested by slaves themselves.

Learn More

The content on this page was adapted from Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2016–2020.

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