We entered one of the huts of the Blacks, for one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants.

-JULIAN URSYN NIEMCEWICZ, MOUNT VERNON VISITOR FROM POLAND, 1798

The standard slave quarter on Mount Vernon’s five farms was a rough one-room log structure with a wooden chimney, measuring about 225 square feet. Some dwellings were slightly larger and divided into two rooms, each housing a different family. As many as eight people could be crowded into a single room. They slept on pallets or on the dirt floor. On each farm, the cabins were placed in a cluster near the overseer’s house.

On Mansion House Farm, many enslaved house servants and craftsmen lived in larger barracks-style quarters: first the two-story House for Families, and after 1792, in the wings of the brick greenhouse, which held bunkrooms. These structures provided efficient housing for the large number of laborers, primarily men, who worked near the Mansion.

 

"The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot."

--Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Mount Vernon visitor, 1798

Artifacts from the House for Families

Enslaved people had no choice but to live in dwellings that were cramped, dark, smoky, and lacking in furniture or amenities. But they did what they could to make their homes more habitable, acquiring objects that added convenience and a small measure of comfort to their daily lives. 

Archaeological excavation of the cellar trash pit of the House for Families slave quarter (used at Mansion House Farm from the 1760s to 1792) has revealed many artifacts that its residents owned and used.

Stoneware Chamber Pot

Stoneware Chamber Pot, House for Families, MVLA.

Stoneware Chamber Pot, House for Families, MVLA.

Like the Washingtons, enslaved people apparently took advantage of ceramic chamber pots. These useful vessels removed the need for trips to the “necessary” (outhouse) in the middle of the night.

Private Lives

Pipes and Marbles, House for Families, MVLA.

Pipes and Marbles, House for Families, MVLA.

Enslaved people may have smoked pipes and played games like marbles in their rare leisure hours. Some discoveries—like pieces of a box and the back of a brush—reveal small personal items, perhaps someone’s treasured possessions.

White Salt-Glazed Stoneware

White Salt Glazed Stoneware Teabowl, House for Families, MVLA.

White Salt Glazed Stoneware Teabowl, House for Families, MVLA.

A large number of white salt-glazed stoneware fragments were excavated from the House for Families. They came from a service that George Washington ordered from England in 1759 and later passed on to the enslaved community. A tea bowl suggests that enslaved people drank tea, a popular beverage associated with gentility and refinement.

Colonoware

Colonoware Vessel, House for Families, MVLA.

Colonoware Vessel, House for Families, MVLA.

Colonoware was a type of unglazed ceramic made by enslaved people in the Chesapeake region and South Carolina. It is unknown whether any colonoware production occurred at Mount Vernon. Enslaved people may have purchased these types of bowls locally.

Beverages

With clean water scarce, all of Mount Vernon’s residents consumed a variety of beverages. The plantation’s hired and enslaved laborers received regular rations of rum. Wine was not part of their standard allotment, but bottles may have been stolen from the Mansion’s stores.

The Return

These artifacts were excavated from the House for Families, a slave quarter used at Mount Vernon from the 1760s to 1792. For this series, the objects were photographed in the greenhouse slave quarter, which replaced the House for Families. The return of the artifacts to an 18th-century slave quarter provides a rare opportunity to see the objects in a context similar to where enslaved people originally used them. This segmented still life contemplates the artifacts individually, then together—in situ—so that people, spaces, and things are not distinct, abstract pieces of the past but together form the material culture of plantation slavery at Mount Vernon.

By Karen E. Price Photographer and Archaeologist, 2016

Who did these objects belong to?

We don’t know exactly. The enslaved residents of the House for Families were primarily assigned to housework and trades like carpentry and spinning. Search the database to find those living on Mansion House Farm prior to 1792, when the dwelling was removed.

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.

What to See Calendar Shop Restaurant Donate Membership
Estate Hours

Open today from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm

iconDirections & Parking
buy tickets online & save