In 1797, George Washington wrote to farm manager James Anderson in regards to clothing his slaves that, "It has always been my aim to feed & cloath them well...- in return, I expect such labour as they ought to render." Despite Washington's assurances, clothing issued to the slaves was minimal, plain, and often coarse. Some textiles were imported and crafted into clothing for slaves at Mount Vernon, while other garments were ordered ready-made in large quantities.1
The majority of George Washington's slaves wore suits of clothing that were issued annually and supplemented with an article or two appropriate for the changing seasons. In 1788, Washington wrote to his agent Clement Biddle, noting the expense of procuring clothing for such a large number of people, explaining, "As I am under the necessity of purchasing, every year, a quantity of coarse Linen, Blanketings. . .I am desireous of knowing if I could not supply myself from Philadelphia, or some other place upon lower terms."2
Lund Washington, George Washington's cousin and farm manager, noted in his Account Book the issue of clothing that the men on the outlying plantations received in 1774, including: "A jackett. Breeches, 2 shirts, 1 p Stockgs, 1 p of shoes each," and the women "a Petty coat, 2 shifts, a Jackett, 1 p Stockings & 1 pair shoes each."3
More information on slave clothing at Mount Vernon is provided in a Maryland newspaper advertising for information regarding runaway slaves from Mount Vernon. One individual, named Peros was described as wearing "a dark coloured Cloth Coat, a white- Linen Waistcoat, white Breeches and white Stockings," while his counterpart Neptune was wearing "a Cotton Waistcoat (of which he had a new One) and Breeches, and Osnabrig Shirt."4
In 1792, Washington described his objection to the making of trousers instead of shorter breeches for field workers because of the amount of cloth required. He questioned that the Gardener's wife was "not making them longer than common breeches... This wd. be a great consumption of Cloth."5
Shirts for men were generally made of osnaburg (unbleached coarse linen), while stockings referred to either plaid hose that were woolen, loose fitting, and not patterned, or knitted stockings made on the plantation. The majority of slaves probably wore plain unblackened sturdy leather shoes without buckles.6
Female slaves also wore jackets or waistcoats that consisted of a short fitted bodice that closed in the front. The jacket was worn with a petticoat, a full skirt with a fitted waist worn above the ankles for ease of movement while working. In 1793, Washington wrote to Anthony Whiting giving some insight into female slave clothing. Washington wrote that," Sarah Flatfoot...has been accustomed to receive a pair of Shoes, Stockings, and a Country cloth Petticoat, and an Oznabrig shift, all ready made, annually, and it is not mean't to discontinue them: You will therefore furnish them to her." Shifts, worn by all women as an undergarment, were unpatterned with sleeves to the elbow, a scoop neck, and skirt ending around the knee. Female slaves wore shifts made of osnaburg. Like the men, slave women wore plaid stockings and plain shoes.7
Because the number of clothes issued to each individual was minimal, it would not have been uncommon for slaves to wear the same clothing day after day. Washington did, however, place orders for items specified for "summer" wear and needed for "fall," indicating that some clothing was supplemented for changing seasons. In 1788, Washington ordered "A kind of Rolls Proper for summer Petticoats and Trousers," illustrating that in the summer women received a linen petticoat, while men received a pair of trousers or breeches.8
Slaves at Mount Vernon generally wore clothing made from cloth produced on the plantation that was sewn together by slaves or by hired tailors. In 1786, Washington noted that his plantation produced enough woolens to satisfy his needs. Likewise, Samuel Vaughan noted in his journal that "The General has 200 mouths to feed...has most part of the wollen cloathing & a considerable quantity of linen made at home."9
Washington also ordered ready-made clothing and materials imported from Europe. Osnaburg, a coarse linen unbleached fabric made in Germany and Great Britain, was the standard fabric that he ordered in large quantities to be made up by the slaves for shirts and shifts. Plaid hose, ready-made unpatterned wool stockings, were frequently ordered in bulk.10 Female slaves and injured or disabled male slaves worked as spinners and sewers of clothing for the slaves at Mount Vernon.
House slaves received more clothing of better quality materials than the field hands at Mount Vernon. Male slaves who worked in the household or in proximity to the family, including waiters or attendants, wore suits called "liveries" that were modeled after a gentleman's three-piece suit. Liveries were usually made out of fine wool in the colors of the owner's coat of arms and edged with elaborately woven livery lace. Martha Washington's maids wore gowns of finer cloth such as calico and aprons of lawn, a delicate linen. Slave children and older adults who were past working age generally received the poorest clothing.11
1. "George Washington to James Anderson, 2 February 1797."
2. "George Washington to Clement Biddle, 4 April 1788," The Writings of George Washington, Vol 29.
3. Lund Washington Account Book, "Dogue Run Plantation, 1774" (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
4. The Maryland Gazette, 20 August 1761 (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
5. "George Washington to Anthony Whiting, December 9, 1792," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 32.
6. Linda Baumgarten, "Clothes for the People: Slave Clothing in Early Virginia," Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts (1988): 62-70.
7. "George Washington to Anthony Whiting, 3 February 1793," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 32.
8. "George Washington to Clement Biddle, 4 April 1788." The Writings of George Washington, Vol 29.
9. "George Washington to Philip Marsteller, 15 December 1786," Vol. 29; Vaughan, Samuel. Journal of Samuel Vaughan, June-September 1787.
10. "George Washington to Mary Washington, 30 September 1757," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 2.
11. Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1933), 32, 41.