Food and Clothing

Slaves usually received a monthly allowance of corn meal and salt-herrings. Frederick Douglass received one bushel of corn meal a month plus eight pounds of pork or fish. Some plantation owners gave their slaves a small piece of land, a truck-patch, where they could grow vegetables.

Slaves also had a yearly clothing allowance. Douglass, for example, received "two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes". In his autobiography, Josiah Henson reported that in the winter slaves were given an " overcoat, a wool-hat once in two or three years, for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes".

House slaves usually lived better than those who worked in the fields. They usually had better food and were sometimes given the family's cast-off clothing.

Primary Sources

(1) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars.

The clothing allowance of the slave children was given to their mothers, or the old women having the care of them. The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

(2) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

Slaves every Monday morning have a certain quantity of Indian corn handed out to them; this they grind with a handmill, and boil or use the meal as they like. The adult slaves have one salt herring allowed for breakfast, during the winter time. The breakfast hour is usually from ten to eleven o'clock. The dinner consists generally of black-eyed peas soup, as it is called. About a quart of peas is boiled in a large pan, and a small piece of meat, just to flavour the soup, is put into the pan. The next day it would be bean soup, and another day it would be Indian meal broth. The dinner hour is about two or three o'clock; the soup being served out to the men and women in bowls; but the children feed like pigs out of troughs, and being supplied sparingly, invariably fight and quarrel with one another over their meals.

(3) Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849)

The principal food of those upon my master's plantation consisted of corn-meal and salt herrings; to which was added in summer a little buttermilk, and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family, on the little piece of ground which was assigned to him for the purpose, called a truck-patch.

In ordinary times we had two regular meals in a day: breakfast at twelve o'clock, after laboring from daylight, and supper when the work of the remainder of the day was over. In harvest season we had three. Our dress was of tow-cloth; for the children, nothing but a shirt; for the older ones a pair of pantaloons or a gown in addition, according to the sex. Besides these, in the winter a round jacket or overcoat, a wool-hat once in two or three years, for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes once a year.

(4) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

We had however but two meals a day, of corn meal bread, and soup, or meat of the poorest kind. Very often so little care had been taken to cure and preserve the bacon, that when it came to us, though it had been fairly killed once, it was more alive than dead. Occasionally we had some refreshment over and above the two meals, but this was extra, beyond the rules of the plantation. And to balance this gratuity, we were also frequently deprived of our food as a punishment. We suffered greatly, too, for want of water. The slave drivers have the notion that slaves are more healthy if allowed to drink but little, than they are if freely allowed nature's beverage. The slaves quite as confidently cherish the opinion, that if the master would drink less peach brandy and whisky, and give the slave more water, it would be better all round. As it is, the more the master and overseer drink, the less they seem to think the slave needs.

In the winter we took our meals before day in the morning and after work at night. In the summer at about nine o'clock in the morning and at two in the afternoon. When we were cheated out of our two meals a day, either by the cruelty or caprice of the overseer, we always felt it a kind of special duty and privilege to make up in some way the deficiency. To accomplish this we had many devices. And we sometimes resorted to our peculiar methods, when incited only by a desire to taste greater variety than our ordinary bill of fare afforded. This sometimes lead to very disastrous results. The poor slave, who was caught with a chicken or a pig killed from the plantation, had his back scored most unmercifully. Nevertheless, the pigs would die without being sick or squealing once, and the hens, chickens and turkeys, sometimes disappeared and never stuck up a feather to tell where they were buried. The old goose would sometimes exchange her whole nest of eggs for round pebbles; and patient as that animal is, this quality was exhausted, and she was obliged to leave her nest with no train of offspring behind her.

(5) Annie L. Burton, Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days (1909)

The slaves got their allowance every Monday night of molasses, meat, corn meal, and a kind of flour called "dredgings" or "shorts." Perhaps this allowance would be gone before the next Monday night, in which case the slaves would steal hogs and chickens. Then would come the whipping-post. Master himself never whipped his slaves; this was left to the overseer.

We children had no supper, and only a little piece of bread or something of the kind in the morning. Our dishes consisted of one wooden bowl, and oyster shells were our spoons. This bowl served for about fifteen children, and often the dogs and the ducks and the peafowl had a dip in it. Sometimes we had buttermilk and bread in our bowl, sometimes greens or bones.

(6) Walter Hawkins, From Slavery to Bishopric (1891)

In his savage state the Negro was at liberty to eat what he liked and could get by his own activity, but as a slave he was forced to have "Johnny cakes" and black treacle, with rare variation. This cake was made out of corn-meal, salt, and water, and baked on a piece of barrel-head. At dinner-time old Jane Robinson would call her slaves and give each of them a piece and a little molasses, which she would pour into a large plate so as to make it look much more than it really was; of course there was no blessing asked on this meal. It is needless to say that he soon polished off the "Johnny cake," licked the treacle and bowed ready for more, to which Mrs. Robinson would gravely reply: "You young rascal, do you mean to breed a famine? Go to your work!"

(7) Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857)

The amount of provision given out on the plantation per week, was invariably one peck of corn or meal for each slave. This allowance was given in meal when it could be obtained; when it could not, they received corn, which they pounded in mortars after they returned from their labor in the field. The slaves on our plantation were provided with very little meat. In addition to the peck of corn or meal, they were allowed a little salt and a few herrings. If they wished for more, they were obliged to earn it by over-work. They were permitted to cultivate small gardens, and were thereby enabled to provide themselves with many trifling conveniences. But these gardens were only allowed to some of the more industrious. Captain William Helm allowed his slaves a small quantity of meat during harvest time, but when the harvest was over they were obliged to fall back on the old allowance.

(8) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

The slaves are generally fed upon salt pork, herrings, and Indian corn. The manner of dealing it out to them is as follows: Each working man, on Monday morning, goes to the cellar of the master where the provisions are kept, and where the overseer takes his stand with someone to assist him, when he, with a pair of steelyards weighs out to every man the amount of three and a half pounds, to last him till the ensuing Monday - allowing him just half a pound per day. Once in a few weeks there is a change made, by which, instead of the three and a half pounds of pork, each man receives twelve herrings, allowing two a day. The only bread kind the slaves have is that made of Indian meal In some of the lower counties, the masters usually give their slaves the corn in the ear; and they have to grind it for themselves by night at hand mills. But my master had a quantity sent to the grist mill at a time to be ground into coarse meal, and kept it in a large chest in his cellar, where the woman who cooked for the boys could get it daily. This was baked in large loaves, called steel poun bread." Sometimes as a change it was made into Johnny Cake," and then at others into mush.

The slaves had no butter, coffee, tea, or sugar; occasionally they were allowed milk, but not statedly; the only exception to this statement was the "harvest provisions." In harvest, when cutting the grain, which lasted from two to three weeks in the heat of summer, they were allowed some fresh meat, rice, sugar, and coffee; and also their allowance of whiskey.

At the beginning of winter, each slave had one pair of coarse shoes and stockings, one pair of pantaloons, and a jacket. At the beginning of the summer, he had two pair of coarse linen pantaloons and two shirts.

Once in a number of years, each slave, or each man and his wife, had one coarse blanket and enough coarse linen for a "bed-tick." He never had any bedstead or other furniture kind. The men had no hats, waistcoats or handkerchiefs given them, or the women any bonnets. These they had to contrive for themselves. Each laboring man had a small "patch" of ground allowed him; from this he was expected to furnish himself and his boys hats, &c. These patches they had to work by night; from these, also, they had to raise their own provisions, as no potatoes, cabbage, &c., were allowed them from the plantation. Years ago the slaves were in the habit of raising broom-corn, and making brooms to supply the market in the towns; but now of later years great quantities of these and other articles, such as scrubbing brushes, wooden trays, mats, baskets, and straw hats, which the slaves made, are furnished by the shakers and other small manufacturers, from the free states of the north.