previous next

Chapter 9:

  • Old-time hoopskirts.
  • -- how the slaves lived. -- their barbecues

It may excite some amusement to record the fact that among the thousand and one industries and makeshifts which blossomed into life in southern Alabama during the period of the war, the making of hoopskirts, which were worn extensively before, as well as during, and even for some time after, hostilities between the North and South, was not neglected. One of the ladies of our county devised a means of weaving the hoopskirt on the common house-loom. It mattered not if the tapes were all broken, and the casing all worn off the steels, a new farthingale was warranted, if only the steels of the worn skirt came.

There were raids made upon garrets for all old broken — up hoopskirts and pieces of steel belonging to such skirts, which we either carried or sent to the renovator of dilapidated hoopskirts. Her first move was to tightly wrap the steels one by one [114] with homespun thread, three or four strands double, but not twisted, piecing the steels, when necessary. An old hoopskirt not so worn was her guide as to the proper number and length of steels. The thread for the warp of the skirt was passed through the harness eyes and reeds of the sley about an inch wide, which was to answer for the tape of the skirt; a space of threads, six or more inches, was skipped in the harness and sley; the thread for the tape again passed through the harness and sley; another skip, and so on the length of the sley. When ready for weaving, one of the encased steels was placed in the openings of the narrow strips of warp, the steel projecting about three inches on each side of the outside tape; the steel was woven in; then about two inches or more of tape was woven; another steel was placed in; the same length of tape woven; another steel, and so on till all the steels required for the skirt were woven in. The space of tape for the top of the skirt was then woven, and half of the skirt was finished. The other half was woven in the same manner; the projecting ends of the steels were joined and closely wrapped, and the hoopskirt was [115] complete so far as the weaving was concerned.

These skirts were neat and satisfactory when finished off by hand. The weaving was slow and difficult, however, because the shuttle could not make a clean shoot through the narrow openings of warp, but had to be passed through each one by hand. The maker above referred to was another humble cottager whose husband and son were in our army, and to use her quaint expression, she was trying “to make both buckle and tongue meet,” while husband and son were fighting for our cause.

It was really ridiculous, our way of making raids upon what remained of our fine bed-linen, pillow-shams, and slips, for garments of finer texture than our own homewoven cloth. I well remember that once, when I stepped into a friend's room, her very first words were, “This is the last bleached, seamless bed-sheet I've got, and now I must cut it up for garments!” I doubt very much if a fine sheet could have been found in any house in our settlement when the war closed. Perhaps there was not one in the blockaded South.

Fine white pillow-shams were cut up and [116] made into white waists, to wear with our heavy home-made skirts in the hot summer. Sometimes a family would happen to have a bundle of scraps of blue striped bedtick-ing, which would be divided around among the neighboring girls. We would ravel it all up, taking care to save every blue thread (which was a fast color) to embroider flowers on the front, collar, and cuffs of our white waists, made of pillowshams and slips; and we did think them beautiful and prized them all the more highly because of the narrow pass to which we had arrived for fine material to tide us over till our cause should be won; and if we used up all the fine sheets, pillow-slips, and shams of ante-bellum days for our wear, soft home-spun, home-woven sheets took their place.

Cloth that was called thirded was woven for sheets and pillow-slips. Two threads of warp would be passed through the reeds of the sley for all plain or twilled cloth. For single sleyed cloth one thread only was passed through the sley-reeds. For cloth woven “thirded” the weaver would begin by drawing two threads through the first reeds of the sley and one thread [117] through the next reeds, two threads again, and then one, thus alternating the width of the warp two and one. When filled in with soft fine-spun filling, this stuff was soft and yielding, and easy to handle in the wash.

Some real nice towels were woven of the thirded cloth, and edged with wide or narrow blue borders of our home-made indigo, as that was ever a fast color. A fringe would be formed at both ends of the towel by raveling out an inch or so of the woof; they had to be inspected closely to note the difference between them and those bought in the usual manner.

Many of our women, when cotton was at its prime in opening, and before any rain had fallen on it, would select and pick themselves from the bolls that were the longest and fullest of the white fleecy staple, enough for their finest knitting purposes. They would also pick the seed from the white silky locks with their fingers, which would spin a longer, finer thread than if it had been ginned. I have seen socks and stockings knit of such prepared cotton that, in point of fineness of texture, were almost the equal, and in lasting power were more than the equal, of those bought at [118] stores. One of my pupils, who is yet living in southern Alabama, prepared enough of such thread with her own hands to give me as a present, with the expressed desire that I should knit for myself a pair of stockings. I used very fine knitting needles, and took great care to draw every stitch on the needles so as to have no unevenness. Three or four inches above the instep I commenced knitting “shell-work,” which was in fashion then. We could not have our hose as fine as that which we had once bought, but we tried to cover that defect by all manner of fancy designs in knitting, such as “leaf and vine,” “clock-work,” “shell-work,” and plain or twisted “ribs.” These covered all the upper part of the foot, and had they been knit of fine white floss they could not have made a better ap. pearance.

Another article which we learned how to produce was “hair oil.” We had plenty of roses, fragrant ones too, which we gathered, and then filled quite a large bowl with their petals, among which we put enough fresh, white hog's lard to fill the bowl to the brim. When melted, a piece of glass was placed over the bowl securely; [119] it was then put on a scaffold out in the yard, where the rays of the sun could shine down upon it all day. There it remained for two or three weeks day and night, until the petals became crisp and transparent. The mixture was then strained through a thin muslin cloth into a mug or other small vessel, and we were content with it, knowing that it contained nothing deleterious to the scalp or hair.

Although war was raging all around, both on sea and land, yet in our quiet valley which, we were vain enough to believe, rivaled the far-famed Vale of Cashmere, everything moved on the even tenor of its way. We were happy and contented, both master and slave. Late on Saturday afternoons, the weekly rations for the slaves were given out; and in addition to them would be given for Sunday cheer, flour, lard, butter, sugar, and some substitute for coffee, as real coffee had been given before the war. They had the privilege also of vegetables and fruits. On Sundays the slaves would do their own cooking. On week days a negro slave was regularly detailed to cook for the laboring hands, and even provender for the plow stock was [120] placed in the feed troughs by the “trashgang,” as they were called, composed of negro boys and girls not old enough for regular field work. On week days the laborer had only to take the gear off the mule and turn it in the lot gate, and then go to dinner ready waiting for him.

Farmers not owning more than fifteen or twenty negro slaves generally had all the cooking for white and black done at the same time. I have often heard farmers say since the war, and laugh over it, that they had really eaten no good cabbage, turnips, or collard — greens since slavery times. It used to be necessary to cook so much bacon for the slaves that vegetables and “greens” of any variety were well seasoned. During the war when bacon was very scarce, it often happened that the white household would deny themselves meat to eat, so as to give it to the slaves, as they had to toil in the field.

If a negro was sick, a doctor, who was already paid, was called in all haste, as planters used to engage a doctor by the year, at so much for each slave whether large or small.

One negro boy called “Jim,” about eighteen [121] years of age, was quite sick of a fever one fall. His master and mistress had him brought from the “quarter” over to the dwelling-yard and placed in the cook's cabin, so that he might be given close attention. One or the other watched him day and night (for he was a very valuable boy) and gave the medicine. One Saturday during his illness his master had to go to the city for some purpose, and he asked me to help his wife and daughter care for Jim that day, saying, as he stepped into his buggy, “Now be careful of Jim, and see to it that he lacks for nothing; if he dies, I've lost one thousand dollars, good as gold.” It was nothing uncommon then for able-bodied young negro men to be valued at from one thousand to eighteen hundred dollars. If Jim be living to-day, I know he has not forgotten our giving him his medicine and gruel at the regular hours, heating hot bricks and placing them at his feet as the doctor ordered, nor how I burned my fingers muffling the hot bricks.

Very often the sick negroes would be brought right into their masters' houses, so as to be more closely watched. [122]

Then there were the annual barbecues that each and all planters gave without fail to their slaves when the crops had all been laid by, which semi-holiday weeks embraced the last of July and the first of August. I remember in particular one barbecue roast that I witnessed one night in company with the household. The “pits” were some little distance from the mansion, and were half filled with red-hot coals of oak and hickory wood, over which the flesh of whole dressed beef, mutton, and shoats were slowly roasting, lying on a grate made of split staves of oak or hickory wood. A goodly — sized vessel, containing vinegar, butter, salt, pulverized sage, pepper, and thyme, all mingled together with a “swab,” stood in close proximity to the barbecuing meat. Every now and then the roasting flesh would be turned over with long oak sticks sharpened smoothly to a point at one end, which answered the place of forks; deep and long incisions would be made in the barbecuing meat, and with the swab a good basting of the mixed condiments from the bowl would be spread over; the process of turning the roasting flesh over the glowing red coals [123] and basting with the seasoning continued till the meat was thought to be thoroughly done. It would sometimes be far beyond the hour of midnight before the barbecuing meat was removed from the “pits,” and I yet think that such barbecued meats cannot be surpassed by any other sort of cooked or roasted meats. When cold and sliced, it was certainly delicious. A night barbecuing was a weird scene. Blazing pine-torches heaped on the rude stands improvised for the occasion threw a ruddy glow out over the dark forest, giving an uncanny aspect to the long thick moss swaying sylphlike in the night breeze. Some of the negroes would be tending the roasting flesh; some with the swab, basting with the seasoning; some laughing loud enough to wake the sleeping echoes; some lazily stretched out on the ground thinking of to-morrow's feast. Now and then some one would “pat Juba,” as they called it, while the dim light of the moon and stars peeping through the heavy foliage, together with the savory smoke rising from the pits, enhanced the strangeness of the fete.

When the morrow came, two or three [124] long tables were set in the far-reaching shade of grand old oaks, whose every limb was hung plentifully with the long gray moss that is so common in the southern part of the Southern States, and which imparts to the trees in that section an aspect strikingly patriarchal.

The tables would be weighted with the flesh of the ox, mutton, pork, and great pans of chicken pies, as well as fruits, vegetables, and light bread and cakes of our bolted meal. Seats were arranged all around, and old and honored negroes, called to preside at the heads of the tables, would bid them all to seat themselves,--by fifties, it often was,--when, with hands uplifted, they invoked the divine blessing.

Many in southern Alabama yet retain a vivid recollection of these regular annual barbecues, given to the slaves when the crops had all been “laid by.”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Alabama (Alabama, United States) (3)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Juba (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
August 1st (1)
July (1)
7th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: