Crafts and Slave Handicrafts: An Overview

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Crafts and Slave Handicrafts: An Overview

There is ample evidence regarding the production of crafts by slaves in the American colonies and during the antebellum period in the Untied States. Manifests of slave ships identify some of their captives as artisans, such as weavers, woodcarvers, and metalworkers, and records of sale indicate a higher monetary value for these skilled individuals. The value of the skilled slave—those who arrived with skills in traditional African crafts as well as those who were trained during captivity—is documented in both slave narratives and in advertisements for the return of runaways. An advertisement in the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser on September 19, 1806, posts a reward of $100 each for the return of Bassil, a "house carpenter and wheelwright" and Gerard, a "blacksmith by profession."

Items for Personal Use

Though Alain Locke suggested in 1933 that slavery had destroyed the cultural traditions of displaced Africans taken in the slave trade, other scholars have since argued that many traditions survived the trauma of displacement as well as the severe burden of slavery. The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century discovery of some crafted objects (e.g., small ceramic "face vessels" found in South Carolina, dated to the 1860s) suggests that some cultural practices, such as funerary traditions, were preserved in some measure.

Many of the crafted objects made by slaves for personal use during the colonial period reflect African tradition. Prominent among these are drums, though they were banned by many slaveholders (and prohibited by South Carolina in 1739) for fear of their potential use to foment rebellion. A richly carved wooden drum from Virginia, thought to date to 1645, has been identified as a replica of an Akan chief's drum. Other drums were fashioned from gourds, as were rattles and stringed instruments.

African and African American slaves made baskets using an African coiling technique, and they created wrought iron objects for decorative (perhaps ritual) and practical use. It is speculated that some enslaved blacksmiths may have originated in the Mande and Wolof peoples of West Africa, who used ritual objects made from iron. Slaves were also potters, creating hand-built pottery using African methods. Bowls and jugs made by slaves (later called "colonoware" by twentieth-century scholars) demonstrate similarity to Kongo ceramics as well as to Native American pottery. The so-called face vessels of the late 1800s, found mostly in burial grounds in South Carolina and Georgia, depict a human face in relief on one side. Usually found either cracked or perforated with holes, the small ceramic vessels (about 4-9 inches high) bear some similarity to Kongo pottery and are thought to be mortuary ritual items that served a protective role. Other artifacts, including shell beads and dolls, have been recovered as well, but the details of their use and the history of their design remain unknown.

As was typical of the time, slaves crafted a large variety of utilitarian goods for household use, including soap, candles, and textiles. Female slaves spun thread and wool and wove fabrics, and they sewed clothes and quilts for their family's use and for the use of the slaveholder's family. The best-known of the slave textiles are pieced quilts, created using an appliqué technique, often with embroidered detail. Though influenced by European quilting techniques, the geometric designs of some of the quilts are similar in pattern to West and Central African textiles. These varied craft practices among slaves continued from the colonial period into the nineteenth century, and on the plantations expanded into larger operations.

The Sale of Crafted Goods

Most plantations had facilities for weaving and spinning, as well as blacksmithing and coopering. Often these ventures became additional sources of income for the slaveholder, who sold the products made by slave artisans. Female slaves, following their day's work in the fields or in the slaveholder's household, were often required to spin, weave, or sew at night, and quotas were imposed on their production. The textiles produced by the slaves, which included cotton, linen, and wool fabrics, became significant sources of income for some slaveholders.

In the Edgefield District of South Carolina (modernday Edgefield, Greenwood, McCormick, Saluda, and Aiken counties) several planters established pottery mills, staffed by skilled slaves and white potters. The mills produced an alkaline-glazed stoneware, typically utilitarian pots and storage jars. Prominent among the Edgefield potters was a slave known as Dave, who took the last name of Drake after emancipation, and who produced hundreds, if not thousands, of pots from at least the 1830s through the 1860s. Remarkably, many of his pots are signed and dated, and many are decorated with inscriptions of verse written by the artist.

Professional Artisans

During the colonial period in the South—as well as in the Northern and Middle colonies—a system of apprenticeship emerged that further developed the skills of enslaved craftspeople while enriching slaveholders. Slaves were apprenticed to cabinetmakers, silversmiths, goldsmiths, printers, and engravers. In some cases these skills created benefit for the slaves; some were able to purchase their own freedom, and others fled, assured of their ability to earn a living. Such apprenticeships, to white artisans as well as free blacks, continued into the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s free black artisans and slave apprentices figured prominently in the production of fine craft items, such as furniture, in New Orleans and elsewhere in the United States, until legislation in some states restricted both the number of slave apprentices as well as the number of businesses owned by free blacks. By 1850 these restrictions, coupled with further restrictions on manumission and an increase in industrial development, led to a decline in the numbers of black artisans, both enslaved and free.


Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; Or, The Life of an American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, 1859. Available from http://web6/

Lewis, Samella, ed. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser. Washington, DC, September 19, 1806. Available from http://web6/

Patton, Sharon F. African American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

                                     Dorothy Bauhoff