“An Old Osnabrigs Coat”: Textiles and Identity at Mount Vernon

By Luke Pecoraro / Assistant Archaeologist

Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors dressed in an Oznabrig shift and petticoat (left), and cotton waistcoats and breeches (right).

Mark Twain’s remark that “clothes make the man” was as accurate during George Washington’s lifetime as it is today. Clothing signifies many things about the wearer, such as social status and personal identity, but as cloth is perishable, it is not often recovered archaeologically.  We find buttons, buckles, and bits of trim, but these elements represent only part of the story. Documentary evidence from the 18th-century reveals that textiles were a sought after commodity, and almost exclusively imported from Europe. Probate inventories for Fairfax County suggest that bolts of fabric commanded high valuations in comparison to other household items, farm equipment, and livestock. Despite cloth being a “missing” or under-represented class of artifact in the archaeological record, we assume that everyone wore clothes in the 18th century, but how can we connect this to the findings from the South Grove, and ultimately, to the people using the midden?

Osnabrig is a coarse heavy linen made originally in Osnaburg, Germany, and used most often for sacking and bagging.

Part of the research that will be included on the upcoming website about the South Grove midden are Washington’s Orders and Invoices which our staff, volunteers, and interns have been compiling into a searchable database. Textiles that Washington ordered were classed by type, and one that appears with regularity in the Robert Cary & Co. accounts is known as “Oznabrig.” Oznabrig was a coarse linen fabric, deriving its name from a city in Germany, but produced in much of Continental Europe as well as England. Uses for the fabric ranged from sacking to work clothes, both of which a large plantation would need in quantity. From 1759 through 1773, 15 orders for Oznabrigs were made, and usually in large volume; an order dated 10 April 1762 reads “8 pieces 838 ells Oznabrig Linnen, £28. 16. 1.” To put this in modern terms, 1 ell is equal to 45 inches, so this quantity measures out to be roughly 3,143 feet, valued at $43 US dollars. With orders like this one made once (and sometimes twice a year), that’s a significant expenditure on cloth!

Washington's advertisement for runaway slaves printed in the Maryland Gazette, 20 August 1761.

Other clues in the orders illustrate exactly how Oznabrig was used, revealing more about plantation life. Washington’s order dated 10 August 1764 requests “5ps. Oznabrigs – or ca. fit for Negroes ware.” In this context, Oznabrig becomes an identifying characteristic for enslaved African-Americans, and is further elucidated by Washington’s description of 4 runaway slaves from his Dogue Run Farm in 1761. Each slave is described physically, as well as how they were dressed: “Cupid, 23 or 25 Years old, a black well made Fellow, 5 Feet 8 or 9 Inches high…he carried with him his common working Cloaths, and an old Osnabrigs Coat made Frockwise.”  Following the Revolutionary War, Washington continued to purchase Oznabrig for this purpose as a letter from 1793 to his plantation manager, William Pearce, states “Buy as much good Oznabrigs in Alexandria as will enable the Gardeners wife to proceed in making linnen clothes for the Negros.”

Understanding how textiles were brought to Virginia, who purchased them, and for what purpose changed over time. Furthermore, the prices charged for fabric fluctuated, inflating with the onset of the American Revolution and the period following. This increases the importance of cloth as a commodity and identity signifier is relevant to Mount Vernon’s occupants, and also the community at large, and opens up more avenues for research using the midden.

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