After Slavery: Educator Resources

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11. A Southern White Woman Reflects on New Circumstances, a New Identity

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Black women and men were not the only southerners whose understandings about women and men—what they should be, what they should do—changed in dramatic ways during the early years of freedom. The political, social, and economic earthquake that rattled freedpeople's lives and ideas also rattled the lives and ideas of those who had once owned them. Reconstruction, as the anonymous author of the letter below admits, extended beyond the South's fields and into the recesses of white people's homes. Published in the Rural Carolinian in 1869, the letter reveals the kinds of changes emancipation wrought in an urban home, and how, as a result of those changes, women came to embrace new roles, and new senses of self.

A Southern White Woman Reflects on New Circumstances, a New Identity


MY DEAR CARRIE: You ask me to tell you all about my house and my housekeeping; how I have furnished my rooms, how I cook, and what we eat; How I manage my servants, and so on. Well, that is more than I can do in one letter, but I will here make a beginning, and in future letters try to give you and idea of Southern life as it is "since the war," or at least of our "reconstructed" housekeeping.

* * * * * * * * * *

Well, this house which looks so big and grand, with its broad verandas, has only four square room, two on each floor, with a pantry off on the first floor and a dressing room on the second. When I first moved into it, it seemed sombre and gloomy, but a little scrubbing, a little whitewash, and a little paint has put a new face upon it, and I am now quite in love with the place. It looks home-like and cheerful, and I feel some pride in the part I have played in the work of transformation. You imagine me surrounded by servants, Dinah, Milly, Topsy, and the rest, with Sam for a gardener and Bill for an errand boy. My dear Carrie, you are thinking of things as they were before the war. Nous avons changé tout à la, or rather the Yankees and the niggers have changed all that. You think us a poor, dependent, helpless set of people. So we were, perhaps, but we are no longer so. For the proof come and see us and judge for yourself.

In the first place we, like thousands of others, have abandoned the out-door kitchen once universal among us. We turned ours into a wood shed, coal house and workshop. So the first thing was the put up a nice cooking range in the dining-room, which for the present must serve as kitchen and dining-room in one. I might tell you of an amusing story of the awkward negro fellow who undertook to put up the range, and after cutting two ugly holes in the chimney, failed to get the stove pipe in the flue, and the smoking we got when we attempted to build a fire - but no matter, we got it all right at last, and it draws finely.

Well, we "accept the situation," as the politicians say; and, as you will readily believe when I tell you, that I do my own cooking in this "reconstructed" dining-room, superseding Milly, who has been exiled to one of the cabins in the yard, and is retained merely as laundress, while Katy does the scrubbing and house-cleaning and other rough work.

In the dining-room I have put up dark-green paper shades to the four windows, furnished it with a pine table, a side-table, which I covered with oil-cloth, which comes a yard square, some nice, substantial chairs, a lounge, a rocking chair, a good hemp carpet, and, on the mantle, a handsome little clock. The dining-table I have covered with a home-made cloth, a piece of my own handiwork. It is made of black broadcloth, to fall over the edge of the table some eight or ten inches, and is braided with woollen braid, a lighter shade than the cloth, in a neat pattern. The woollen braid looks very well. Flannel may be used instead of broadcloth. This is the way you do it:

Transfer the intended design to French tissue paper; paste the edges of the paper on the cloth; sow on the orange braid (if you have two colors, say orange and green) with fine silk of the same color; tear off all the paper, and sew the remaining color of braid on close to the orange. This will make a pretty cover for a table, piano, melodeon, or on a cheaper scale, a pine table.

Shall I tell you how I circumvented a sly old rat whom no trap could catch and no cat pounce upon, and a countless and every where present host of little red ants at the same time, and by means of one simple contrivance? Well, I got a strong tin box made, with a suitable fastening to the cover, and a grated shelf inside, on which to keep my eatables.

Mr. Rat was left out in the cold. For a defence against the ants, I had it made with four legs, each of which is set in a saucer of water. This is the only sure remedy for the ant pest that I have found--and ants are a terrible nuisance here. 

About my qualifications as a practical cook, I suspect you are skeptical. Somebody else, who ought to know, thinks I am a famous housewife.

Do you not know that I have lived in Florida, "roughed it" in a log cabin, and learned how to make much out of little? My dinners might not suit a pampered epicure; but I can truly say that due justice is generally done them when on the table. Wouldn't you like to know what we had for dinner today? I am not going to tell you, but one dish I am sure must be new to you, so I will give you my recipe:

POTATO PAN-PIE.--I take four or five large sweet potatoes, pare and cut in small pieces, and boil till cooked through. Pour off the water and put them in a baking dish, then put in three heaping table spoonful's of sugar, a tablespoonful of butter, a little salt, an little nutmeg, and last, a cup of cold water; then make a crust like piecrust, but much thicker, and just large enough to cover the dish; cut a slit in the crust, and put it on top of the potatoes, and bake till a light brown. This dish is not a fancy one for a light dessert, but a good substantial part of a meal, and is pronounced excellent. I could fill a letter, (and perhaps I may one of these days,) with the different ways of preparing our best of all vegetables--the sweet potato, but for the present I must close.

Yours, as ever,

SourceRural Carolinian 1:3 (Dec. 1869): 190-191.


Questions to Consider

  1. Marie writes of her "reconstructed" household. What does she mean by that? What has been "reconstructed" and in what ways?

  2. In this process of Reconstruction, Marie has changed, but in what ways?

  3. How has Marie's personal transformation changed the way she thinks about herself and her place in social and family life?

  4. Why do you think Marie closed her letter with a recipe for sweet potato pie? What kind of message do you think she's trying to convey about not just gender, but race and labor and politics too?

  5. Why do you think the editor of the Rural Carolinian chose to publish this letter? Who do you think his target audience was, and what do you think he wanted that audience to learn from Marie's letter?

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