Variety Among the 18th Century Lesser Sorts

Der Wöchentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote 9/17/1773.

As part of my research on 18thcentury working class clothing, I have been studying indentured and enslaved female servants who immigrated to the American colonies. I created a database that now houses records for 1000 women and their 6000 garments.  Runaway advertisements document not only clothing, but also physical characteristics, habits, skills, and other information. I started on this journey to study clothing, and to discover, if possible, elements of choice and fashion among women of the lesser sort.

One of my next steps in the project is to code each’s eloping servant’s dress by type. I needed a way to distinguish quickly the style each woman presented. In this way, I can study those with overall utilitarian appearances together. I can study the differences between enslaved women wearing jacket & petticoat combinations of fabrics often purchased for slaves, versus those who acquired more fashionable attire and personalized their appearances. The basic distinctions are below. The uniqueness of each woman’s attire requires me interpreting, but the below categories provide some ground rules:

F – Fashionable – silk or other fashionable fabrics, fashionable accessories, pumps, ribbons, jewelry, hair dressing, trim.
M – Middling servant – plain neat dress in better fabrics, fashionable or neat and plain accessories.
S – Standard servant dress with accessories – basic garments, coarser fabrics and/or rougher shoes, but with occasionally fashionable accessories.
N – Utilitarian – Coarse fabric and shoes, plain or no accessories.
U – Field slave uniform – jacket/waistcoat & petticoat combo.
B – Male clothing.
O – Other  – like breech clouts or undetermined clothing.

More as I work to make the information within the data more accessible!

For other posts on the Runaway Clothing Database project click here, here and here.

And NEW – read the full article here. If it doesn’t come up at first, visit and search “Had On When She Went Away.”

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.