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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Material Culture at Decatur House

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

Without photographs, paintings, or other visual representations of the Decatur House Slave Quarters from the antebellum period, it is difficult to know exactly what the space looked like while it was inhabited by free and enslaved workers. Unfortunately, the furnishings of antebellum slave quarters are poorly documented—even more so when examining urban environments rather than plantations. However, primary source evidence, including property inventories, newspaper advertisements, and artifacts from the period, can help researchers and historians envision what the interiors may have looked like. The White House Historical Association worked closely with designer David Ramsey and the Decatur House Advisory Council to create visual renderings of the Decatur House Slave Quarters circa 1844. The Decatur House Advisory Council includes Nancy Syphax descendent and historian Stephen E. Hammond, curator Eric Brooks, and historical archeologist Julianna G. Jackson.

Enslaved workers lived in the Decatur House Slave Quarters for several decades in the nineteenth century, serving prominent politicians, diplomats, and businessmen who resided in the Federal-style townhouse. We have chosen to represent the space circa 1844 because of a key piece of documentary evidence: an 1844 inventory of the “goods chattels & personal estate of John Gadsby,” taken after his death. Gadsby was a local hotelier and slave owner who purchased Decatur House as a retirement home in 1836.1

During the nineteenth century, appraisers recorded these household inventories as they moved throughout the property, listing items of significance they encountered and an associated monetary value.2 These documents included furnishings, textiles, and art. However, slave-owning households also listed enslaved men, women, and children. As a result, this inventory record is an invaluable source about the enslaved people and the objects that were part of Gadsby’s household.

1844 Inventory

Back Building

  • 1 Brussels Carpet 60 00
  • 2 Rugs and Dormat 10 00
  • Lot chamber carpetings 10 00
  • Bedstead 5 00
  • 3 Mattresses 28 00
  • 2 Bed Bols & Pillows 27 00
  • 1 Copper Kettle 5 00
  • 2 pr Tongs & Shovel 6 00
  • 3 Coal (?) copper 10 00
  • 1 pr (?) Chist dbl 65 (?) 684 44 20
  • 2 Loaves White Sugar 2 00
  • 4 Dish Covers 2 00
  • 1 Sieve 50
  • 1 Lot Stair Rods 1 50
  • 1 Lot Bro Soap 10 00
  • 1 Carpet 10 00

Servant's Room [s? J.P.]

  • No. 1 Bedsteads & Bedding 15 00
  • No. 2 1 do & Bedding + chairs 25 00
  • No. 3 1 do & do 17 00
  • Stove, flat Irons Tubs
  • Iron Table in Laundry 20 00
  • Copper Utensils Tables
  • Cutlery articles in Kitchen 70 00

In the 1960s, interior renovations changed the appearance of the Decatur House Slave Quarters, but some original elements remain: ghost marks, wooden frames, and brickwork. These illuminate how the space was once divided, providing the architectural framework for these modern renderings.3 Meanwhile, Gadsby’s inventory (above) provides information about the items that filled these rooms. It lists three “servant’s rooms” in the “back building” of Decatur House.4 The items listed in these rooms include bedding, bedsteads, and chairs, which may have been built or made by enslaved people, purchased with additional income, or handed down from their owners.5 To represent these items in a historically accurate way, we relied on museum collections, oral histories, antebellum illustrations of slave dwellings, and modern interpretations at other sites of enslavement.

Artistic rendering of Room 1, a living space in the Decatur House Slave Quarters

David Ramsey/White House Historical Association

For example, several Works Progress Administration interviews with formerly enslaved individuals describe slatted, roped, or corded beds with trundles in plantation slave quarters.6 John Gadsby’s inventory shows that twenty-one enslaved servants worked at Decatur House in 1844, but only four bedsteads are listed. Thus, some of these beds may have included a trundle bed for additional sleeping space. We also chose to add bed rolls on the ground to show additional bedding options, as these spaces likely housed more people than the beds would suggest.

Artistic rendering of Room 2, a living space in the Decatur House Slave Quarters

David Ramsey/White House Historical Association

Textile collections at American museums provided helpful examples of 1840s quilts, and local antebellum newspaper advertisements describing “Negro blankets” in the period also influenced the pattern of the bedding in each room.7 The rooms also contain “split-bottom” and “ladder back” chairs, which were very common on antebellum plantations and were often made by enslaved carpenters.8 Unfortunately, plantation slave dwellings are generally better documented and preserved than urban slave quarters; as a result, we often looked to these sources to create the renderings.

Artistic rendering of Room 3, a living space in the Decatur House Slave Quarters

David Ramsey/White House Historical Association

Using only the 1844 inventory as a source for furnishings, the rooms would be quite sparse. However, it is likely that enslaved residents of Decatur House kept some of their own personal items in these rooms, including clothing, utensils, and baskets, that are not listed in the inventory for John Gadsby. Runaway advertisements placed by Gadsby help to illuminate the clothing and personal articles owned by enslaved workers in this period (see below).

This 1831 runaway ad placed by John Gadsby describes the textiles worn by an enslaved man named Cyrus. These sources can help us understand what clothing enslaved individuals wore.

Maryland State Archives

There is also a fourth room in the Decatur House Slave Quarters that is unlisted in the inventory; we chose to interpret it as a multi-purpose room that served as both a storage room and a temporary dwelling space. It features various items from the “back building” inventory list such as carpets, bedding, and fireplace tools. In addition to the enslaved individuals Gadsby owned outright, he also hired out workers from other Washington, D.C. slave owners to assist at his hotel and in his household. The 1840 census listed ten enslaved people and two free Black men living at Decatur House; as a result, this space could have provided temporary sleeping quarters for transitory free or enslaved workers.9

Artistic rendering of Room 4, a multi-purpose space in the Decatur House Slave Quarters

David Ramsey/White House Historical Association

While these rooms witnessed the horrors of human bondage, they were also spaces where enslaved people gathered, slept, ate, and shared in each other’s lives. Thus, primary sources and material culture research provide a lens into the past which can help modern historians visualize and understand domestic life before photography, adding to the depth of interpretation in the Decatur House Slave Quarters. If you’d like to learn more about other new interpretative elements at Decatur House, visit our research collection here.