What They Wore

Virginia Batteau Journal, Volume I, Number 3, Spring 1989

By John Clarkson

Although the James River batteau was a necessary and conspicuous feature of life in the Piedmont of Virginia for nearly one hundred years, (1748-1840?) only a handful of illustrations and sometimes highly romanticized descriptions of the batteaumen have come down to today. The fortuitous preservation of numerous vessels in the Great Basin in Richmond eliminates any guesswork about the nature of the boats themselves.

As we attempt to re-enact or provide a living history tableaux of this era, we must try to ascertain how the batteaumen might have lived and dressed.

Most of the cloth used in making clothes in Virginia after the Revolution was locally manufactured on the farm or plantation of wool, flax, hemp, and cotton. Often one fiber was mixed with another to strengthen or stretch it; hemp was often mixed with cotton or wool. The resulting cloth was usually coarse and colorless. The craft of dyeing cloth was never developed very fully and using such local materials as sumac berries and the hulls of walnuts and butternuts, the range of possible colors was limited to rust, browns and yellow greys, which were called interested [sic] names such as drab, snuff, liver and sad-color.

Knee breeches or small clothes of several patterns were commonly worn until about 1810, though illustrations show batteaumen wearing them long after that date-perhaps comfort reigned over fashion. Benjamin Latrobe depicted three black batteaumen poling upstream in a painting done on the James in 1798, clad only in knee breeches. This corresponds with a description by Porte Crayon of a batteau crew as "shoeless, hatless, half-naked figures."

Stockings or hose of cotton were usually worn with knee breeches, but farmers and other laborers usually protected these costly items with leggings of burlap or leather—a custom dating back to the middle ages.

Benjamin Latrobe noted that Virginians often wrapped their lower legs with rawhides or strips of blanket to protect against the attack of hungry mosquitoes.

By the 1790's some rural people were beginning to wear long breeches. These were usually made of coarse cloth cut very full and without any opening flaps. When the seat and knees began to show serious wear, the breeches were patched and worn backwards, so that material of the original integrity was located in these critical areas. Leather for belts was always expensive, so suspenders (usually called braces or gallowses) of cloth were very common. One European traveler through Virginia in the 1790's noted that of ten only one suspender was worn rather than a pair—whether for comfort or economy we do not know.

Shirts were often made of cotton, but by 1800 many Virginians had stopped raising it and though some imported it raw from the deep south and processed it as Thomas Jefferson did, this was expensive and so cotton was replaced somewhat by oznaburg cloth, made locally from flax and hemp. Shirts were cut very full in the sleeves and workers wore them open at the neck. Colorful calico cloth and striped ticking became readily available in the 1820's and were a welcome relief to the monotony of homespun cloth.

In the Piedmont of Virginia and most of the rural areas the tri-cornered hat and other cocked hats were seldom worn outside of the gentry. The English round hat (which developed in the middle ages) of felt with a wide brim provided good protection from sun and rain and was to endure as the familiar slouch hat from Colonial days, through the war for southern independence and well into the present century when it was superceded by the cap with an advertising logo. Straw hats were always popular in the south with farmers and rivermen.

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