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Upstairs Downstairs

Plantation Life at Monticello

By Melanie Abrams | HUMANITIES, November/December 2004 | Volume 25, Number 6

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson made a census of the "number of souls" in his family. They totaled 117 and included his wife, daughter, paid overseers and their families, and eighty-three slaves who, in Jefferson's words, "labor for my happiness." Now a new set of exhibits tell these slaves' stories in the rooms they occupied at Monticello.

The cook's room details the life of Edith Hern Fossett. She and her husband and as many as eight of her children lived in the ten-by-fourteen-foot brick and stone enclosure. Edith was the head cook at Monticello after Jefferson's retirement in 1809, having trained in French cooking at the White House while Jefferson was president. Joseph was the plantation's blacksmith. Despite their cramped quarters, the Fossetts were considered affluent among the slave community, and the room is filled with fashionable wares such as a Creamware teabowl and Chinese porcelain plate and platter.

"Visitors seem to be taken aback by the fact that the cook, her husband, and any number of their ten children were living there," says Justin Sarafin, project coordinator at Monticello. He mentions the contrast between the smallness of the room and a modern sense of acceptable living space. But seeing the fashionable teapot and other goods, visitors "also realize that the cook's room represents the upper end of what a slave's dwelling space would look like. This was the head cook and her husband the blacksmith--both highly skilled workers with much easier access to goods."

Jefferson provided financial incentives to favored workers. He allowed the coopers to sell every thirty-third barrel for their own benefit, gave the charcoal-burners a portion as a reward for efficiency, and paid young boys an extra dollar a month to do the dirty deed of cleaning the sewers. This income allowed families such as the Fossetts to purchase what were considered luxuries: the cast-iron cooking tools, dominoes and marbles, and gilt and tin-washed brass buttons. The cook's room is one of the first of sixteen rooms to be restored and interpreted based on research by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The cellars, kitchen, brewery, and other rooms make up what Jefferson called "the dependencies," where servants, cooks, farmhands, and laborers worked to support the main house and its residents. The dependencies are located within two L-shaped wings that flank the house and recess into the landscape, a design unusual at the time. Most plantations contained a scattered arrangement of outbuildings, but Jefferson, a self-taught architect and landscaper, wished to preserve the beauty of his surroundings. In a 1786 letter, Jefferson wrote, "And our own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms!"

Jefferson succeeded in preserving the scenery by placing the workers' rooms out of his and his guests' view. Architectural historian Camille Wells writes that Monticello is "the most highly articulated example of how slavery affected the design of building."

"Some people think if you discuss slavery, you're denigrating the Founding Fathers," says Susan Stein, curator at Monticello. "Instead, we're trying to give a greater understanding of this world, this moment at Monticello."

Of the sixteen dependencies, the kitchen, beer cellar, storage cellar, privy, and cook's room are open and have been restored to look as they might have in 1809. The interpretation of these spaces is a difficult job because so little documentation on the lives of slaves was recorded. Instead, curators must rely on studying Jefferson's packing lists, sales records, letters, and drawings. Luckily, Jefferson was a meticulous record keeper, and the Foundation's collection of primary documents has helped to furnish the spaces with both authentic pieces and careful reproductions. The rooms include archaeological artifacts such as a liberty head half-cent, a writing slate, and a coffee grinder excavated at Monticello. Displays show a slave's clothing allowance: cloth to make two outfits per year--cotton for summer, and a mix of cotton and wool for winter. Narratives describe the lives of the rooms' inhabitants.

"I think of this project as an important way for us to open another window into life at Monticello," Stein says. "What we're doing focuses not only on the nature of the plantation and its work, but also on the untold stories of the people who lived in Jefferson's shadow."

Lucia Cinder Stanton, a historian at Monticello and author of Free Some Day: The African American Families of Monticello, recalls one of her favorite stories that has come to light about Edith and Joseph Fossett. According to Stanton, Edith was only fifteen but already married and pregnant when she left Monticello for Washington at the beginning of Jefferson's presidency. She was separated from her husband in order to train under French chef Honoré Julien. Four years after her departure, Joseph made the 120-mile journey by himself to the White House in four days, only to be captured and immediately taken back to Monticello where he waited another three years for Jefferson's retirement and his wife's return.

Joseph was a member of an important family at Monticello. Five generations of Hemings lived and worked under Jefferson, beginning with Betty Hemings, who was Joseph's grandmother. Between the Hemings and the Fossetts, these two families held 90 percent of the prized household positions on the plantation and would have been constants in the dependencies. Three of Betty's twelve children--James, Peter, and Sally--played central roles in both Jefferson's life and Monticello's history.

Before Edith, the tradition of French cooking at Monticello had begun with James Hemings. At the age of nineteen, James accompanied Jefferson to Paris in 1784 for the purpose of learning French culinary arts. There, he studied with renowned cooks and pastry chefs, assisting in the household of the Prince de Condé and earning a salary of four dollars a month (half the wages of the cook who preceded him), which he used part of to take French lessons. In France, where slavery was illegal, James was a free man. Jefferson implored him to return to Virginia. A deal was struck. If James agreed to go back and train his younger brother Peter in the culinary arts, Jefferson would give him his freedom in Virginia. The contract was written and signed later, after leaving Paris.

Returning to Monticello, James spent two years teaching Peter to prepare French-Virginian dishes such as sweet meringue Snow Eggs, a recipe that still survives in the Jefferson family papers. James eventually gained his freedom and traveled extensively. Records of James's whereabouts appear in one of Jefferson's letters to his daughter, in which he also makes mention of James's possible alcoholism. James Hemings committed suicide at thirty-six, a cook in a tavern in Baltimore.

After James's departure from the plantation, Peter became head chef, using such innovative Jefferson-era kitchen features as the stew stove--a brick base with iron stew holes that preceded the modern kitchen range--and the ice cream freezer, both seen in the dependency kitchen. Peter's reign as cook lasted until 1809 when he became the Monticello tailor and brew master. The beer cellar, where Peter learned to brew ale from an Englishman, Captain Joseph Miller, now contains artifacts and reproductions of the casks, skids, glass bottles, and stoneware pottles (half gallons) that Peter used to produce one hundred gallons of ale every spring and fall. Texts in the cellar retell how Jefferson bragged about Peter to James Madison in a letter: "our malter and brewer is uncommonly intelligent and capable of giving instruction if your pupil is as ready at comprehending it."

"Each space could be explained in terms of function," says Sarafin, "but using primary documentation of the known individuals brings the rooms to life for visitors in a way that simply talking about brewing beer in general would not accomplish."

Members of Jefferson's family were frequently found in the dependencies; his grandsons taught slaves to read and write and his granddaughters acted as housekeepers, choosing recipes and directing the kitchen activities. "The word dependency takes on plural meanings," says Stein, "at once suggesting Jefferson's dependence on the workers and their work, as well as the dependence of the workers on Jefferson." Isaac, the son of an earlier cook, Ursula, recalled how Jefferson's wife Martha sat in the kitchen with "a cookery book in her hand and read out of it . . . how to make cakes, tarts, and so on." Whether this was because of the cook's inability to read or not, the family clearly felt at ease "downstairs," away from the luxuries and formalities of their "upstairs" world. Jefferson made one weekly appearance in the kitchen to wind the clock.

There were other ways in which the two worlds melded. One of Sally Hemings's sons, Madison, described his childhood: "We were permitted to stay about the 'great house,' and only required to do such light work as going on errands." Sally and her six children, who are presumed to be fathered by Jefferson, most probably lived in a fourteen-foot-square "smoke blackened and sooty room in one of the colonnades," as suggested by one of Jefferson's grandsons. Sally had been fourteen when she was brought to France to be Jefferson's daughter's maid. Madison said that Jefferson "desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. . . . In France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved." Like her brother James, she returned, after Jefferson promised her a place of her own and her children's freedom at age twenty-one.

Refurbishment and interpretation of slaves' quarters, an ice house, wine cellar, dairy, smoke house, wash house, and ware room will all be finished by September 2007. More tours and demonstrations within the dependencies are planned, including live presentations in the kitchen, where the recipes that were used by James, Peter, and Edith will be reproduced.

"The nature of work and the history of workers, especially enslaved people, are commonly omitted from the visitor's experience at most historic sites," Stein says. "Visitors too often leave historic sites with only the 'above stairs' story, without understanding the 'below stairs' story--the nature of work, gender, and race."

About the Author

Melanie Abrams is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation received $340,529 from NEH to refurbish and interpret the dependencies as part of "Domestic Life and the Plantation Community at Jefferson's Monticello." Slavery at Monticello is also addressed in the Digital Archaeological Archive of Chesapeake Slavery (, established with a $500,000 NEH Challenge Grant.