...Riversdale’s Enslaved House Servants
Prepared by Joyce White
Joyce White is the foodways historian for Riversdale House Museum, as well as many other places in the area. For more information about her programs and the work she does, check out her website A Taste of History with Joyce White.
In a November 1803 letter to her mother in Antwerp, Rosalie Calvert wrote: “We often give small dinners. The roads are so good now that coming here is no problem.”
Early 19th-century dinner parties hosted by people of wealth and power, such as George and. Rosalie Calvert, inevitably involved lengthy hours of laborious preparation by the enslaved cook, kitchen maids, butler and waiters. Formal dinners at that time usually included three courses that may have required the cook to produce as many as 18 or more different dishes, all representing fashionable food trends of that time period. Following the meal, the enslaved servants were tasked with returning the dining room to its original pristine condition. The spring 2022 dining room exhibition, Behind the Green Baize Door with Riversdale’s Enslaved House Servants, is an attempt to recreate the hard work enslaved servants were tasked with completing after following dinner hosted by the Calverts at Riversdale.
In an early-19th century grand plantation house such as Riversdale, the expression "behind the green baize door" referred to the spaces of a house where servants cooked, processed foods, washed dishes, and may have laundered clothes and linens, among other tasks. Doors to these spaces were often covered in a fabric known as green baize, a felt thick enough to provide sound proofing, a traditional European practice used to block out the unpleasant reality of work. The door symbolized a barrier between household spaces and created an illusion abrogating the toil and drudgery house servants, either enslaved or free, performed on a daily basis for those they served.Not all houses had literal green baize doors, and not all housework was able to be performed behind it; therefore, the expression became a metaphor for the social divisions of such a household.
The current dining room scenario at Riversdale represents the type of tasks Riversdale’s enslaved house servants may have been required to complete after a dinner party. In 1807, Rosalie Calvert wrote to her sister about her servants, both enslaved and free. In particular, she wrote about the enslaved “black prime minister who serve[d] as chamberlain, confidant, ‘housekeeper,’ in short, [a] man-of-all-work.” This enslaved man headed a staff of eleven other enslaved servants and in other circumstances would have been referred to as a butler, the highest ranking male household servant. Normally, butlers oversaw the other male members of the household staff; however, because Rosalie served as her own housekeeper, it is possible he was in charge of all staff, male and female.
Station 1: Reproduction Commonplace Book
The reproduction book on display contains a copy of an actual 19th-century Maryland menu including the schematic for the dessert course.
Traditionally, cooks and housekeepers conferred with their mistresses to plan menus. At Riversdale, Rosalie Calvert served as her own housekeeper; however, when she was occupied with guests, she deputized her white chambermaid to assume the role of housekeeper until visitors departed. As a result, Rosalie was undoubtedly in regular communication regarding meal planning with her cook, and it is highly probable that Rosalie would have followed the practice of that time period in which menus were recorded in a manuscript journal book called a commonplace book; these books could llllll
include the dishes chosen for each course, and sometimes even included schematic drawings illustrating how to arrange the dishes on the table.
Luckily, some information about Riversdale’s enslaved cooks does exist. In April 1803, just before he left Riversdale to return home to Europe, Henri Stier placed an advertisement in the Federal Gazette for a flower sale to be held at Riversdale; at the bottom he added the following: “I will also sell, at the same time, my Gardener...with his wife and four children...the woman is about 30 years of age, a good cook, washer, and sews tolerably well.” Rosalie and George Calvert needed a new cook at Riversdale, and they filled this position with the purchase of Sam. In a 28 June 1803 letter to the Stiers, Rosalie wrote “I am glad I bought the cook–he is doing very well, and I think he will easily learn what he doesn’t know since he is willing. He stews extremely well.”Stewing was an important component of French cookery. Being that Rosalie Calvert was an aristocrat from Antwerp, she would have expected high quality French lll
cuisine with its array of sauces and stewed or braised ragouts, fricassees, etc. Though the house’s kitchen is not preserved, architectural evidence suggests that it may have included a stew stove, a special cooking device designed to cooking delicate dishes at varying degrees of low heat. Curiously, in an 1805 letter to her sister, Rosalie complained that Sam had become “...the most heedless and least tractable of all my servants.” While impossible to know why she felt this way, it is possible that Sam resisted his mistress's directions for preparing certain dishes. It was a common practice for mistresses to dictate recipes to servants who were not able to read, and odds are that Sam did not know how to read. At that time period, recipes were written as vague aides memoir containing imprecise measurements and/or vague directions. Cooks had to use skill, experience, and ingenuity to fill in the blanks. It is possible that Sam angered Rosalie, a self-proclaimed novice in the kitchen, because he would not follow cooking advice from an inexperienced novice.
Cooks held high positions in households and were duly responsible for directing the kitchen servants, most likely young enslaved girls, in the many intricacies involved with preparing a meal capable of passing the scrutiny of the Calverts’ wealthy upper-crust guests. In an 8 August 1805 letter to Isabelle van Havre, Rosalie wrote, “I have a little fourteen-year-old negress who is invaluable. I could let you have half a dozen young girls to mind the children, all very good fort hat job with a little supervision.”
Station 2: Dinner & Wine Maintenance & Documentation
Once a meal was planned, the master of the house chose wines appropriate for each course, and the butler was responsible for the management of the wine cellar. In a plantation house such as Riversdale, casks of wine were commonly stored in a wine cellar in the cool basement. The butler was responsible for decanting the wine into bottles for easy transfer to the dining room. The wine was then decanted into cruets which were placed on the table for service. According to Robert Roberts who published The House Servant’s Directory in 1827, “the cellar should be ever kept with the greatest neatness; and lll
it will be highly creditable to the butler, if a regular cellar-book is kept; by means of which, his master will easily perceive the faithful disposal of every bottle consumed.” In addition, a good butler knew how to restore the flavor of off-tasting wines, remove sourness, preserve cask wine to make it last for up to 12 or more years, and, how to recover a person from intoxication. During dinner, wine bottles would be stored in cellarettes. Cellarettes, or wine coolers, are portable cabinets that were used to store and chill wine or liquor bottles. Used in dining rooms, they were made of wood, banded in brass and fitted with castors and handles, allowing them to be easily moved around the room as needed. Lead lined interior compartments contained ice and cold water used to chill the bottles, which could later be drained from a bung in the bottom.
Station 3: Rolled Crumb Cloth (to be Shaken Outside)
Crumb cloths were laid underneath dining tables to protect wood floors or carpets from crumbs and also grease and any other items that could stain. According to historian Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett in her book At Home, The American Family 1750-1870, “The use of crumb cloths was universal; the materials and colors were various” and materials included painted canvas, drugget (coarse wool), stout brown linen, and green baize which “seems to have been the favored choice.” Garrett gives this example relevant to Maryland: “Martha Ogle Forman of Cecil County, Maryland, laid down her dining-room llllll
carpet for the winter on 11 December 1820, and two days later her husband went to town to buy her ‘four yards of Green baise to cover the Carpet.” Green was a common color, but blue & white, brown, or black & white were also commonly used.
Station 4 & 5: Clearing Dining Room Table & Dirty Glassware
This station shows dessert plates and platters holding fragments of dessert foods being loaded onto a butler’s tray for removal to butler’s pantry where they would be cleaned. Fragile service-ware was often cleaned by the housekeeper, butler, or even mistress of the house in the butler’s pantry; young or inexperienced domestic servants were not trusted to keep these types of items safe from breakage or being damaged during cleaning.
The leftover dessert foods include seasonal spring strawberries and strawberry tarts, cheese, mini spongecakes, nuts, raisins, and two syllabubs (wine and cream flavored with lemon).
Dirty glasses, along with precious china, were also cleaned with extra care in the butler’s pantry.
Station 6: Cleaning Cutlery
Forks and other types of cutlery were cleaned by rubbing them through sand, a mild abrasive, that is placed in a box designed for this purpose.
Directions for Cleaning Steel Forks
Robert Roberts, The House Servants’ Directory (Boston, 1827), p. 20.
The best method of cleaning steel forks is to have a deep box or a small keg, the latter is preferable; fill it with fine sand and chopped hay or straw, either will answer the purpose. To do this perfectly, put some of your hay into the bottom of your keg, then put in some sand, and so on, until it is quite full, then press it closedown, and wet it with water, to keep it damp, as it will have more effect in taking the black from off the prongs, as forks often lllll
are very black and hard to clean, after having been used in acids, &c.
When you clean them, take two in each hand, and stab them several times in the sand, and so on, until you have them all done; then have an old hard brush for the purpose of brushing the sand from between the prongs; likewise have a piece of buckskin, or an old glove, to polish them off with. This is the true and best method of cleaning steel forks.
Now I shall give you directions for cleaning the handles of your knives and forks, after the blades and prongs have all been cleaned. In the first place take a towel and immerse it in water, then wring it out all but dry; hold this towel in your right hand, with a dry knife towel in the left, to wipe the blade. When you have them all done, then give them a light rub over with a dry towel, including handles, &c. Should you have silver knives, you may clean them with a little gin and whiting mixed together, and rubbed over the handles when dry; if the handles be fluted, you must brush them with your plate brush, and polish with your shamois, or, as it is pronounced, shammy leather.
My young friend, I have always been thus particular about my knives and forks, because they are things that, from the appearance of which, not only the lady and gentlemen of the family, but every one that sits down at table, forms an opinion of the cleanliness and good management of the servant to whose care they are intrusted [sic]; and I sincerely wish that you may gain that same appreciation.
Station 7: Spot-Cleaning Table Linens
To Take Off Spots of Any Sort, From Any Kind of Cloth
Robert Roberts, The House Servants’ Directory (Boston, 1827), p. 62.
Take half a pound of crude honey, the yolk of anew laid egg, and the bulk of a nut of aromatic salt, then mix all well together, then put some on the spots; having left it there awhile, then wash it off with clean water, and the spot will immediately disappear. This receipt is of great importance to servants that have the care of their master’s wardrobe, and in many other similar cases.
Station 8: Caring for Wood Tables
An Excellent Article for Tables, After Parties, &c.
Robert Roberts, The House Servants’ Directory (Boston, 1827), p. 83.
Take one pint of milk, one ounce of spirits of turpentine, two dessert spoonsful of sweet oil, mix them well together, put the mixture into a bottle for use. When your tables are very dirty and stained with wine and fruit, after a party, &c. shake up your mixture and pour some out into an old saucer, or any thing[sic]you may have for that purpose, Dip into it a piece of flannel, and wash your tables quick and even all over, then dry and polish off lll
with some old linen cloths. By this method, your tables will become a fine light colour, and will look most beautiful when cleaned off with your furniture oil, polish, or varnish.
Italian Polish for Giving Furniture a Brilliant Lustre
Robert Roberts, The House Servants’ Directory (Boston, 1827), p. 82.
First, melt one quarter of a pound of best yellow wax, and one ounce of black rosin well pounded to powder, put them into a pipkin, or something else for that purpose, then pour over them, by degrees, two ounces spirits of turpentine; then mix it well together and cover it close for use. You may apply this on your furniture with a piece of soft woollen [sic] cloth, or some new flannel, be careful and put it on even and light, finish off with a piece of old silk or a handkerchief; in a few applications this will produce a most brilliant and hard polish, and is not so liable to be stained by the heat of the dishes, as any other polish now in use, but looks as beautiful as the finest varnish.
Station 9: Supper for Enslaved Servants
This table holds a simple meal of the type commonly eaten by enslaved workers on a plantation: black eye peas with salt pork, greens and bacon, hominy, and corn cakes. The corn cakes would have served as eating utensils in that pieces of them would have been used to scoop up the peas, greens and hominy.An appropriate seasonal spring beverage would have been clabber, a naturally fermented sour milk. Servants were never allowed to help themselves to leftovers from slaveholders’ meals; they were punished for stealing if they did.