Chapter 6


Chapter 1
Chapter 2A
Chapter 2B
Chapter 2C
Chapter 3A
Chapter 3B
Chapter 4A
Chapter 4B
Chapter 5A
Chapter 5B
Chapter 6
Chapter 7


Chapter Six
Consumerism of an Early Twentieth-Century
African-American Laborer Household

The only assemblage that was of sufficient size to obtain an idea of the material conditions at Sudley Post Office was that associated with the Davis household.  The absence or low numbers of household goods from earlier households is due mainly to the presence of steep slopes around the domestic structure.  These slopes gave residents a convenient mechanism for disposing of trash since gravity and wash served to move these deposits downslope and out of range of residents and conversely archeological testing.  Artifacts from yard deposits (Megastrata III.a), the tail end of downslope midden deposits (Megastrata III.b) and materials recovered from the kitchen area (Megastrata III.c) allowed reconstruction of the material goods of the Davis household (Figure 6.1).  Glass and ceramic vessel analysis was difficult since most of the Davis assemblage was disposed of in downslope deposits.  As a result, the Davis assemblage was analyzed using sherd-based analysis.  Despite this limitation, the Davis assemblage allows some general observations about the range and types of goods available to an early twentieth-century African-American family.

Recent archeological studies of early twentieth-century African-American households have highlighted the fact that the African-American communities took part in the wider consumer habits of the time (Walker 1996; Ryder 1994; Martin, et al. 1997).  Mark Walker examined patterns of material consumption on an early twentieth century tenant farmer site, and observed that material culture found at the site pointed to the household making a sizeable investment in their material environment.  Erika Martin, Mia Parsons, and Dr. Paul Shackel's examination of a free black household on Manassas National Battlefield found that the Robinson family owned a diverse range of material goods that made the assemblage appear to be no different from the neighboring white households.  However, they noted that the manner in which the Robinson family used these material goods in their house and yard space differed from their same neighbors.  The Robinsons adapted this space to survive the stressful position that African-American households were placed during an era of Jim Crow Laws.  These laws segregated the white and black community and disenfranchised people of African descent (Jones 1986:149; Gilmore 1996:199).

Other studies of the rural South and Appalachia have noted a similar pattern of lower socio-economic households being active consumers (Cabak and Inkrott 1997; Stewart-Abernathy 1986).  Consumer goods became more widely available during this time because of decreasing prices of goods and wider availability through catalogues and store chains.  Also, finished household products that the consumer could use right off the shelf were more widely available.  This was in response to a growing urban segment of the population who did not have the space or resources at their disposal to manufacture household items such as furniture, clothing, and household tools.  More common to rural sites, catalogues provided a means of acquiring commodities that could only be previously obtained in larger urban markets.  These catalogues advertised items that consumers would have previously manufactured in the home or that local craftspeople would have made. The wide availability of such formerly home fashioned objects further homogenized the American home among families of similar socio-economic means.

The switch from locally produced goods to ready-made store-bought items was a change that went far beyond a switch in consumption habits.  The realignment from locally produced goods to goods produced outside the community went hand-in-hand with a switch in the social relations surrounding the creation and use of material goods.  Margaret Purser  (1992), in her study of the late nineteenth-century town of Paradise, Nevada, examined the effects of a switch from a locally based economy to one based on mass-produced commodities.  Purser noted that with changes in types of consumer goods came changes in the ways people obtained, used and displayed these objects.  In her study of Paradise Valley, Purser demonstrated that as town residents bought finished products made outside the local area, residents no longer relied on local craftspeople to fashion goods.  The result was a radical change in town social relations from a community base to a more insular, individual household base.  As a result, "Townspeople participated more directly in this culture (national popular culture) as disparate households than as a localized community" (Purser 1992:114).  The importance of Purser's article to this case study is in examining the interaction between consumer habits and the local community.

The assemblage from Sudley Post Office serves as another case study for examining the types of material culture present at African-American sites and how this material culture reflects the household's interaction with the local community. The Davis household provides a specific case study of an African-American laborer household of lower socio-economic means.  The previous chapter detailed the manner in which the Davis household used the space of  a formerly Euro-American house and yard.  The Davis household defined activity areas both within the house, yard, and kitchen on several levels of action and meaning.

First, the functional use of household space included both the yard and house as areas for socializing and performing household tasks in a manner similar to other African American households.  On a very different level of action and meaning, the Davises privatized their day-to-day activities as a survival tactic within an era of Jim Crow laws.  These laws made African Americans' interaction with the white community difficult, if not dangerous.  The Davises removed their actions from the community eye by limiting activities to an area outside the public view of the neighboring Methodist church and road.  Extending this analysis of daily activities to the material assemblage of the Davis household involves examining how an African-American household of lower socio-economic means adapted to a consumer market that offered a wide diversity of goods.


Local merchants and mail-order catalogues served as the main sources for consumer goods during the early twentieth century.   Local community stores were the primary source for consumer goods.  Local merchants imported a wide variety of goods into the area, and often served as middle persons for selling community products, such as wool, grains, and meats to local and regional markets (Alvey Day-Book 1894).  Mail-order catalogue companies also served as a source of goods for consumers.  Many items offered through the catalogues were more expensive items such as furniture, mechanical implements, as well as an assortment of household goods such as crockery, clothing, and cookware.

Examining an existing day-book of a local store, Alvey's Community Store, made defining the types of goods available from local stores possible.  The Alveys still have a series of day-books used to record daily customer purchases, and generously let the author photocopy one of these books.  This day-book contains records of  household purchases from May 7, 1894 to November 23, 1894.  This book provided information on the types of goods available to the Davis family from a local store.  Unfortunately, day-books for the period of the Davis occupation at Sudley Post Office were not available from the Alvey family.  As such, the purchase history of the Davis family was not available, assuming they would have shopped at Alvey's store.  Despite this, the types of materials available from a local store can be determined from the day book.

Like many stores in the region, the Alvey's store offered goods produced within the community, such as vegetal and animal goods, and mass-produced items manufactured in production centers outside of the local area.  The scope of local and imported goods available from the Alvey's store included a range of foodstuffs, medicinals, hardware, cloth, clothing materials (buttons, garters, belts, suspenders), ceramics, glassware, cooking utensils, and raw materials (leather, metals, lime).   From the listings, it is not possible to determine what items were of local manufacture or imported from production centers of the northeast or from abroad.  However, based on the exotic nature of some goods to the Manassas region, such as whalebones, the store obtained goods from a wide network of markets.  Based on this assumption, Alvey's store probably kept in stock national brands such as Coca-Cola, McCormicks, and Atlas.

While a local store such as Alveys linked customers with a broader economy, certain items were not available through the store.  The day book does not list items such as furniture, stoves, sewing machines and the like.  For these purchases, the consumer would either have to go into town or purchase from a catalogue.

Most of the materials recovered from the Davis deposits were items similar to those available in local stores such as the Alveys.  These artifacts include a range of ceramic and glass tableware, products sold in various glass bottles, buttons, toys, and personal goods such as combs, jewelry, and pocket knives.  Some artifacts recovered from the Davis assemblage, such as sewing machine parts, cast iron stoves, and furniture accouterments (casters, drawer pulls and furniture tacks), were not available from a local store and were only available through mail order catalogues.  These artifacts are possibly fragments of household furniture that were obtained second-hand or were scraps salvaged from discarded items.  The next section examines the range of goods present from the Davis household in more detail.


Deposits from the yard (Megastratum III.a), downslope midden (Megastratum III.b), and kitchen (Megastratum III.c) contained a wide variety of materials from the Davis occupation at Sudley Post Office.  Over 11,000 artifacts were recovered from Megastrata III.  Due to the location of these deposits in the yard and upper part of the downslope midden, household residents scattered the trash deposits over an extensive area.  Because of the steep slopes at Sudley, most large identifiable sherds were scattered farther downslope and were inaccessible for sampling purposes.  Unfortunately, the small size and low proportion of vessel representation of these materials made vessel analysis ineffectual.  As a result, sherd count was used for analysis of the ceramics and glass. 

Bottle and Table Glass

Most of the consumer-related glass, excluding window glass, recovered from deposits associated with the Davis household consist of container and bottle glass.  A wide range of products were sold in glass vessels around the turn of the century, included medicinals, food condiments, extracts, oils, and personal hygiene products.  The Alvey day-book records most liquid and medicinal products as contained in "bottles."

One-thousand-nine-hundred-and-seventeen sherds of container glass came from the Davis household deposits. Identifiable glass bottles found at Sudley Post Office include alcohol, canning jars, medicinals, and ointment containers.  Only four bottles contained a  name-brand label.  These brands include Coca-Cola, Chamberlain's Cough Remedy, Rawleigh's, and McCormicks.  Significantly, companies outside the mid-Atlantic region produced all these bottles' contents and represent national name brands.  An additional six bottles that contained brand embossing but whose small sherd size did not allow identification were also encountered.  Given the fragmentary nature of the assemblage, the low number of identifiable bottle types is not surprising.  Given a more complete assemblage, the variety of identifiable bottles certainly would have been greater.

There are 168 tableware glass sherds and 289 lantern glass sherds recovered from the Davis assemblage.  Identifiable tablewares include tumblers, bowls, a mug, lids to dishes and a fragment of stemware.  Dish lids are the most numerous and consist of press-molded carnival glass.  Included in the category of tumblers are fourteen anchor-closure rim fragments.

Refined Whiteware and Porcelain Tableware

Most of the ceramic assemblage of the Davis household is made up of refined whitewares (55%, n=375).  The remainder consist of hardpaste whiteware (22%, n=150), unidentified porcelain (7%, n=49), Japanese porcelain (1.5%, n=10), buff-paste stoneware (7%, n=50) and grey paste stoneware (6%, n=40).   The majority of these sherds are extremely small and there is only one vessel with the potential for crossmending.  In most cases for the Davis household deposits, sherd size precludes shape identification beyond the distinction between hollowares and flatwares.

There are only three sherds of early nineteenth-century pearlware among the Davis assemblage.  These are two blue shell-edged flatware fragments and a sherd of annular holloware.  The remainder of the assemblage dates to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.  Due to the broad temporal range of whitewares during this time period, dating deposits using ceramics is difficult unless makers' marks are present.  Analysis of ceramics only revealed five makers' marks from the Davis deposits.  Only four of these are on sherds of sufficient size to identify.  These marks included Chelsea, Johnson Brothers (1883-1913) [Godden 1964:355], Homer Laughlin, and Sevres (an Ohio based firm in operation between 1900-1912) [Lehner 1988].  These dates, along with the presence of Owning suction scars on many of the bottles, allow the deposits associated with the Davis household to be differentiated from other household deposits at Sudley Post Office.

Rim sherds are used for vessel form analysis since they provide a consistent and proportional representation of forms present in the refined earthenware assemblage.  Rim diameter, stance, and shape identified vessel form.  A total of 119 identifiable rim sherds were utilized for this analysis.  The most predominant vessel form consists of flatwares (49%, n=58), followed by hollow wares (30%, n=36), and tea-related wares (saucers and cups) (16%, n=19).

Of the refined whitewares and hard-paste whitewares, the majority of the sherds are undecorated (70%, n=351).  This is not surprising since with edge-decorated vessels the majority of the surface area is plain.  The remainder of the decorative techniques includes edge decorated (18%, n=29), transfer printed (38%, n=59), decalomania (14%, n=22), painted (15%, n=24), annular (5%, n=8), and color glaze (9%, n=14).  Most of the pieces in the Davis assemblage represent a mix of decorative sets with very few matched transfer prints or hand-painted designs.  However, all of the decalomania sherds contain a similar floral motif of roses, suggesting the presence of a matching set of china.  Nine of the 14 identifiable decalomania sherds consist of teaware forms.

As with refined earthenwares, vessel form of porcelains was determined from rim sherds. There are a total of thirteen identifiable porcelain rim sherds.  The majority of these are teawares (%, n=6) followed by hollowwares (%, n=6).  Three of the hollowares are Japanese enameled porcelain with the remainder being unidentifiable, undecorated porcelain.

The majority of the 47 porcelain sherds are undecorated (62%, n=29).  Of the remaining decorated sherds (n=18), over half are painted (61%, n=11) followed by enameled (33%, n=6) and one transfer printed porcelain (5%).

Japanese enameled porcelain appears to have been one vessel, a soup bowl.  The pattern appears similar to the "Geisha Girl" pattern described in Schiffer and post-dates 1921 (in Martin in prep.).  Interestingly, a similar cup and saucer were located at the Robinson House, Manassas National Battlefield (Martin in prep.). This might indicate that the two households used the same market source for their household ceramics.

Overall, the everyday ceramics from the Davis household appear to consist of mismatched pieces. While the Davises were acquiring up-to-date pieces (such as the porcelain Geisha-girl pattern and decal decorated whitewares), they were not presenting them in accordance with etiquette manuals.  The  only sizeable set of matching china in the assemblage are decalomania sherds whose forms consisted of teawares.  The frequency of matched sets of teawares in the assemblage  suggests that the Davises might have reserved their finer pieces for socializing.


A total of 114 buttons were recovered from Davis household deposits. Most of these are milk glass (40%n=46).  The remainder are shell (34%, n=37), bone (9%, n=10), iron (7%, n=8), copper (6%, n=7), three mother-of-pearl (3%), a porcelain (1%), a pewter (1%), and a Bakelite button (1%).  While more than 70% of these buttons are from undergarments or shirts (shell and milk glass), the presence of more decorative type buttons (fabric covered, copper, and Bakelite) suggests the importance of fine-dress to the Davis family.  The Alvey store day-book lists the value of  these dress buttons at four to five times the value of undergarment buttons; normal buttons are listed at $.05 per dozen while dress buttons, such as cuff buttons, are listed at $.60 per pair.  Household members would be more likely to carefully curate such buttons as compared to shirt or undergarment buttons.

There were 15 suspender fasteners recovered from Davis household deposits.  There were a number of name brands listed on these fasteners including "Gibralter Brand," "Blue Ridge," "IRON/KING," "SAFETY LOCK," "BLUE SEAL," and others having locomotive insignia (Figure 6.2).  The fasteners with locomotive insignia are not necessarily associated with railroad companies since these fasteners were generic and could be obtained at local stores (Stephen Potter 1997, personal communication).  Overalls tended to be lower priced, and were listed in Alvey's day-book at $.90.

The difficulty in interpreting buttons lies in determining whether their presence in the archeological record is the result of repairs, washing, loss, or disposal of clothing.  However, an interpretation of the types of clothing used by the Davises can be had from the button assemblage.  The majority of clothing clasps seem to have come from everyday and  work clothing such as overalls, shirts, and undergarments. While this is not surprising, the amount of buttons lost or discarded seems quite high for the site.  This might reflect two possibilities, that some members of the Davis household might have mended or washed clothes for supplemental income, or that the Davises disposed of clothing downslope without repairing or retrieving buttons.  Given the overall economic status of the Davis household, the first possibility seems more probable.

Toys, Writing Implements, and Musical Instruments

The Davis assemblage included children's toys.  Among the toys present in the Davis deposits, there are toy porcelain tea sets (n=6), a pewter spout to a toy tea pot, porcelain doll fragments (n=21), and two marbles (one kaolin clay and one glass).  The Davis household deposits contained seven pencil fragments along with a slate pencil fragment.

All of these materials represent an investment by the Davis household toward their children's activities.  While the cost of these individual items was relatively low, they still represent a household expenditure from an extremely limited pool of disposable income.

The Davis household also acquired a wide array of harmonicas.  Yard deposits (Megastrata III.a) contained six fragments of a polyphonic harmonica and downslope midden deposits (Megastrata III.b) contained twelve harmonica plate fragments (Figure 6.3).  The polyphonic pieces might be part of an instrument described in the 1906 Sears and Roebuck Catalogue as a "blow organ" (Feinman n.d.:184).  One possible explanation for the large quantity of harmonicas in the Davis deposits is the frequency with which the household might have played and worn out the instruments.  The price for double hole harmonicas in the 1906 Sears and Roebuck Catalogue ranges from $.15 to $.58.  For a blow organ the price ranges from $.68 to $.98 (Fienman n.d.:184).  Given the quantities of harmonicas located in excavation units alone, this would represent a sizeable  investment directed at social activities.  The purchase and use of harmonicas represent a very different social activity than display and use of the latest fashion in ceramics tablewares.

Hardware and Tools

Most of the hardware/architectural items came from the kitchen area.  Rather than being part of the material assemblage of the Davis household, these materials more than likely are from the kitchen structure built by the Thornberrys.  These hardware items include nails, hooks, door hinges and latches.  However, there are some hardware items located outside the kitchen area along with non-architectural hardware items recovered from within the kitchen area.  Most of this hardware consists of wood and metal fasteners from larger objects such as agricultural implements.  These fasteners include 27 wood screws, 20 metal screws, 14 nuts , eleven bolts, two iron collars, 33 rivets, two eye-bolts, six chain links, three hinges, and 16 iron staples.  In the midden area, a large quantity of nails was also recovered along with 74 unidentified scraps of metal.  The quantity of these fasteners and assorted metal objects might be the result of the Davises fashioning household items from scrapped implements.

The presence of scrap items in the Davis household deposits show the household gathered scrap items to supplement their income or for re-use.  Included in these scrap items are three wagon hubs, a leaf spring to a carriage, a seat for an early automobile, a vehicle/tractor identification plate, a broken griddle, various cast iron stove parts, a broken side leg to a sewing machine, sewing machine parts, and a broken flat iron.  All of these large metal objects were recovered from the kitchen rubble.  Their provenance in the kitchen suggests that the household was storing these  items in the kitchen for future use.  One set of objects that can be directly attributed to recycling/reuse are 197 fragments of scorched stained window glass and a milled lead cane for a stained glass window.  The source of this window was probably from the Sudley Methodist Church fire in 1918; Joe Davis was reportedly one of the first people on the scene (Johnson et al. 1982:178).  After the fire, Mr. Davis apparently took one of the discarded, shattered windows back home.

Joe Davis' acquisition of a scorched and broken stained glass window from the fire at the Methodist church is another possible example of re-use and recycling of objects. The Davises re-use of broken or discarded objects would allow for the production of household items that would be unaffordable if purchased from a store or catalogue.


From the Davis household assemblage we can reconstruct the consumption habits of a family of lower socio-economic means.  The Davises bought household goods that were in line with the current standards for a proper material environment. Such items as decal-decorated whitewares, carnival glass, and the consumption of brand-name goods showed an interest in participating in some of the consumption patterns characteristic of a wide segment of American society at the time.  At the same time, the Davises were actively  re-using and recycling material goods for the household.  Whether or not this recycling was motivated by necessity, it actively defined the Davis's consumption patterns in the same way as buying the latest decal-decorated ceramics defined their consumption patterns.  As such, the choice that the Davis family made to recycle goods cannot be separated from their choice to acquire material culture of the latest fashion from commercial sources.

Based on these contradictory sources of material goods, stating whether the desire to acquire goods that met the expectations of society motivated the Davis's consumer choice is difficult.  What is more apparent is the motivation to survive a harsh economic environment within a context of racial divisiveness designed to keep a family like the Davises in a position of social and economic inequity.  As such, the Davis' choices in what material goods to buy went beyond a causal relation to what they could afford.  Intertwined in these material choices were the social relations through which material goods were obtained, whether through cash exchange at the local store or through redistribution networks of family and the local community.

Through their consumer choices, the Davises participated in both the local economy that relied on deep community relations and a national market economy geared more toward cash for commodity exchanges.  The Davises constructed part of their material world though activities such as recycling and repairing.  These activities necessitated that the Davises have contact with the local community to obtain these resources.  At the same time, the Davises participated in a commodity market based on mass production of material goods.  The survival of the  Davis household was contingent upon their  participation in both exchange networks.

Understanding consumer choice of the Davises goes beyond categorizing it as a need to conform to the rigid standards suggested by etiquette books and mail order catalogues of the time period.  The values of the local community defined the Davis' choices.  While the Sudley community shared pastimes and values that were definably national, it also shared values that were unique to its historical context. The Davis' choices for how they constructed their material world were part of this context in the same manner as how the Davises adapted the landscape at Sudley for their daily activities.

horizontal rule