Making A Home: Window Glass and the Transition from Slavery to Freedom

One of the questions that I’m asking in the research about the lives of African Americans during and after slavery is how they used, modified, and manipulated different spaces on and off the plantation. An important area for this investigation are the buildings that the enslaved and tenant families lived in. We know that a number of the former slave quarters that formed the row of buildings along the Key Swamp ravine were occupied into the post-slavery era. In the case of the duplex quarter, this occupation lasted until the 1960s. What we don’t know are the ways that these buildings were modified, changed, or manipulated during and after slavery in order to wrest the power of those spaces from the plantation owners. During slavery, we would expect this activity to be more difficult, since, technically, slaves could not own property (although they most certainly did have possessions) (Penningroth 2003). During the Civil War, however, the lines of ownership and power became blurred and confused, and the relationship between the planter and the laborer changed. How was this change, and the freedom from slavery that African American families now enjoyed, reflected in the architectural and archaeological record?

One way to examine this change is by looking at window glass. Architectural historians have argued that glass windows were rarely present in slave quarters, but that after the Civil War they were often added as a means of improving the quality of life for recently freed African Americans. Glass windows would have made a significant difference compared to the wooden shutters that would have been used during slavery. A window allows light to come in, while cold air can stay out, while also allowing people to open the windows to keep things cool during the summer. Fortunately for archaeologists, window glass thickness corresponds to certain periods of time because people began to want larger panes of glass in their windows. This resulted in thicker and thicker pieces of glass (Weiland 2009). This means that the thickness of window glass corresponds to certain time periods.

[one_third]At St. Mary’s City, we have evidence around both the single and duplex quarters of concentrations of window glass along the walls of the building. Photographs and oral history have already given us insight into the presence of glass windows around the duplex quarter, but the distributions of window glass around the single quarter gave us our first look at a window we did not know existed on the building’s south wall (see map on the right). We then measured the thickness of all the window glass from the unit that had the largest concentration of glass, and plotted those measurements on a histogram (below). Using an algorithm developed by Moir, we were able to correlate these thicknesses to different years. The results gave us a unique insight into the lives of the African Americans during and after slavery.


The histogram shows three areas of interest. First, there is the dramatic spike in window glass that dates to the 1860s, when the Civil War was raging and Emancipation occurred. Second, there is a distinct absence of window glass dating from the 1840s and 1850s. Third, there is an unexpected peak of glass from the 1830s, which predated the construction of the single quarter. The first spike fits within our expectations: it suggests that, after the Civil War, the African Americans who lived in the single quarter installed glass windows into the south wall of the single quarter. The dearth of glass dating to the 1840s and 1850s suggests that glass windows were not present at the site during slavery. This means that after Emancipation, the formerly enslaved began to make modifications to the former slave quarters, transforming them into more personal homes and improving their quality of life. 

But how is it that there could be glass from the 1830s at the site, but not glass from the 1840s and 1850s? This is confusing for a couple reasons. First, we do not believe that there had been a 19th century building located at this site prior to 1840. Second, it is unlikely that the building would have had glass during the 1830s, but then not had glass during the subsequent decades: when a glass pane is broken it is often replaced, and then breaks again. This is evident by the long tail of window glass on the histogram that extended throughout the 19th century.

We have settled on a third explanation: after the Civil War, African Americans sought out opportunities to improve their quality of life by making modifications to their homes. However, they were also extremely poor, so they had to rely on creative solutions to make these improvements, and likely salvaged windows from abandoned buildings to put into their homes. The 1830s glass likely represents panes that were in salvaged windows. Any panes that were missing were likely filled in with newer glass. This explanation accounts for the lack of glass during slavery, because there were no glass windows in the building during that time. The older glass was transported to the site after the Civil War.

By examining the archaeological record, we are able to get a deeper glimpse into the immediate post-Civil War lives of the African Americans who lived at St. Mary’s Manor. The addition of used windows demonstrates some of the steps that were taken to improve the quality of life for newly freed African Americans. It is no different than the other activities that they engaged in once they had enough freedom to do so, whether that was rekindling families that had been divided by the slave trade, or opening schools to pursue an education or churches to worship freely. Improving the quality of their homes made for an improved quality of life.

Read about life after Slavery at St. Mary’s Manor

This was more than just improving ones quality of life, however. For African Americans in the post-slavery era, freedom from slavery did not mean freedom persecution, oppression, racism, or poverty. Improving the quality of their homes was critical because the home was one of the few safe places that they were able to congregate. The duplex quarter is routinely modified throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. These changes included the addition of windows, wood floors, the expansion of the building by removing the dividing wall, and a 20th-century addition of a bedroom off the back. While all of these actions improved the quality of life for the building’s inhabitants, it also demonstrated their ownership of the building and the safety it provided. In his book Claims of Kinfolk, Penningroth argues that, during and after slavery, African Americans often defined their possession through the display of their goods (Penningroth 2003). By making physical modifications to the exterior of their homes, they actively defined these buildings as their possessions. In a world that was still not safe for African Americans, despite the end of slavery, ensuring that the home was a safe and secure sanctuary was a high priority for these families. By making these modifications to the physical appearance of the house, they were guarding against the chance that the building may be taken from them. They were physically marking the buildings as possessions, and displaying their ownership.

Talk Together

What do you think? How do you think adding these windows would have effected the day-to-day lives of the African Americans who lived in these homes? What other ways do you think they would have demonstrated their ownership of their homes?

Works Cited

Penningroth, Dylan
2003     The Claims of Kinfolk. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press.

Weiland, Jonathon
2009     A Comparison and Review of Window Glass Analysis Approaches in Historical Archaeology. Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology.

Photographs taken by Don Winter, Historic St. Mary’s City.


One thought on “Making A Home: Window Glass and the Transition from Slavery to Freedom

  1. Very interesting. Glass windows were added to the single quarter at Sotterley post Civil War. I wonder if there is/was salvaged glass used.

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