Dana E. Byrd presented at the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Seminar on New York and American Material Culture on Tuesday, January 30. Her talk was entitled “ ‘Too Poor to Paint, Too Proud to Whitewash’: Material Life on the Post-Bellum Sea Island Plantation, 1865–1893.”

In advance of the arrival of the Civil War to the Sea Islands of South Carolina in November 1861, planters gathered their families, packed up their possessions, and fled as far upstate as possible. There, they hoped to wait out the war, and escape any harm brought to them by the Yankee “marauders.” When the US military came ashore on the Islands, after the quick and decisive victory of the Battle of Port Royal Harbor, they found a single white man in Beaufort, and more than 10,000 enslaved workers across the islands. These workers seized a conditional freedom from slavery, and thrust themselves into the wage economy. In this effort, they were aided first by the occupying forces, then by Northern missionaries, and finally by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

When planters began to trickle back home after the April 1865 peace had been signed at Appomattox, they found the Sea Islands dramatically transformed. Some former cotton barons had lost their plantations through tax delinquency and other confiscation measures, while others returned to fields that had lain fallow for years, and houses that had been ransacked for valuables, and partially stripped of their building materials. Their former slaves were now property owners, and enjoying the benefits of citizenship. Northern “interlopers,” aid workers, and entrepreneurs, had settled into the region, and even formerly middling class whites had begun to ascend the social ladder. To their chagrin, Sea Island planters were forced to negotiate with their former slaves, landless whites, and even northern “carpetbaggers.” These changes were impoverishing and personally traumatic for the planter class.

This talk used the lens of material culture to consider the transformed post-war plantation landscape from the planters’ perspective as they re-inserted themselves back into the Sea Island landscape. Traditionally, scholars have subscribed to a trickle-down-model of gentility, which finds elites and their peers subscribing to codes of behavior and patterns of consumption that are in turn emulated by people at the lower strata of society. In other words, white elites set the tone for the consumption of goods that were later mimicked by others. The landscape of the Reconstruction-era requires new modes of inquiry which are able to address the emergence of new citizens and the attendant reconfiguration of the social order. By considering consumption across color and class lines, a different, more nuanced account of material life in the post-war period emerges. In response to the changed economic and cultural landscape, planters adopted new modes of consumption to express their dissatisfaction with the new social landscape. These radically changed consumption patterns demonstrate the pivotal role that everyday objects deployed by impoverished planters, freedmen, and missionaries played in cultural and political life, especially with respect to polarizing debates about race, reunion, and freedom.

Dana E. Byrd is a scholar of American art and material culture. Her research engages with questions of place and the role of objects in everyday life. Her book manuscript, “Reconstructions: Freedom on the South Carolina Sea Island Plantation, 1861–1877,” examines the experience of soldiers, artists, missionaries, planters, and newly freed slaves on the plantation during the Civil War through the end of Reconstruction. With Frank H. Goodyear, she is at work on Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting, an exhibition which will be on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 2018. Recently she has published articles with digital components on the transformation of Hilton Head Island’s landscape during the Civil War; and, punkahs, ceiling-hung dining room fans powered by enslaved workers for the benefit of white southerners in antebellum homes.