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  • Writer's pictureHistory Revealed

Blue in Colonial Colchester

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

We were recently inspired to look for evidence of the color blue in the ledgers after reading "The History of the Color Blue: From Ancient Egypt to the Latest Scientific Discoveries"; we went looking for green at St. Patrick's Day, so why not blue? Our first foray into things blue occurred last year while exploring connections between the ledgers and France in our discussion of the blue dye, indigo. Today, we take a look at all items described as "blue" in the Colchester 1760/1761 store ledger, but continue to be especially curious about that blue dye.

3/4 yard of blue velvit purchased for 12 shillings by the Reverend Charles Green.

The Reverend Charles Green purchased 3/4 yard of blue velvet in November 1760. A year later, he purchased 3 yards of blue duffill and 17 yards of blue camlet. What did he make with all this blue fabric? (Folio 60, Colchester 1760/1761)

As expected, fabrics accounted for nearly all the purchases described as "blue." They included: alapeen, bays, camlet, broadcloth, drugget, duffill, ferret, frieze, halfthick, plains, serge, shalloon, and velvet. Blue was the only color of velvet Alexander Henderson ordered from Glasgow in 1760 - and a small amount at only two yards. It was divvied up in six transactions and sold in increments as small as 1/8 yard.[1] This blue velvet most likely came from mills in Manchester, England, and was made of cotton, as opposed to silk or wool as that made in Genoa or Utrecht.[2] Knowing what customers made with 1/8 yard of blue velvet, let alone the 3/4 yard purchased by the Reverend Charles Green, is difficult to discern. In looking at clothing found in runaway slave ads from Virginia and Maryland in the 1760s, the inclusion of "cotton" in the description of velvets points to the Manchester variety; the velvet clothing worn included jackets, breeches, waistcoats, and jockey caps. From Gloucester, Jack took with him blue velvet breeches, a red velvet waistcoat, and a black velvet jockey cap as described in the advertisement.[3] At 1/8 yard, perhaps customers at the Colchester store used the blue velvet to line a case or make a ladies' purse or a jockey cap? Given Manchester velvets came in all colors, red excepted, it is interesting to note the Colchester store limited its sales to blue.[4]

In addition to fabrics, there were blue slip covers (as blankets under saddles), rugs (or blankets), handkerchiefs, thread, tea cup & saucers, and mugs; there's even twenty blue wing ducks sold to the store in payment by William Bronaugh for his account in the fall of 1761 (and were likely consumed by the enslaved residents of the store).[5] While we do have Presleys who shopped at the store, we don't have any blue suede shoes!

Blue wing teal (duck) floating amonst tall grasses.
Blue wing teal (duck); Image courtesy of Rudolphus - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

What is just as interesting as items described as blue were those blue dyes sold for home use. In 1759, Alexander Henderson ordered ten pounds of fig blue and six pounds of "French Indigo".[6] From 1760-1761, he sold just under a pound of the indigo and just over 3 1/4 pounds of fig blue (usually just called "blue" in the ledger) to his customers. Fifteen of thirty-three purchases were made through Ready Money Sales - purchases made not on account - with four purchases of indigo and only one of fig blue in October 1760, probably not long after Henderson's order for it arrived in Colchester.

Purchases of Indigo and Fig Blue, Colchester store ledger 1760/1761.

William Turner was only one of two account holders who purchased both indigo (in May) and blue (in August) according to the Colchester 1760/1761 ledger (folio 22).[7] In looking at Turner's account in total, he purchased just over £91 of goods from the store; while not much is known about him, his store account indicates he worked a sizable property that included tobacco, sheep, and cattle given his payments to the store, and had children in his household given his purchase of spelling books and children's stockings. As for those dyes, Turner purchased one ounce of indigo in May 1761 and three ounces of fig blue in August 1761.

William Turner purchased household stores, fabrics and sewing supplies, clothing accessories, tack, books, building supplies, medicines, and kitchen/serviing equipment.  He paid his account with mutton, beef, and tobacco sold to the store.
William Turner's account in the Colchester 1760/1761 ledger (folio 22).

What was done with the one ounce of indigo? According to Karen Clancy, Colonial Williamsburg's Master Weaver, Dyer, and Spinner, an ounce (roughly two tablespoons) of indigo equates to about 3-4 pounds of fabric/wool/yarn that could be dyed varying shades of blue.[8] Turner's purchase of indigo in May did not coincide with the purchase of any likely fabrics desirous of dying; however, earlier in the month he did purchase a pair of shears, white linen, check, osnaburg, and striped holland. His household possibly dyed one or more of these fabrics; however, the indigo was more likely used in conjunction with the spring sheep shearing, turning the wool from his sheep into blue-dyed yarn for knitting or weaving.[9]

Turner's fig blue purchase occurred in mid-August likely in time to "blue" fabrics yellowed by sweat and grim from the summer months. Fig blue was indigo cut with a starch and formed into blocks, added as part of the rinse process of laundering clothes to brighten (whiten) their appearance. Hannah Glasse's The servant's directory, or house-keeper's companion: Wherein the Duties of the Chamber-Maid, Nursery-Maid, House-Maid, Landery-Maid, Scullion, ... described the laundering process for cambric, muslin, and lace as:

First sope them well, and wash them in warm Water; then sope them again, and wash them again in hot Water; after this mix a little Sope and Blue together, rub a little on the Clothes, and pour boiling Water on them, covering them up for an Hour or two, then wash them well out of that, and rince them in Pump-water blued... and when the Clothes and Stockings are boiled they will look as white as Snow...[10]

In the summer, drying the fabrics in the sun continued the bleaching affect. But, how much laundering would Turner's three ounces of fig blue provide? Glasse indicated it only required 1/4 ounce mixed with the soap to make linens "white as Snow."[11] At a rate of 1/4 ounce per laundering, the three ounces might last three months or more depending on how much and how often laundry occurred. Just as important is who did the laundry for William Turner's household.

Although Turner's account and transactions do not directly reflect slave ownership, he paid five tithes to the Parish Collector (12 August 1761). We must assume that several of those tithes were for enslaved individuals, possibly Daniel and James gifted to Turner in 1754, who worked his land and tended his livestock meaning those responsible for the use of the fig blue (and indigo) were Turner's enslaved.[12] How many enslaved belonged to Turner awaits additional research. What we can confidently say is he owned slaves based on his purchases and payments at the Colchester store.

We are once again reminded that while ledgers do showcase the lives of the account holders, looking more closely at accounts reveals the many different individuals who resided around Colchester and allows us to learn more about their lives.

... in my heart there'll always be

Precious and warm a memory through the years

And I still can see blue velvet through my tears

- Bernie Wayne, Lee Morris (1950)


[1] Alexander Henderson, et. al. Ledger 1760-1761, Colchester, Virginia folios 12, 42, 50, 60, and 81, from the John Glassford and Company records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Microfilm Reel 58.

[2] Florence M. Montgomery (1984) Textiles in America, 1650-1870. New York: WW Norton & Company. Pp. 287, 370.

[3] "Runaway Advertisement, 9 July 1767." Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon). The Geography of Slavery, accessed 24 July 2020.

[4] Montgomery, 287; Alexander Henderson's Colchester Scheme of Goods, "Velvet." Mount Vernon Mystery Midden, accessed 24 July 2020. Two yards of blue velvet were ordered for 1760 and four yards were ordered for 1763.

[5] William Bronaugh's account has him selling the ducks to the store at approximately six pence per duck (folio 45). The store purchased ducks from him in the fall of 1760 and again in 1761, likely as the ducks migrated south for the winter as they are not residents of this watershed.

[6] Alexander Henderson's Colchester Scheme of Goods, "Blue" and "Indigo." Mount Vernon Mystery Midden, accessed 24 July 2020.

[7] Benoni Halley was the other customer (folio 23).

[8] Karen Clancy. Personal Communication, 22 July 2020.

[9] George Washington wrote in his diary about his sheep being sheared at Mount Vernon in late May 1760. “[May 1760],” Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 1, 11 March 1748 – 13 November 1765, ed. Donald Jackson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976, pp. 275–283.] Accessed 28 July 2020.

[10] Hannah Glasse (1760) The servant's directory, or house-keeper's companion: Wherein the Duties of the Chamber-Maid, Nursery-Maid, House-Maid, Landery-Maid, Scullion, ... London: Pp. 12-13. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[11] Ibid, 13.

[12] Tithes were paid annually to the Anglican church for all white men sixteen years and older, as well as all enslaved individuals (regardless of race or sex) of the same age. Turner may have paid the tithe for John Powell, described as a jobber who assisted with Turner's tobacco harvest, as part of his payment to Robert Boggiss. In 1754, his father (Fielding Turner) gifted two enslaved men, Daniel and James, as well as 100 acres of land to his son, William (FXCO DB: C-1, 781-782).

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