House slaves usually lived better than field slaves. They usually had better food and were sometimes given the family’s cast-off clothing. William Wells Brown, a slave from Lexington, Kentucky, explained in his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847): “I was a house servant – a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after.”
Not all slave-owners took this view, Harriet Jacobs, a house slave from Edenton, North Carolina, reports that on Sunday her mistress “would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans” to make sure that the slaves did not eat what was left over. Jacobs adds: “She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be.”
Their living accommodation was also better than those of other slaves. In some cases the slaves were treated like the slave-owners children. However, Lewis Clarke believed that some house slaves were worse off than field slaves: “There were four house-slaves in this family, including myself, and though we had not, in all respects, so hard work as the field hands, yet in many things our condition was much worse. We were constantly exposed to the whims and passions of every member of the family; from the least to the greatest their anger was wreaked upon us. Nor was our life an easy one, in the hours of our toil or in the amount of labor performed. We were always required to sit up until all the family had retired; then we must be up at early dawn in summer, and before day in winter.”
When this happened close bonds of affection and friendship usually developed. Even though it was illegal, some house slaves were educated by the women in the family. Trusted house slaves who had provided good service over a long period of time were sometimes promised their freedom when their master’s died. However, there are many cases where this promise was not kept.
Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of Slave Work (2003): “The domestic life of whites was dominated by slave domestics. Visitors, again, were struck by the huge numbers of black servants working in and around the homes of white people in the slave colonies. Nannies and nurses, cooks, and washers, gardeners and cleaners, each and every conceivable domestic role was undertaken by slaves. Overwhelmingly women, slave domestics faced different problems from their contemporaries in the fields. Though perhaps better-off materially, domestic slaves often had uncomfortable relations with their white owners. They faced all the potential aggravations of close proximity, from sexual threats through to white women’s dissatisfaction and anger.”