Despite the intimate domestic scene depicted in the ambrotype of Louisa and her charge Harry Hayward, the institution of slavery codified this as a tenuous and inherently unequal relationship. Louisa’s “bill of sale” formally and legally established this woman, this caretaker, this nursemaid, as human property—mandating that she and her offspring were to be held in perpetuity, or as the document ominously states, “forever.”
The bill of sale is an important part of the material culture of slavery. These artifacts related to enslavement were sometimes unique but often were formulaic, with specific names and dates filled in, as with the one used to document the sale of Louisa. Each reveals human drama obscured by legal language. By closely examining the paper trail of the slave economy, one can understand how slaves were situated as items to be owned—commodities. In these documents and transactions, slave masters are “vendors” and “purchasers,” and enslaved men, women, and children are property—bound to their owner until they are put up for sale once again. When “unpacking” the language of the bill of sale one can re-engage with the politics of the era. Each receipt of purchase documents the immense power slaveholders had over human lives—making evident the fact that Louisa could be sold without notice, relocated at the will of her new owner, ripped away from family and friends.