The “Quadroon-Plaçage” Myth of Antebellum New Orleans: Anglo-American (Mis)interpretations of a French-Caribbean Phenomenon

The “Quadroon-Plaçage” Myth of Antebellum New Orleans: Anglo-American (Mis)interpretations of a French-Caribbean Phenomenon

Journal of Social History
Published Online: 2011-11-13
DOI: 10.1093/jsh/shr059

Kenneth Aslakson, Assistant Professor of History
Union College, Schenectady, New York

Although Thomas Jefferson’s likely affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings, has sparked controversy since James Callender first made it public in 1802, no place has attracted more attention with regard to miscegenation than Louisiana, and particularly its chief city of New Orleans. The general consensus holds that the inhabitants of New Orleans were unusually open about interracial relationships (or at least heterosexual ones in which the man was white), due to the cultural influence of the French and Spanish, and nothing epitomized this more than the city’s famed “quadroon balls,” dances open to young free women of mixed ancestry and white gentlemen of means. According to lore, the “lovely and refined” quadroon woman came to the ball “dressed in the most fashionable gown and chaperoned by her mother” looking for a wealthy white gentleman. “After dancing with a man, if the girl were attracted, he would be allowed to speak with her mother to make ‘arrangements’… [which] would include a furnished home that [the woman of color] would own and financial arrangements for her and any children.” The relationship thus established was called plaçage and the woman une placée. The relationship was temporary and ended when the man took a white wife. Nevertheless, a woman of color greatly benefitted from the patronage of an elite white man and often used the money bestowed upon her to establish herself in business “usually as a dressmaker, milliner, or by operating a boarding house.” Thus, the “quadroon balls” and plaçage relationships “provided a comfortable lifestyle for the quadroon ladies who had very limited options during the period.”

While this story of the quadroon balls and plaçage is enticing, it is based on scanty evidence, and, therefore, this paper will refer to it as the quadroon-plaçage myth. To be sure, something like the…

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