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Plaçage was the social practice of unofficial, heterosexual, interracial unions in New Orleans and other French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. It lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century through the nineteenth century. Under the system, white men and women of color set up common-law households as a means to circumvent legal prohibitions on interracial marriage. Plaçage is sometimes mistakenly confused with prostitution, but in fact these unions were frequently long-term consensual relationships with benefits for both parties.
Colonies, Territories, and Sex: A History of Plaçage
The practice of plaçage changed over time. During the colonial period, the relationships were often casual alliances between white men and women of color who were often enslaved. Since marriage between free persons and slaves was legally prohibited during this period (as a means to conserve expansive territorial holdings), couples evaded the law by setting up households beyond the bonds of matrimony. Further, the conservation of territorial holdings was crucial at this time, because the distribution of land among heirs could undercut family prosperity and create competition among brothers. Thus, during the colonial period, most men practicing plaçage were unmarried, but in the nineteenth century many men also had conventional marriages. By the early nineteenth century, when white northerners began to arrive in New Orleans in large numbers, plaçage had already been an uneasily accepted social practice. In fact, by the late nineteenth century, Auguste Tessier had held several of his legendary octoroon balls expressly to bring together young white men and women of color.
While plaçage was never readily accepted by all members of New Orleans society, growing social condemnation became more evident with the influx of white Americans from the North in the mid-nineteenth century. Many northerners found plaçage reprehensible, because it offended their anti-miscegenation and anti-slavery sensibilities. Because plaçage grew out of the institution of slavery in the South, where white male slave owners set up households with black slave women, northerners considered plaçage to be a morally troubling combination of slavery and sexual exploitation.
Financial and Social Benefits
Despite social condemnation from some quarters, plaçage was a relatively conservative arrangement, not unlike a common-law marriage, with benefits for both parties. For women, the arrangement had some real material and economic benefits even as they lacked social, legal, or religious approval. In addition to relative economic security for herself and her children, the ultimate advantage might mean manumission during the colonial and slavery periods or, later, the legal transfer of wealth from the father to her children through wills and other testaments. This last point was crucially important, since the law did not allow children born outside the legal protection of marriage to inherit more than 10 percent of the father’s property unless other arrangements were made in advance. Thus, fathers who wanted to provide after their death for the children of their placées would transfer property and monies through legal means.
Plaçage arrangements were sometimes quite casual, but frequently were more elaborate if the man involved was wealthy. If he had the means, he would set up his placée in a house on or near the rue de Rampart (now Rampart Street) and draw up contracts for financial support for the placée and any children from the union. The unions often lasted a few years, but there are some records of plaçage arrangements lasting decades, even until the death of one of the parties involved. In longer-term plaçage arrangements, it was not unheard of for the father to send his sons to France to be educated or to set up his daughters with small businesses. For some men, supporting a second household in addition to their marital household was a demonstration of their financial prosperity. For others, the costly marriage fees were beyond their financial capability. There were, however, more important reasons beyond social status why men participated in plaçage. Especially during the colonial period, when the most significant asset that colonists owned was in land, plaçage allowed men to enjoy the benefits of marriage without worrying that their territorial holdings would be divided among their heirs.
There have been several attempts to explain how plaçage began and why it continued. Some have argued that in the face of the scarcity of white women, white male colonists turned to enslaved or indigenous women for companionship or sexual relationships. They have argued that unmarried white women often would not make the trans-Atlantic journey or would die from disease during the trip or when they arrived. Others have argued that the colonial laws were designed to protect and expand the colonial territories. Unlike British laws that favored first-born sons, Spanish and French laws did not dictate that all property remain intact. Thus property could be divided equally among the male heirs, creating competition and reduction of wealth among the sons. By not marrying, colonial men were able keep their property intact or have the holdings divided among their legal heirs. Plaçage arrangements, in this case, allowed the benefits of social and sexual interaction among men and women without threatening the expansion of territorial acquisitions.
Plaçage cannot be simply dismissed as immoral
sexual behavior. Laws surrounding interracial marriage, such as in the 1808
indicate that interracial relationships were so pervasive that the arrangements
had to be legally addressed and curtailed. Plaçage was a social practice
of interracial unions that allowed individuals to circumvent racist laws and
that changed over time. Sometimes it involved sexual exploitation of women,
sometimes it involved love and lifetime extralegal unions.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Lee-Keller, Hellen. "Plaçage." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published February 2, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/764/.
Lee-Keller, Hellen. "Plaçage." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Jun. 2013.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Blassingame, John W. Black New Orleans, 1860–1880. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Carter, Doris Dorcas. “Refusing to Relinquish the Struggle: The Social Role of the Black Woman in Louisiana History.” In Louisiana’s Black Heritage, edited by Robert R. Macdonald, John R. Kemp, and Edward F. Haas, 163–89. New Orleans: Louisiana State Museum, 1979.
Fiehrer, Thomas Marc. “The African Presence in Colonial Louisiana: An Essay on the Continuity of Caribbean Culture.” In Louisiana’s Black Heritage, edited by Robert R. Macdonald, John R. Kemp, and Edward F. Haas, 3–31. New Orleans: Louisiana State Museum, 1979.
Gehman, Mary and Nancy Ries. Women and New Orleans: A History. New Orleans, LA: Margaret Media, 1988.
Hangar, Kimberly S. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
Hirsch, Arnold R. and Joseph Logsdon. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Kein,Sybil, ed. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Long, Alecia P. The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Martin, Joan M. “Plaçage and the Louisiana Gens De Couleur Libre: How Race and Sex Defined the Lifestyles of Free Women of Color.” In Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color, edited by Sybil Kein, 57–70. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.