Nancy Burns’ Headscarf

ca. 1844, New York
Cotton. 33 ½ cm x 15 cm

The headscarf originated in Sub-Sahara Africa. The ‘wrap’ or scarf varied from region to region and signified a communal identity.

During the time of slavery slave masters imposed the wear of head scarves as a badge of enslavement. It proved, however to provide a form of cultural resistance and communal identity among the enslaved.

The headwrap had utilitarian and cultural use. The wearer could maintain traditions of her African heritage whilst protecting her hair from the elements of her environment. The headwrap also became a symbol of personal identity and could be as varied as its weaves. Nancy Burns, the freed servant of the Van Cortlandt family wore this headscarf.

© The American Museum in Britain (Bath, UK

Accession reference: The American Museum in Britain (Bath, UK), 1967.81