A wife is sought for her virtue; a concubine for her beauty. – Chinese proverb
Since the dawn of civilization it has been the practice of wealthy men to take official mistresses or concubines, chosen for their beauty and charm from the classes below that acceptable for wives; this arrangement allowed a man the sexual variety he desired and the concubine to rise above the socioeconomic level at which she was born. In polygamous societies concubines were officially recognized and often lived in the same house as the wife, but in later, officially monogamous societies such as ours the mistress or “kept woman” generally lives in a different place and the relationship is usually clandestine. Usually we think of concubinage as having died out in the West by the early part of the Christian Era, but in actuality it continued to exist among Europeans living in Asia because those cultures still practiced it, and in the 17th century it was revived in a widespread form called plaçage (from the French placer, to place with) among the French and Spanish colonists in Africa and the New World.
As I discussed in my column of September 3rd, few women were interested in emigrating from France to New Orleans, and this also held true for other French and Spanish colonies from the time of the conquistadores on. “Suitable” European women had no trouble finding husbands or patrons among the men who remained in Europe, so there was a chronic shortage of marriageable women in the colonies; the male colonists therefore took native women as mistresses. Inevitably these relationships produced children, and by the early 18th century the plaçage system was developed to define the legal ramifications of these relationships, including the inheritance and other rights of the offspring. Since New Orleans had particular difficulty in attracting marriageable women even by French colonial standards, a very large community of mixed-blood “Creoles of color” arose, forming the foundation of New Orleans’ free Creole society; in later times most placées (as the concubines were called) were “quadroons” (¼ black) or “octoroons” (1/8 black), but in earlier times many were mulatto, black or Indian.
Though the system was widespread throughout the French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast (including Haiti, Martinique and Florida), it was most highly-developed and formally organized in New Orleans and reached its height during Spanish rule of the city (1769-1801). Though plaçage was not legally recognized as marriage by the authorities, Creoles considered the arrangements honorable and referred to them as mariages de la main gauche (left-handed marriages). Though in the earliest days most placées were slaves, this later became unusual and most were drawn from the free Creole community. In 1788 it was estimated that there were about 1,500 placées in New Orleans, and they were the most influential members of the Creole community; their children were often educated in France, and some even owned houses, businesses, plantations and slaves of their own.
A wealthy man would usually reside with his wife and her children at his plantation, but maintain a townhouse in New Orleans where his placée and her children lived; he stayed in this house when in town for business or used it for entertaining other city businessmen, and when he was out of town his placée and her children participated in free Creole society. A man’s relationship with a placée often predated his marriage because he did not seek a white wife until he had established himself in business; thus, his children by the placée were often older than those by the legal wife, and some men actually named their Creole children as primary heirs over their “legitimate” children. Normally, however, the placée could expect one-third of her husband’s property upon his death. But if he died intestate or was forced by his legal wife to abandon his placée and her children, she got nothing more than her house (and sometimes not even that). If she was still young and attractive she might enter into plaçage with another white man, or marry a Creole man; if not she might open a boarding house or seek employment as a merchant, hairdresser or seamstress. And it was very likely she would bring her own daughters up to become placées.
By the time New Orleans became American in 1803, the usual means by which such mothers introduced their eligible daughters to wealthy white men were the Quadroon Balls. These elegant, elaborate affairs were held every week by the owners of dance halls, and only white men and Creole women were permitted to attend. Creole debutantes were accompanied to the balls by their mothers, and when a white gentleman found such a girl attractive and wished to take her in plaçage he had to negotiate the terms with the elder lady. Typically, the mother would insist that the details of her daughter’s housing and upkeep be specified in writing, and that children produced by the union be recognized; these wise women wanted to be sure that their daughters would not be left without support as they had been, and if the daughter was particularly beautiful and/or the gentleman particularly generous the mother could include in the bargain a lump-sum payment or even an allowance for herself.
By the time of the War Between the States, the plaçage system was starting to become less common for both positive and negative reasons. New Orleans’ Creole community had grown large both from the many children produced by such arrangements and by intermarriage among the Creoles themselves, and since their economic status had grown to be comparable with that of whites the system was less necessary than it once had been. At the same time, institutionalized racism in New Orleans had grown under American rule, and both laws and social customs made social race-mixing more difficult; for a white man of this period to actually cohabit with a Creole woman as his grandfather had became nearly impossible. The relationships became much more clandestine, and since they were no longer officially sanctioned it became easier for an embittered wife or greedy half-siblings to cheat a placée and her children out of their inheritance.
After the war, things became much worse for the Creoles; the Carpetbaggers, unscrupulous Northern businessmen who arrived to take advantage of the South’s depleted economy, were far more racist than any native New Orleanian had ever been, and by the end of the Reconstruction many once-prosperous Creole families, descended from wealthy colonials through generations of plaçage, had fallen into ruin due to the refusal of the Carpetbagger merchants and federally-controlled puppet government to do business with them. With plaçage gone, the beautiful and well-educated daughters of impoverished Creole families had few options; white men could not legally marry them, ruined Creole or free black men could not afford to support them, and former slaves were too far beneath their social and educational level even to be considered. Given the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that many of them turned to high-class prostitution in the city’s booming brothel industry, where their looks and education could earn them $10/hour in a time when the average laborer made 22¢/hour. Many of the most sought-after courtesans and wealthiest madams in Storyville were Creole beauties whose great-grandmothers had been placées.
The mixed-race descendants of plaçage made up a large and independent Creole community in New Orleans well into the 20th century, but once the racial controversy of the 1960s and ‘70s had come and gone this community began to break up; after laws about ancestry were swept away most Creoles (some of whom were as little as 1/16 black) chose to identify as white, while others called themselves black. Some even changed their minds over the course of their lives; two late 20th-century mayors of New Orleans, both born into respected Creole families, called themselves white on their Army induction papers but later found it politically expedient to identify as black when seeking election in a majority-black city. Sadly, the last descendants of Western Civilization’s last officially-recognized concubines will soon disappear into one race or the other, taking the last traces of their unique culture with them except for those portions which have become a part of the greater culture of New Orleans.