Mistaken anachronism

Reading a book written in 1876, I did a double take. A term seemed out of place— modern term used by a writer in the 1870s to describe an incident in the 1830s or 1840s.

“It [the cabin] was inhabited by the class of people know down South as poor white trash.” Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

Excuse me? “White trash” was used in the first half of the 19th century?

And then I did some sleuthing. “White trash” was a term used by African-Americans in the South, often in reference to poor whites who didn’t own slaves or were servants themselves.

The earliest reference I found was to an 1824 novel based on real events, A Winter in Washington: or, Memoirs of the Seymour Family, Volume 1 by Margaret Bayard Smith:

“Hold your tongue, Joseph; do you think because I bemean’d myself to marry such a neger as you, I’ll be beholden to them white trash, that with their hard hearted ways forced me to do the like? No, indeed; if they could turn their own colour out to perish, no child of mine shall be beholden to them.”

Interesting that the term has continued in use long after 1865, no longer denoting non-slave owners but those poor in wealth, education, and middle and upper class culture.


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