Blocking unwanted sounds is easy in our iPod era. Headphones allow us to avoid crying babies, chattering passengers, and other unpleasant noise. Jefferson didn’t have such technology, but he found other ways to mute the sounds of his plantation at work. For starters, Jefferson kept ‘noise’ outside the house. My colleague Craig Barton notes that Jefferson used architecture and landscaping to ‘render invisible the slaves and their place of work from the important symbolic view of the property.’ Placing the slave quarters and workspaces downslope also minimized slave sounds penetrating Mr. Jefferson’s bastion—sound travels poorly uphill. What noise did arrive at Jefferson’s home was kept at bay by plate glass windows.
Outside those windows, and down the hill, Monticello reverberated with sounds of discipline and work. In the nailery, from dawn to dusk, 12 boys stood around open fires heading nails with heavy hammers. Occasionally, the overseer would beat them. All of these sounds, metal on metal and whip on flesh, punctuated the workshop even as they remained inaudible in the planation house.