The “Whistle Walk” story is related at many Southern plantations where the kitchen is located apart from the main house. It is an imaginative tale, but one with little logic to support it and no actual documentation. Let’s face it, the slaves who cooked and prepared food in the detached southern kitchens could easily have (and surely did) tasted and eaten the food inside the kitchen without anyone being the wiser.
One historian who spent her life researching topics involving women’s work and home life wrote in 1986 that she had never found any contemporary references that the walkways connecting outside kitchens with inside dining rooms were called “whistle walks.” The earliest known written reference comes in 1954 in the book, Shadows in Silver: A Record of Virginia 1850-1900 in Contemporary Photographs, where a picture of a plantation kitchen from the 1890s carries a caption that mentions the story.
“I suspect the story is apocryphal,” wrote late Patricia Gibbs, “or perhaps depicts a mid-to-late nineteenth-century practice. Certainly if it really occurred, it was never so widespread as interpretations in many southern historic house museums imply. On the other hand, I think it is quite likely that food en route to the dining rooms was occasionally sampled. Since there is much reliable information to convey about foods and serving practices, I would discourage repeating this story.”
Thanks to Bill Backus, Historic Interpreter at Ben Lomond Historic Site/Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park in Prince William County for asking about this story.
February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am (Edit)
I never thought this story made sense for slaves or servants. Weren’t they the ones preparing the food in the kitchen, and could taste it there?
February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm (Edit)
Excellent point. And so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it!!
Mark A. Turdo says:
February 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm (Edit)
My Italian-American father used to tell me his immigrant father made him whistle when getting wine from the cellar. It was always a cute story, but I suspect that’s all it is. Thanks for sharing this.
Michael Comer says:
April 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm (Edit)
I wonder what happened if they couldn’t whistle?
October 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm (Edit)
Who is the historian you refer to in this post? I recall reading something to this effect but cannot find the source. I “googled” whistle walk and found your excellent site!
Mary Miley Theobald says:
October 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm (Edit)
The historian I referred to was Patricia Gibbs, who spent her entire career (I think) at Colonial Williamsburg and was the acknowledged authority on so many subjects, among them women’s issues. She died a few years ago, shortly after she retired, and I miss her very much. She had the answer to everything!
October 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm (Edit)
Thank you for the quick reply. Indeed, it must have been Gibbs. I recently spent a month on fellowship at CW and I’m sure I came across her work there. Thanks!
October 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm (Edit)
one more thing: do you know the citation for the quote? I have a ton of files that I copied while at CW. Was it from an internal report for the preservation folks?
Mary Miley says:
October 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm (Edit)
It came from a letter dated 9/2/86 that is in the Research Query file at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg.
Esther Hyatt says:
November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm (Edit)
I visited Berkley Plantation for the 51st celebration of the first Thanksgiving on November 4, 2012 and the tour guide reported the tale of the whistling slave tunnel as if historical fact. Even more interesting were the responses of the tourist agreeing that the practice was not only clever but efficient because it alerted those in the main house of their meal’s arrival. I dismissed the story as true when I couldn’t figure out how the sound would travel from underground through winter’s closed door and pierce a home constructed of several layers of brick.