Mortar and Pestle for Pounding Rice

This image of a mortar and pestle evokes and illustrates the agricultural techniques brought to the English colonies by enslaved women.

Mortar and pestle for pounding grain

Unidentified maker, Mortar and pestle for pounding grain, 1840-1940. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Oprah Winfrey.


The colony of South Carolina was established as part of the Province of Carolina in 1663. To improve their rice harvests and make their colony succeed, planters in South Carolina began importing enslaved women from West Africa and Madagascar in the 1690s. Rice was a staple crop in the communities along Africa’s Atlantic coast, and women “accustomed to the practice of growing rice” were highly prized by plantation owners because their knowledge would make the rice plantations of North America more productive. Within twenty years, South Carolina was producing enough rice to export to England, and by the 1750s, rice cultivation had made South Carolina one of the richest colonies on the continent.

The enslaved women responsible for this economic boom did not personally profit from their work. They were enslaved for life. If they bore children, they did so knowing that their children would also spend their lives on the rice plantations producing profits for someone else. And their success encouraged the planters to start more plantations and import more enslaved women to work them.

About the Artifacts

This mortar and pestle for pounding grain was used in the process of threshing, or separating, grains of rice from the rice plant. Threshing was a very labor-intensive process. The mortar, or bottom piece, has a hollowed-out bowl where harvested rice hulls are placed. The hulls are pounded with the pestle, the long wooden paddle, until the grains of rice separated out. The pestle of this unit is a solid piece of cypress wood that is thirty-eight inches long, and weighs about twenty-five pounds. After the grains of rice were separated, the rice was sorted from the hulls by shaking them through a basket woven of leaves and grass.


  • accustomed to: Familiar with.
  • export: Sending goods to another country for sale.
  • hull: Hard outer shell of a seed or grain.
  • mortar: A cup shaped object made of hard material in which ingredients are crushed.
  • pestle: A heavy tool with a rounded end used to crush and grind ingredients.
  • thresh: To separate a grain from a plant.

Discussion Questions

  •  What would it be like to beat rice plants with this object all day? How might that affect your body over time?
  • How did enslaved African women’s knowledge and labor shape American colonies?
  • Why is it important to recognize the contributions enslaved women made to the development of the colonies?

Suggested Activities

  • Use this object to introduce students to the idea that the enslaved people brought to the New World were individuals who brought knowledge and expertise that shaped the society we live in today.
  • Allow the students to try pounding grain with a small-scale mortar and pestle, then give them the opportunity to carry something that is the weight of this pestle. Ask them to write about how it would feel to do this work all day.
  • Use this object as a jumping off point for a research project into the techniques, technologies, and cultural practices that enslaved people brought to the New World (i.e. music, religion, agricultural techniques).
  • For more stories of women and agricultural innovation, pair this document with the Patent for Cleaning and Curing Corn and the Digging Stick.
  • The West African women who brought this technique to the Carolinas endured terrible hardships before arriving in the Americas. To learn more about their journey, see the resource The Middle Passage.
  • Enslaved women in the Americas did different work depending on the colony they lived in. To explore these geographical differences, pair this object with the following resources: Fighting for Freedom in New Amsterdam and Life Story: Marie-Josèphe Angélique.



New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes