One argument advanced for why slavery in the US was special among the world’s slaveholding societies is that one race enslaved another. However, before the age of genetic testing, the races could only have been distinguished visually. Similarly obvious differences in the looks of slaves and masters, or serfs and nobility occurred in all agrarian societies. The obviousness of distinct looks is meant in the statistical sense: with what accuracy could people classify others into slaves and masters, or peasants and lords, averaged both across the population judging and the population judged? I believe the accuracy was close to perfect – comparable to the classification accuracy of US slaves and slaveholders – for the following reasons.
Serfs were malnourished in childhood, thus short. They did hard physical labour without stretching much, thus were bent over, with back and leg muscles better developed than the rest. They spent the day outdoors without sunscreen, wearing limited clothing, thus were tanned. The lack of sunglasses caused them to squint, creating characteristic wrinkles on the face. They seldom had opportunity to wash, thus had ingrained dirt in their skin that would not have come out with a single hard scrubbing. Both corporal punishment and intrafamily violence caused many of them to have visible scars, missing teeth, crooked noses. By contrast, the well-fed nobility were tall and practised proper erect posture in childhood for table manners and dance lessons. Their physical exercise was mostly cardiovascular, without heavy lifting, thus they were either slim or fat, but not muscular. Fencing may have developed noblemen’s quadriceps, biceps and wrist muscles, not so much the trunk. The nobility’s fashionable paleness was further ensured by wearing gloves and hats and carrying parasols during the short time spent outdoors.
All these physical contrasts ensured that even in the same clothes and surroundings, without talking or moving, a peasant and a noble could be distinguished at a glance. In this sense there was nothing special about US slavery.
The belief that US slaves were more distinguishable from their owners than those of other slaveholding societies is based on modern experience – nowadays, people of the same race but different social class are difficult to distinguish based on their physical appearance. Similar nutrition, sports opportunities and outdoor exposure lead to similar stature, musculature and tan.