Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Back Stairs: The world of servants in America

Presented to the Club on Monday Evening, March 7, 2016 by Albert Easton

I am sure that most of us here have watched, or are at least familiar with the television program Downton Abbey, or its predecessor, Upstairs Downstairs. Each of these programs derives part of its drama from the contrast between the aristocracy and the servant class. Although each is based in England at a time and place when this contrast was most clearly delineated, there certainly was a somewhat similar contrast in America up to about 1930, and my purpose tonight is to explore the world of servants. Who were they, what were they like, and what has become of them?

Servants have probably existed for most of human history. It was natural for one person who was able for whatever reason to dominate another, to request that that other person take on some of the tasks he had been doing. Very often, the dominance was a result of warfare, and the people of the defeated nation were made the slaves of the victor. Often, too, the younger children did not inherit enough to support themselves, and had to offer services to others in order to survive.

Some authors have suggested that the role of servants in England grew out of the feudal system. Certainly, the existence of an aristocracy was a heritage of feudal times, but America has never had a hereditary aristocracy. America’s aristocracy consists, in general, of those who have the money to play the part. And playing the part requires, or at least did require, having servants.

It is estimated that in the early years of the twentieth century about one American household in six had servants. This includes many houses that had only a part time servant, a one-day-a-week laundress or cleaning woman, for example. Only a much smaller fraction had one or more full time servants, and only about half of these were live-in. If a house had only one servant, she was almost always of the category: “maid-of-all-work.” More about the duties of such a person later. Houses with a full complement of servants might have a butler, a housekeeper, a cook, and one or more maids or footmen. This does not include the “outdoor servants” — gardeners, farmhands, coachmen, stablemen and (after the advent of the automobile) chauffeurs.

Even in houses with a large number of servants, the lady of the house was considered the housekeeper. She was responsible for maintaining her home in all ways. .But assisting her was the highest ranking servant, the hired housekeeper. The hired housekeeper’s status was on a par almost with members of the family. Her post was an administrative one. She assumed responsibility for the smooth functioning of the household. She oversaw the training and discipline of the rest of the staff, including their performance and personal behavior. She managed the household expenditures, including the purchase of household supplies (but not including the purchase of food – that was the cook’s job.) She supervised the hiring and firing of the rest of the staff and the payment of their wages.

Working closely with the hired housekeeper was the butler. His status was just below hers, and he filled in for her when she was not available to do her job as overseer. He was also responsible for directing the footmen, who were his assistants. He saw to the security of the house, and to the care of the china, glassware and silverware stored in the butler’s pantry. He also managed the purchase, decanting and storage of the household supply of wine and liquor. And many miscellaneous tasks fell his way. For example, arranging the flowers and providing place cards at formal dinner parties. (The arrangement of seats at the table itself had to be left to the lady of the house. Only she was able to discern the social status of her guests, especially in this country with no hereditary aristocracy.) I should mention that the relative status of the housekeeper and butler seems to be reversed on Downton Abbey. This may be because of Carson’s personal dominance, or because roles were somewhat different in England from those in America.

To do his job the butler required the assistance of footmen. Footmen’s duties paralleled those of the butler, plus serving at the dinner table. One author has suggested that: “Male servants (commonly known as flunkeys) became the ultimate status symbol. They were paid for their servility; their function was to emphasize the social position of the employer. Male retainers received twice the wages of most female servants, and did half the work.” To accomplish this, they were on view as greeters at the door, guarding hallways and delivering messages to the parlor.

Another type of male servant was the valet. The valet’s responsibility was to look after the master’s clothing and appearance – in general, a fairly easy job. But the valet was also a “gentleman’s gentleman” – responsible for carrying out whatever errands his employer assigned, and usually traveling with his master. P. G. Woodhouse was written many stories about “Jeeves” – a valet who miraculously manages to extricate his master “Bertie” from the various scrapes Bertie manages to get himself into. Bertie is a bachelor and Jeeves his only servant. The light duties would seem to make valet an easy job, but it was also the most likely to make its incumbent feel like a second class citizen, and thus not the choice of a fully self-respecting individual.

The lady’s maid was the female counterpart of the valet. She had the same kind of responsibilities as a valet – caring for clothing and jewelry, dressing her mistress, generally seeing to her appearance and traveling with her when necessary, often even accompanying her to evening entertainments. Dressing took place at least twice a day, since day clothes were not worn to dinner or evening entertainments. Her job was somewhat more involved than that of the valet, since managing a lady’s clothing and appearance is more complicated than that of a gentleman.

There were also two other types of maids – the parlor maid and the chamber maid. (Chambermaids were sometimes known as “the upstairs maid.”) Parlor maids began each day by removing ashes and cinders from the fireplaces in the parlors and drawing rooms, cleaning the andirons, and preparing new fires. They also swept the carpets and floors in these rooms and the hallways, dusted and periodically washed windows and polished the brass. Chamber maids had the same responsibilities in the bedrooms, and also the daily chore of emptying and cleaning chamber pots, as well as making beds. In the evening, while the lady of the house was at dinner, they cleaned up the clutter left from the nightly dressing-for dinner ritual, turned down the beds, and saw to the fire if necessary.

Usually, there was a laundress, sometimes with assistants. The laundress handled the washing and ironing, which was strenuous work in the days before the advent of modern appliances. In earlier times, the laundress was also responsible for preparing her own starch, bleach and cleaning products. Not only was the work back-breaking, it required some judgement and intelligence, since missteps in laundering could destroy a family’s wardrobe.

The kitchen was the responsibility of the cook. While in very large establishments the cook might be a man (the “chef”), usually the cook was a woman. The cook was responsible for ordering, storing, and preparing food, including that of the servant staff. The cook also was responsible for washing dishes and keeping the kitchen clean, but sometimes had the help of a scullery maid for these chores. When food was prepared over a wood or coal stove, it was the cook or scullery maid’s job to keep that stoked and cleaned.

A final indoor servant was the nursemaid, who cared for the children of the house. The job of nursemaid required a person of tact and intelligence, since she was responsible for teaching the children as well as caring for them. She also had all the duties toward the children that a lady’s maid had toward the lady of the house. She generally was expected to sleep near the children, so that she could be available to care for their needs in the night. She might have severe restrictions on the extent to which she could reprimand or punish the children, and of course had the unpleasant job of changing diapers for the youngest children. Some houses especially sought a nursemaid who spoke another language as well as English, so that the children might be raised bilingual.

I have not mentioned the governess, who was not really a servant, but a teacher. As such, she outranked all the servants. A governess was expected to teach the children reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as history and culture, including the etiquette and demeanor that they needed to assume the station in life that their parents aspired to for them. Like the nursemaid, she may have had severe restrictions on her ability to correct the children.

Outdoor servants included gardeners, coachmen and chauffeurs. If they were live-in, they usually did not sleep in the house, but in the appropriate out-building. Coachmen and chauffeurs were more likely to be live-in, so that they could be available to provide transportation at any time.

Of course, even upper middle class houses could not always afford a full retinue of servants, so compromises had to be made. A frequent combination in a middle class house, was a cook (who also took on the duties of the laundress), a maid (combining the duties of the parlor maid and chambermaid) and a single male servant who was a combination valet and footman. In some houses, even the male servant was not present, leaving only a cook-laundress and a maid. (If the ages of the children in the house required it, there might be a nursemaid, who often was not live-in.)

Further down the ladder, a situation very often encountered in America, was a house with only one servant – the “maid-of-all-work.” A maid-of-all-work performed the duties of the footman (waiting at table), the cook, the parlor maid and the chamber maid. While this was a tremendous amount of work, many managed it. If the house to which she was assigned was a farm, the maid-of-all-work might also be expected to join in feeding the animals and helping with the milking.

There was no such thing as a minimum wage in the early part of the twentieth century, but if there had been, servants would have been at or below it, in spite of the back-breaking work often required of them. An important part of a servant’s compensation was the privilege of living in a very comfortable house. Houses to be occupied by members of the upper middle class in this country, built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, almost always included a section intended to be used by the servants.

The servants’ part of the house was separated from the part intended for use by the family, and tended to emphasize the difference between the two classes. The servants’ quarters included the necessary number of small bedrooms for the servants. (Maids sometimes shared a room, but male servants rarely did.) In houses with indoor plumbing, there was usually a small bathroom and toilet for the use of the servants. Downstairs, the servants had the kitchen, the pantry, the laundry, and in larger houses a “servants’ hall” – a room where servants dined and had their relaxation. Rooms in the servants’ part of the house were very simply decorated, as opposed to the elaborate adornment in the drawing room, dining room, and parlors., and in the upstairs chambers in the family part of the house. An extra set of stairs, the “back stairs” was provided for the sole use of the servants, so that they would not have to intrude on the other part of the house to go from floor to floor.

Beginning about the turn of the century, houses with servants often contained a system of electric bells, for summoning the servants. There would be a front door bell to alert the butler or footman when visitors had arrived, and a different sounding bell for the back door, alerting the cook to the arrival of a tradesman or a visitor for one of the other servants. Other bells were used for summoning servants to the dining room, drawing room, or one of the bedchambers.

Houses with back stairs and servants quarters like those described were very common in American communities, and most of the larger houses built from 1850 to 1920 included them. While some have been altered by remodeling, there are a great many older houses that still include these outmoded accommodations. Without question, many of our predecessors in the Monday Evening Club lived in such houses.

Of course, the living quarters described for servants weren’t universal. Unfortunately, many maids slept on sleeping porches or in furnace rooms. There was also a wide variety in the meals available to servants. In really large establishments, a separate meal might be prepared for servants, and in smaller ones they might enjoy the remains of the dinner served in the dining room, but there was no guarantee as to the amount of food they would get in that case. Servants almost never ate until the meal in the dining room was finished, since they were expected to be on hand to serve it and clean up afterwards, so the time between their lunch and dinner meal might be very long.

Wages for servants varied widely, but they were generally quite low. References indicate that live-in servants received between five and ten dollars a week. Servants who did not live in received about the same, although they generally worked shorter hours and were given car fare to get to and from work each day. There were even cases where the maid was expected to work for room and board only, or (for someone with little experience) for the training they received at the hands of the more senior servants.

The wealthy not only paid more, but there was some satisfaction and esteem to working for a very wealthy family. America had no hereditary aristocracy, but servants preferred working for a family that had been established for several generations, so that they were used to dealing with servants. Wealthier families were more likely to have more attractive quarters for the servants, and it must certainly have been more satisfying to be part of a well-organized and disciplined staff. Servants had hierarchy of position to strengthen their self-esteem, with the butler ranking highest, then the valet, then the footmen. As mentioned, the head housekeeper was highest ranking, but the male servants outranked almost all the female ones.

 Alexis de Tocqueville in his landmark work Democracy in America, published in 1840 mentions his observation that America had no permanent servant class, because American society was too mobile. I think that overlooks the existence of slavery, which was still prevalent in the time he was writing, but the matter became truer and truer as the years went along. Very few people in this country were raised expecting to be servants. The source of most servants in this country was, and still is, immigration. And, for many years after the civil war, African Americans migrating North, or simply trying to make a living in a still segregated Southern society.

And this gave rise to the “servant problem” – the lack of people willing and suitable to take a service position, and the difficulty of filling vacancies. After all, who, in fact, would want to? Being a personal servant is considered to be very low status. So a footman has much lower status than a waiter, and a chef outranks a cook. A reasonable case can be made for the advantages of living in a well-equipped mansion in a beautiful area, but the traditions of service required that servants live in the least desirable part of the house, in the smallest rooms with the least desirable furniture. If the house had an ocean view, for example, servants lived on the side away from the water.

About 90% of servants were women. Only the largest staffs employed any men. It was understood during the period when servants were prevalent that most domestic employment was “women’s work”. Girls were taught “Home Economics” in school – learning the basics of cleaning, cooking, laundering, table setting, and generally caring for the smooth running of a household.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were three ways of filling a vacancy among the servants. By far the best was a referral from friends, but these were rare. If friends had a good servant, they generally wanted to keep him or her, and of course they would hesitate to refer an unsatisfactory one. A second method was by advertisement in a newspaper, but this resulted in contacts from a variety of persons who needed to be interviewed and have their references reviewed. The final method was to contact an employment agency. Employment agencies specializing in filling service positions were known as “intelligence offices”. Intelligence offices often did their own recruiting and the better ones were often a good source.

The final question I want to deal with is: Where did all this go? Why do we so rarely see homes with servants today? The peak of the servant period was about 1900, when 7% of homes had a full time servant. This was down to 5% in the 1930s, and 2% in the 1950s. Today the proportion is less than 1%. One quick answer is to suggest that labor saving appliances have eliminated the need – in other words, robots have replaced humans. That is part of the answer, but by no means all of it.

Sociology probably holds the rest of the answer. The American dream of the 1950s was a home of one’s own and many of the vast number who returned from overseas were able to achieve that goal. Wives, at that time were expected to be at home raising children, and employing the skills they had learned in their universally taught home economics classes.. Both these ideals (even if not universally achieved) were inconsistent with serving in someone else’s house. No one desired any longer to earn a living by caring for someone else’s family.

Most of us would much rather not have our privacy disturbed by the presence of servants in the house, although we still enjoy being waited on, even if not every night. A restaurant waiter does much the same work as the footman did and receives much higher pay, especially when tips are included. His co-worker in the kitchen, the chef, is much better educated and higher paid than a domestic cook. And many of us still have cleaning women who come in occasionally, and a laundry service. Those who need child care have ways of arranging it. We still have servants, even if we don’t call them that, and their status is much higher.

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