Archive for the ‘Servants’ Category

Political worries come back to haunt us

Friday, April 15th, 2016

“This country has reached a very alarming crisis. Torn by two parties…Congress enacting laws it is unable to enforce …only to substitute equally bad ones…”
Sound familiar? I’m know I’m not alone in finding the factionalism in the United States to be frightening, but it comforts me to know that this worry is not unique in time.Factionalism at work in our nation's early days The words above were written by Rosalie Stier Calvert in 1809. Like me, Rosalie is a mother who did most of her work from home in suburban Maryland. But while I would put myself in the “average” category in many areas, Rosalie would fit into the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” category. She was born into a wealthy European family who fled to the United States in 1794 to escape the Reign of Terror. Though they had to leave behind the family castle, townhouse and other property, they brought enough gold to ensure they could live like nobility. Rosalie did not much care for her new home. After a few months, she wrote “America displeases me more and more every day–you meet only scoundrels.” (more…)

Problems Only the Rich Have These Days

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Don’t we feel sorry for the poor troubled aristocratic family in Downton Abbey? Not so much, I think. Because even on their worst days, they never even have to think about taking out the trash or scrubbing crusted food off a dinner plate. They have servants to do those things for them.

Kate Dolan writes about problems with servants

Less than a hundred years ago, even families considered “poor” usually had at least some hired help living in or near the house and assisting with household duties. But today the price of labor has increased so much that it is a true luxury to have help around the house, especially on a full-time basis.

So now most of us can enjoy hearing about problems with servants since we can’t afford them anyway. Jonathan Swift, best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, apparently had a great deal of trouble, either real or imagined, with his household staff. He wrote sarcastic “Directions to Servants” instructing them how to perform their duties as poorly as possible.

Here’s an example: “Masters and Ladies” he says, “are usually quarrelling with the Servants for not shutting the Doors after them: But neither Masters nor Ladies consider that those Doors must be open before they can be shut, and that the Labour is double to open and shut the Doors; therefore the best and shortest, and easiest Way is to do neither.”

Hey, makes sense to me. And it will keep down the heating bills.

I wonder if he had kids in mind when he wrote this next bit of advice, because modern parents can definitely relate. “Never come till you have been called three or four Times;” he advises, “for none but Dogs will come at the first Whistle: And when the Master calls (Who’s there?) no Servant is bound to come; for (Who’s there) is no Body’s Name.”

Another piece of advice that might also apply to teens is how to handle the situation when you’ve been out on an errand and stayed out a little too long (2,4, 6 or 8 hours). He offers a list of excuses such as (1)you had to say goodbye to a dear cousin who is about to be hanged next Saturday; (2) a fellow servant who owed you money was about to run off to Ireland so you had to track him down; (3) you were pressed into service in the navy and it took three hours explaining before the Justice of the Peace why you couldn’t go; (4) your dad gave you a cow to sell; (5) you were told your master was in a tavern so you had to search for him “in a hundred Taverns between Pall-mall and Temple-bar;”or my personal favorite, (6) “Some Nastiness was thrown on you out of a Garret Window, and you were ashamed to come Home before you were cleaned, and the Smell went off:”

While we might have to deal with some lame excuses from our children or employees these days, we do not generally have to worry about being hit with the contents of a chamber pot thrown out someone’s window. And for that, I am grateful, even if it means I live in a day and age where I can’t afford servants.

The Rope-Skipping Governess

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Teachers are often put in a difficult position in today’s society, but I think the situation faced by their historical counterparts was often much worse. A governess brought into a home to teach girls and younger boys was expected to be everything but was treated as nothing.

To begin with, according to a servants’ guide published in 1826, any candidate for a governess position had to be “respectable and well-educated.”  That education was supposed to include the ability to  write a “graceful” letter, speak fluent French and have some familiarity with Italian. (The language, not the food.) She should play piano well enough to give lessons, and preferably play harp and guitar as well. She should be able to teach the elements of fashionable dance and “not be ignorant of” arithmetic. (It seems clear that dance was considered more important to the female education than math, however.)  “Of course” the governess was expected to be an expert in all types of needlework, and she should also know geography, popular sciences and literature. And she should be an expert in drawing, as well, because it was “so essential” for the young ladies to achieve proficiency in this skill in order to be considered “accomplished.”

The governess probably would not be attired quite as fashionably as this, but she would be training young ladies who would need to be prepared physically and mentally, to wear this sort of monstrosity

The governess probably would not be attired quite as fashionably as this, but she would be training young ladies who would need to be prepared, both physically and mentally, to wear this sort of monstrosity. Perhaps the recommendation for weight training is not so surprisingly after all…

Nevertheless, the expertise of the governess should be doled out in limited increments so as not to weary their pupils too much. (more…)

Chores I will Never Do

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Servants on Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs may have hard lives, but they rarely seem to work hard. A real servant’s life had a lot less drama and a lot more work. On her first day as a maid in 1925, Rose Plummer did more than I do in a year.

Kate Dolan pictures from Downton Abbey

Costumes from Downton Abbey. The maids in the background had it easy compared to a “maid of all work” like Rose


Just after her fifteenth birthday, Rose’s mother announced that it was time for her to go into service.  She was to be a “maid of all work” so her job was not as specialized as that of the servants in a bigger house like Downton Abbey.  When she arrived, the first job she was assigned was to “whiten” the steps. She scrubbed the stone steps at the front of the house with water and then whitened them with a stone block. This needed to be done every day. I can tell you with a straight face that I never once considered scrubbing any stone outside my house though I did once sweep the stairs a few years ago.

Rose was also supposed to scrub the six flights of servants’ stairs, but first she had to help the cook in the kitchen. When the cook heard the lady of the house coming to discuss the day’s meals, she warned Rose to disappear, and so she sat in the pantry until it was “safe” to come out. Thus she learned that while doing the duties of a scullery maid, she wasn’t supposed to be seen by the family.

However, because the household staff was very small, Rose also had to serve the food, so in that role she was allowed to be seen—sort of. She had been instructed that she was never allowed to turn her back to the family, so when leaving a room she had to back out.

“The ideal,” she explains, “was that you sort of floated out like a fairy.” But the problem was that on her first day, she hadn’t yet mastered the art. She backed into the door and slammed her tray with a tremendous thud. Fortunately, at this point she had become invisible to her employer again. The lady of the house carried on her conversation at the table doing everything in her power to discourage her guests from noticing the clumsy servant.

Other than scrubbing seven flights of stairs and serving meals, Rose also had to chop food for the midday meal (which was “lunch” for the employers and “dinner” for the staff) and scrub pans with sand and vinegar. She rubbed the sand around in vinegar with her hands until the pans were clean. Knives and forks were rubbed with sand and oil and plates were cleaned with leftover bits of soap sloshed in a dishpan of water. I’d never really appreciated dish detergent before, but I must say I am grateful that I don’t have to wash dishes with sand. Rose’s hands were raw and bleeding long before the end of her first day. She notes that many unfortunate maids’ hands got so bad that they were unable to work and they had to be sent home where they were considered a burden to their families.

In the afternoon, Rose scrubbed more stairs until it was time to help prepare the evening meal (“dinner” for the lady of the house and “tea” for the servants). She was chewed out for not changing into her “afternoon” uniform. (Even in the less traditional households in the U.S., etiquette books still dictated the proper color for maids uniforms for morning and afternoon.)  She served the dinner and helped prepare tea for the small staff. They had only the cook, herself and a small boy known as “The Boots” who, like Harry Potter, slept in a cupboard under the stairs. (“But the stairs were so big it actually wasn’t such a bad room in a way,” Rose reflected.) During meals, The Boots sat on a stool rather than a chair like the others, and he had to clean Rose’s shoes. The lady of the house wanted hierarchy with her meager staff just as in the grand houses like Downton Abbey.

Rose literally fell asleep on her feet while washing dishes that night. And she said that they had given her light duties the first day—many of her later days were much more demanding. But more than the physical labor, it was the attitude of her employer that seemed to bother Rose the most about working as a servant. She was not trusted to be given a hot water bottle at first, presumably because her employer thought she might steal it. She couldn’t be seen in the kitchen in the mornings. She was even told how to spend her time during the one-half day that she was off work each week.

So as much as I sometimes resent cleaning the house, I need to remind myself of two things. First, when I wash dishes my hands come out lemony fresh from dish detergent rather than like pickled sandpaper. And second, the kids and dogs who make most of the mess in the house never make me back out of the room after I’ve finished serving them dinner.

Information in this article came from The Maid’s Tale:  Life Below Stairs as it Really Was by Rose Plummer (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)

Job description: make weird wine

Friday, June 21st, 2013

England actually had a warm enough climate to grow wine grapes during the middle ages. Whether the wine would have been drinkable by today’s standards is unknown, but as the climate cooled during the “Little Ice Age” (from about 1350 to 1850), the British could not feasibly produce good wine from grapes. But that did not stop them from making wine.gooseberry

There are scores of recipes for wine made from just about anything other than wine grapes. In the extensive Complete Servant guide that I’ve been examining (first published in 1825), among the housekeeper’s duties are not only “improving” wine (see Wine Repair) but also making it. (more…)

The butler did what?

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Why is Downton Abbey so popular? I think one big reason is the way the show explores the dynamics between the privileged upper class family and their evolving crew of servants. It wasn’t that long ago that even the middle class considered “help” a necessity in running a household. Comfortable transportation such as a horse drawn carriage, on the other hand, was a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. The situation is reversed today–most families could not imagine functioning without at least one car, but would never conceive of hiring someone to help with cooking or polishing silver. So we can’t conceive what it would be like to have servants there all the time, part of your life like a family and yet so very removed.

Kate Dolan explores the duties of servants starting with the butler

I think she’s telling him the cook makes more money than he does

I’m going to explore the duties of servants like those at Downton Abbey who don’t really exist anymore. The great house that “plays” Downton Abbey on the show, Highclere Castle, still employs a butler, but  he manages tourism more than anything else these days.  Because my real interest is in Georgian and Regency eras rather than Victorian or later periods, I’m starting with 18th  and early 19th Century servants’ guides. So exact duties may not be just as seen in the later era, at least as depicted on TV.The butler is the first position addressed in the Directions for Men-Servants published in London in 1764. However, though he is listed first, he is not really described as the one who sets the tone for the household, as Mr. Carson does on Downton Abbey. His listed duties, in fact, make him something of a glorified security guard and bartender.  His first job is to manage the “plate,” that is, the silver. He must keep it locked up, not tell strangers where it is kept, and never send other strangers to fetch it when wanted, but bring it out himself and lock it up when finished, keeping the key in his pocket at all times.

His other duty is to guard the wine and liquor with similar care, and make sure wine glasses are clean. The rest of the “directions” explain the care to be used in wiping the glasses and polishing the silver, with instructions on pouring ale and wine. That’s it. I think I’m going to apply for this job. Either the rest of his duties were so understood at this time period that they did not require instruction or the butler was simply a trusted retainer who didn’t have to do a whole lot.

So was the housekeeper’s position just as easy? Not by a long shot. Of course the duties aren’t listed in the guide for men-servants, but neither is the position described in Hannah Glasse’s 1742 Servant’s Directory.  She is, however, described in Samuel Adam’s The Complete Servant of 1826.  According the recommended pay scale, the housekeeper is the highest paid female employee, but still earns less than the butler or coachman and one other male servant. The Adams guide gives 142 pages for the instruction of the housekeeper (compared to just 21 pages for the butler) dealing with everything from grocery shopping and butchery to making candy, perfumes, preserves and wine (yes, it was that important).

The butler’s duties in this later guide still seem to center around wine (I now understand Carson’s obsession with the pudding wine glasses) and he is still listed first among male servants. However, he is not the highest paid. That honor falls to the “French man-cook” who makes 60% more than the butler, more than three times the salary of housekeeper. I don’t know how much of the high salary is proportionate to being French, but I’d say if I was a cook, it would be worth learning to fake the accent.  So watch for that somewhere along the line in one of my future stories, where the French “man-cook” will be unmasked as a fake.

Next time– the footmen!


Information in this article came from:

Directions for Men-Servants: How to Discharge their Duty with Fidelity, and acquire the Good Will of their Masters (London: Paternoster Row, 1764).

Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant: Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants (London: Knight & Lacey, 1825)

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