Posts Tagged ‘servants’

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.

Much more than Downton

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Did I want to see costumes from Downton Abbey? That was the question a friend asked me a few weeks ago. And the answer was, well, um, sort-of. If they were right in front of my face, I wouldn’t close my eyes. But I couldn’t imagine driving 90 miles out of the way to see them. Winterthur Downton 1However, since she offered to do the driving and she’d already paid for tickets, I decided to go. It turned out to be one of the better decisions I’d made in quite a while.
The Costumes of Downton Abbey at Winterthur is a beautifully crafted exhibit with much to please fans of the popular British drama as well as those interested in period clothes and costuming. But it is so much more. The exhibit explores life in wealthy English and American households during the first third of the 20th Century, with a particular emphasis on the role of various servants. And it contrasts life in the well-known fictional British grand house with the actual life in an American mansion, the Winterthur estate owned by the DuPont family on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware.

The exhibit begins with life at Downton Abbey as it would be in the house at 6 a.m. in the year 1912. A larger than life video projection from the TV series shows the servants rising wearily to start their morning chores. Visitors have chance to ring a bell via the old pulley system to call for a particular servant. In the American estate of Winterthur at the same time period, however, servants were called with an electric push button. And they were not just any buttons, either– many were elaborately decorated with gold and jewels. Visitors to the exhibit have the opportunity push one of the electric call buttons, too, but we don’t get to try one of the jeweled variety.

These are actually electric call buttons for servants

These are actually electric call buttons for servants

The difference in the use of technology between the British and American reflects a completely different philosophical outlook on the grand house in general. In the Britain, the emphasis in the great houses was (and still is) on the family, the ancestry and tradition. The present lord is really only a caretaker in a line of succession that matters more than any one individual. By contrast, the focus in an American great house of the period is on the achievement of the man who built the house. His taste, his accomplishments and his interests dominate everything from construction to décor.

Just as the British house was passed from generation to generation, so too the manners both upstairs and downstairs were passed down from superiors to their inferiors. The American occupants of great houses, however, might have risen from a lower strata in society relatively quickly. Americans tended to rely on guidebooks to tell them how to behave and what their servants should be doing and wearing. Emily Post’s Etiquette is quoted throughout the exhibit.

Dinner in both types of houses would be a grand affair. But breakfast was decidedly different. In the British houses, generally only married women or invalids took breakfast on a tray in their rooms—everyone else was expected to gather at the breakfast table and be social. In the American house, however, all guests and family members received menu cards the night before and ordered what they would like to have delivered to their rooms, just like room service at a hotel.Winterthur breakfast This system of ordering breakfast with a menu card was so common that when the DuPonts were visiting at another home, their friends made up an elaborate joke version of the menu card, offering bromo-seltzer as a first course and bourbon as an alternative to coffee.

I enjoyed the exhibit and tour so much that I became I member so I could go back and learn more. The Costumes of Downton Abbey gave me glimpses into other lives in societies that are so close and yet so far from our own. I hope to see a bit more.

And I will share more, too. My next posts will focus on costuming and clothing of the early 20th Century and the strange aggregation that is Winterthur.