The Servant’s Directory

WomonbookHi, here's Jo.

No, that's not me, but it's a cheeky bit of clip art, isn't it? It seems to be my season to revisit or buy research books. I can't remember where this one was mentioned — it might have been here — but I purchased The Servant's Directory, or House-Keeper's companion etc by Hannah Glass. It's a POD facsimile from ECCO, the Eighteenth Century Collection Online. Glasse

I can't recommend buying this book for two reasons. One is that it throws little light on the roles of servants in the 18th century, being mostly recipes and instructions for cleaning. The other is that in 400+ pages only about 80 are useful text. The rest of the pages are blank forms for various household records. These may well have been useful for an 18th century housekeeper, and if they had been filled out, could be interesting now, but as it stands, not.

I complained to the Book Depository  (an exellent place to buy books, and which ships around the world for free) saying I was returning it for a refund. They made the refund and told me to keep it, so I still have it to comment on.

As a side note, I think ECCO should take a little more care with their cover illustrations. I bought an 18th century travel book which had a Victorian illustration. This one has what looks to me like a 16th century Dutch picture.

However, here are notes on the servants.

The Chamber-Maid

I thought a chamber maid was closer to the house maid below, but I found some clarification in Swift's satirical description of servants' duties. Apparently if working for a family of considerable estate the duties differ from those of the house maid. I wouldn't have thought Glasse was writing of such a family, but it's another puzzle from the past.

This section is mostly instructions for caring for her lady's clothing, some of which could be useful to an author when it comes to washing silk stockings and such.

You might be interested in this warning about hair. "If you cut it in the decline of the moon, it will all come off your head, and on the contrary, cut but the ends of your hair in the increase of the moon, and it will grow thick and prevent its falling off."

The House-Maid.

An odd thing here is the instruction to have very clean feet, "that you may not dirty your rooms as soon as cleaned, nor make any noise…" The house maid went barefoot?

There's quite a bit of detail about lighting fires and cleaning and caring for hearths followed by a routine of cleaning carpets, curtains, woodwork, stairs etc etc. No rest for the house-maid!

The Landry-Maid (sic)

Mistress Glasse says that every girl knows how to wash, being taught by her mother, but does give some suggestions for improving ease of washing.

The Nursery-Maid

Glasse says that the care of children requires a book, and recommends The Young Married Lady's Companion, or Nursery-Maid's Directory. I can't find this on line.

The Scullion

There's no description of duties at all, but instructions for cleaning pewter, tin, copper etc. There is a long section on collecting the drips cleaned off candles and making cakes of them to sell to the tallow chandler. We should remember how little waste they tolerated back then.

Thus ends the servants' section on page 67.

At the end, we have calculation tables and details of weights and measures, which illuminate how complex and variable the 18th century world was. For example, a firkin of butter is 56lbs, but a firkin of bacon is 64lbs.

These days a stone = 14lbs, but in these tables a stone of iron is 14lbs, but a stone of butcher's meat is 8!

At the very end there are some details of charges for traveling on the river, and some on coach routes, but these pages aren't well copied and the coach routes would need a lot of extra study to really understand them.

As with most primary sources, the useful pages of this book raise questions, but they also give a window into the organization and complexity of life in the past.

Do you like much attention paid to servants in a historical romance? Do you enjoy a book where a principal character is a servant, or is pretending to be one?

My taste is for servants to be portrayed accurately, but I'm happy enough for them to be well in the background in most fictional creations, with the exception of the sort of lady's maid or valet who is also a close companion, as many were.