Anne here. Recently Joanna blogged about what a Regency-era maid would wear, and last year Nicola blogged about the life of a lady's maid. I, on the other hand am pondering the development of what used to be called "the servant problem" and reflecting on where we are with that today.
Rich people have always had servants. Back in the Regency, even mildly well-off people kept at least one or two servants. A young bachelor living in "digs" rented rooms would still probably have a manservant or valet, and his landlady would undoubtedly have a cook and an army of maids to keep the building clean.
There's a passage in Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child that has always amused me. Young Lord Sheringham, having eloped with a childhood friend, rejects the magnificence of his family town house and instead rents a house in Half Moon Street. (That's a photo of Half Moon St I took some years ago.)
The matter of staff is then discussed with the family man of business:
"Finally, it was decided that a cook, a butler, two abigails and a page-boy or footman should, in addition to his lordship's man, her ladyship's personal maid, a coachman, two grooms and the Tiger, be sufficient to ensure the young couple a moderate degree of comfort."
Yes, seven indoor servants and four for the horses should do it.
However over time, as the industrial revolution kicked in, offering more employment opportunities to the working classes, and large houses became more and more expensive to run, servants became more expensive to keep. WW1 in particular, put a big dent in the availability — and willingness— of people to be servants.
Even here, in Melbourne, Australia, the pinch was felt. A school I used to work in was one of a number of schools established in the 1920's (by the government) as a Girls' Domestic Arts School. It was aimed to overcome 'the servant problem' — the shortage of well trained, cheap servants that happened after the war. The idea was that the daughters of the working classes would be trained in housework and work as servants until they were married, when they would then raise a clean and decent family. The girls (who no doubt did most of the housework at home anyway) were to be given a thorough training in the domestic arts, as well as a basic school curriculum. Note the domestic maid style of uniforms worn by the girls in the pic. Quite Victorian looking.
The hidden flaw in this plan to enable the rich matrons of Melbourne to get themselves well-trained servants was the selection of the teaching staff. Only unmarried single women were allowed to teach in those days, and many of the well educated spinsters employed in these schools had no intention of training clever girls for a future of domestic drudgery. Career women themselves, they were ambitious for their students, and as well as a thorough grounding in domestic arts, they gave the girls the kind of academic education that would enable them to have careers. Rather than a training ground for servants for the rich, these schools developed a reputation for academic excellence.
The "servant problem" worsened after WW2, as education became more widespread and more and more jobs were available that didn't involve people being subservient. Servants became more and more something only the very rich could afford. The mildly well-off had to make do with a daily or weekly "help" and most domestic work fell to wives and daughters.
As we all know, the growth of "working wives" meant many women did two jobs. My mother was a teacher, working full-time, and caring in the evening for a husband and four children. When I was born, no replacement for her was sent to the country school where she worked, and so she went back to school — with me in a bassinette. And fifty kids in a classroom. She ran herself ragged, my mother, as did so many women of that era — as do so many women still do today.
These days, we're starting to come full circle, and I'm wondering if the servant problem has finally been solved. While few of us have actual servants, there is a huge growth industry in the kind of jobs that servants used to do; house cleaning, washing, ironing, gardening, mowing, window-washing — the specialist areas are multiplying. Even cookery — so many people nowadays buy take-out or pre-prepared meals delivered to their door or purchased in supermarkets, whether for special diets or simple convenience.
Recently I bumped into one of the girls I used to teach at that former Domestic Arts High School (which, by the way, no longer teaches domestic arts.) She now has her own thriving business — a cleaning business that employs more than thirty people. I thought those old-time teachers would approve. It's a sign of the times.
As for me, I don't have anyone doing my chores for me, apart from my butler, Dwayne.
Dwayne? He's a one-trick butler, but he's essential to my peace of mind. He lives in my phone and says "No-one is available to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone." I couldn't do without Dwayne.
What about you — do you have any kind of domestic help? And if you could have any kind of help you wanted, which would you choose?