One day last week, my mail included flyers for three different maid services. Another one arrived yesterday. While such solicitations are not unknown, I don’t recall ever receiving so many in a short period. My guess is cleaning services have decided that the hassle and overwork of the holiday season will persuade desperate housewives that they need help.
Naturally, my thoughts turned to life in the Good Old Days. (Isn’t that true for everyone when they toss junk mail? <G>)
Romances set in the ever popular Regency period are stuffed with lords and ladies—there are enough fictional dukes to fill Yankee Stadium and then some. Since America Europe London
But the reality is that if we go back two hundred years, most of us woule be agricultural laborers, prostitutes, or servants. My ancestors certainly weren’t elevated. (Actually, they were stubborn dissenters who came to America
The life of an agricultural laborer was backbreaking and involved long, long hours in all weather. Chilblains, lung fever, and the rheumatics were likely. Being a servant was also backbreaking and involved long hours, but at least most servants worked inside and were supplied with room, board, and clothing. With luck, the servant would get a half day off a week.
Great houses had masses of servants—Blenheim, home of the Dukes of Marlborough, had eighty indoor servants and a hundred outdoors. In such large establishments, the servants had a hierarchy of their own, with senior staff such as housekeepers, land stewards, house stewards, the mistress’s lady’s maid and the master’s valet. These superior individuals might even have servants of their own, and they often had “perks” that could increase their income. Lady’s maids and valets were often given worn clothing from their masters, which could be sold or kept for their own use. Cooks could sell fat and dripping, butlers got the candle ends. (And sometimes these servants ran fiddles that increased their incomes at their masters’ expense.)
The wonderful British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, portrayed this dual social structure in the Edwardian period, but most servants did not work in such prosperous establishments. More modest households would have one or two servants, usually female. At least three servants were considered necessary to cover all the bases—a cook, a housemaid, and a male servant to do outside work, deliver messages, and perhaps act as a groom.
Male servants were more expensive and more prestigious, and the more men you had working for you, the prosperous you would appear. Some more pretentious households would resort to dressing outdoor servants as footmen on grand occasions so that it would appear that the family had more footmen.
The hardest position of all—and the most common—was the maid of all work. She was responsible for just about everything: housecleaning (this in the days before one could buy cleaning polish or stain remover), kitchen work, laundry work, helping the mistress with dressing—anything that needed doing.
Servants were expected to be “moral” (in other words, they couldn’t mess around like their betters). For this they might receive five or six guineas a year. They generally had to be Protestant, preferably Church of England. Some employers would ask "church or chapel?" at interviews. If you said "chapel"–that is, you were a disserter who attended a chapel to worship with the Baptists or some other small group, you might not get the job.
A fine reference book for Regency servants is The Complete Servant: Regency life below stairs, by Samuel & Sarah Adams, Butler
The Complete Servant covers the duties of all classes of servants and includes recipes for food and cleaning materials, among other things. A scullery maid, for example, had to rise before dawn to start the kitchen fires, and was responsible for scrubbing all the kitchen utensils, all day long. She also must assist the kitchen maid in preparing food (peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables, etc.), clean the rooms of higher servants, scrub the front steps, make the beds of the stable men. In return for non-stop work and plenty of heavy lifting, she made the munificent sum of five to ten guineas a year.
Of course, not all servants were as meek and biddable as their masters would have liked. (“The servant problem!”) Men were particularly likely to be stroppy, and since they had more employment choices and were more prestigious, they could command higher wages. The satirist Jonathan Swift worked as a footman in his youth, and he later wrote a book about being in service. I can’t find my copy of his book, but one suspects his tongue was firmly in his cheek when he said that it wasn’t good to lock the cat in the china pantry so it would break the mistress’ s plates.
As the 19th century wore on, the number of male servants dropped even as the population grew. The industrial revolution created more jobs for both men and women, but it was WWI that really changed domestic service. Men and women who left service to do war work seldom went back.
Which is why I’m now getting flyers from cleaning services. <g> A good cleaning lady is a blessing, and a smart householder knows to be grateful!
Mary Jo, who thinks washing machines and vacuum cleaners are great inventions.