Domestic Servants (1861)
From Walter L. Arnstein, The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in British History, Volume II: Since 1688 (D. C. Heath and Company: Lexington, Massachusetts, 1993), 176-178. Women who worked for pay in Victorian Britain were most likely to be employed as domestic servants. In her bible for homemakers, The Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton outlines the duties of both servants and their mistresses.
The custom of “society” is to abuse its servants: a facon de parler such
as leads their lords and masters to talk of the weather, and, when ruefully inclined, of the crops, leads matronly ladies, and ladies just entering on their probation in that honored and honorable state, to talk of servants, and, as we are told, wax eloquent over the greatest plague in life while taking a quiet cup of tea.... It is a conviction of ”society” that the race of good servants has died out, at least in England, although they do order these things better in France; that there is neither honesty, conscientiousness, nor the careful and industrious habits which distinguished the servants of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers; that domestics no longer know their place; that the introduction of cheap silks and cottons, and, still more recently, those ambiguous ”materials” and tweeds, have removed the landmarks between the mistress and her maid, between the master and his man.
CHOICE OF SERVANTS.–When the distinction really depends on things so insigniﬁcant as dress, when the lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tournure of calf, it is not surprising that she should ﬁnd a domestic who has no attachment for the family, who considers the ﬁgure he cuts behind her carriage, and the late hours he is compelled to keep, a full compensation for the wages he exacts, for the food he wastes, and for the perquisites he can lay his hands on. Nor should the fast young man, who chooses his groom for his knowingness in the ways of the turf and in the tricks of low horse-dealers, be surprised if he is sometimes the victim of these learned ways. But these are the exceptional cases, which prove the existence of a better state of things. The great masses of society among us are not thus deserted: there are few families of respectability, from the shopkeeper in the next street to the nobleman whose mansion digniﬁes the next square, which do not contain among their dependents attached and useful servants; and where these are absent altogether, there are good reasons for it.
MASTERS AND MISTRESSES.-It has been said that good masters and mistresses make good servants, and this to a great extent is true. There are certainly some men and women in the wide ﬁeld of servitude whom it would be impossible to train into good servants, but the conduct of both master and mistress is seldom without its eﬀect upon these dependents. They are not mere machines, and no one has a right to consider them in that light. The sensible master and the kind mistress know, that if servants depend on them for their means of living, in their turn they are dependent on their servants for very many of the comforts of life; and that, using a proper amount of care in choosing servants, treating the like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses for the shortcomings of human nature, they will, save in some exceptional cases, be tolerably well served, and, in most instances, surround themselves with attached domestics....
WOMEN SERVANTS are specially likely to be inﬂuenced by their mistress’s treatment of them, and yet we venture to assert that good mistresses are rarer than good masters, so many of the former lacking consideration for their servants.
In many cases they do not give them the help which it is their duty to aﬀord. A timely hint or even a few words of quiet reproof may be lacking when needed, and still more so the kind words and the deserved praise for work well and carefully done. It a fact that we must take some trouble with our servants. The wheels of domestic machinery will not run well without constant care. There is no necessity for a mistress to be continually fussing round and superintending her servants’ work, but she must ﬁrst make sure that they do it thoroughly and well. Also she must take time and pains to show her domestics how she likes the work done....
THE NUMBER OF MEN-SERVANTS IN A FAMILY varies according to the wealth and position of the master, from the owner of the ducal mansion, with a retinue of attendants, at the head of which is the chamber- lain and house-steward, to the occupier of the humbler house, where a single footman, or even the odd man-of-all-work, is the only male retainer. The ma jority of gentlemen’s establishments probably comprise a servant out of livery, or butler, a footman and coachman, or coachman and groom, where the horses exceed two or three.
To a certain extent the number of menservants kept is regulated by the number of women servants, this statement, of course, not applying to such out-door servants as coachman, groom, or gardener.
Occasionally a parlor-maid is kept instead of a second footman, or a kitchen or scullery-maid does the work in the way of boot-cleaning, etc., that would fall to a third footman or page. A man cook is now more rarely to be found in private service than formerly, women having found it expedient to bring their knowledge of the culinary art more to the level of the chef; while in many cases those who have a talent for cooking have risen superior to him both in the way they ﬂavor and serve the various dishes that call for skill and taste....
THE FIRST DUTY OF THE HOUSEMAID in winter is to open the shutters of all the lower rooms in the house, and take up the hearthrugs in those rooms which she is going to ”do” before breakfast. in some families, where there are only a cook and housemaid kept, and where the drawing- rooms are large, the cook has the care of the dining room, and the housemaid that of the breakfast-room, library and drawing-rooms. After the shutters are all opened, she sweeps the breakfast-room dust toward the ﬁreplace, of course previously removing the fender. She should then lay a cloth (generally made of coarse wrappering over the carpet in front of the stove, and on this should place her housemaid’s box, containing black-lead brushes, leathers, emery paper, cloth, black-lead, and all utensils necessary for cleaning a grate, with the cinder-pail on the other side. She now sweeps up the ashes, and deposits them in her cinder-pail, which is a japanned tin pail, with a wire sifter inside, and a closely-ﬁtting top. In this pail the cinders are sifted, and reserved for use in the kitchen or under the copper, the ashes only being thrown away. The cinders disposed of, she proceeds to black-lead the grate, producing the black lead, the soft brush for laying it on, her blacking and polishing brushes, from the box which contains her tools. The housemaid’s box should be kept well stocked. Having blackened, brushed and polished every part, and made all clean and bright, she now proceeds to lay the ﬁre. Sometimes it is very diﬃcult to get a proper polish to black grates, particularly if they have been neglected and allowed to rust at all. But later on we give recipes for treating them that will be found useful.
Bright grates require unceasing attention to keep them in perfect or- der. A day should never pass without the housemaid rubbing with a dry leather the polished parts of a grate, as also the fender and ﬁre-irons. A careful and attentive housemaid should have no occasion ever to use emery- paper for any part but the bars, which, of course, become blacked by the ﬁre. (Some mistresses, to save labor, have a double set of bars, one set bright for the summer, and another black set to use when ﬁres are in requisition.)
The several ﬁres lighted, the housemaid proceeds with her dusting, and polishing the several pieces of furniture in the breakfast-parlor, leaving no comer unvisited. Before sweeping the carpet, it is a good practice to sprinkle it all over with tealeaves, which not only lay all dust, but give a slightly fragrant smell to the room. it is now in order for the reception of the family, and where there is neither footman or parlor-maid, she now proceeds to the dressing-room, and lights her mistress’s ﬁre, if she is in the habit of having one to dress by. Her mistress is called, hot water placed in the dressing-room for her use, her clothes-as far as they are under the housemaid’s charge-put before the ﬁre, hanging a ﬁre-guard on the bars where there is one, while she proceeds to prepare the breakfast....
BEDROOM WORK.-Breakfast served, the housemaid proceeds to the bed-chambers, throws up the sashes, if not already done, pulls up the blinds, throwing back the curtains at the same time, and opens the beds, by removing the clothes, placing them over a horse, or failing that, over the backs of chairs. She now proceeds to empty the slops. In doing this, everything is emptied into the slop-pail, leaving a little scaldinghot water for a minute in vessels that require it; adding a drop of turpentine to the water, when that is not suﬃcient to cleanse them. The basin is emptied, well rinsed with clean water, and carefully wiped; the ewers emptied and washed; ﬁnally, the water- jugs themselves emptied out and rinsed, and wiped dry. As soon as this is done, she should remove and empty the pails, taking care that they also are well washed, scalded and wiped as soon as they are empty. Next follows bed-making, at which one of the other servants usually assists; but, before beginning, velvet chairs, or other things injured by dust, should be removed to another room. In bed-making, the fancy of its occupant should be consulted: some like beds sloping from the top toward the feet, swelling slightly in the middle; others, perfectly ﬂat; a good housemaid will accommodate each bed to the taste of the sleeper, taking care to shake, beat and turn it well in the process. Some persons prefer sleep the mattress; in which case a feather bed is usually beneath, resting on a second tress, and a straw palliasse at the bottom.
In this case, the mattresses should change places daily; the feather bed placed on a second matress, and a straw palliasse at the bottom. mattress shaken, beaten, taken up and opened several times, so as thoroughly to separate the feathers; if too large to be thus handled, the maid should shake and beat one end ﬁrst, and then the other, smoothing it afterward equally all over into the required shape, and place the mattress gently over it. Any feathers which escape in this process a tidy servant will put back through the seam of the tick; she will also be careful to sew up any stitch that gives way the moment it is discovered. The bed-clothes an laid on, beginning with an under blanket and sheet, which are tucked under the mattress at the bottom. The bolster is then beaten and shaken, and put on, the top of the sheet rolled round it, and the sheet tucked in all round. The pillows and other bed-clothes follow, and the counterpane over all, which should fall in graceful folds and at equal distance from the ground all round. The curtains are drawn to the head and folded neatly across the bed, and the whole ﬁnished in a smooth and graceful manner. Where spring mattresses are used care should be taken that the over one 1, turned every day. The housemaid should now take up in a dustpan any pieces that may be on the carpet; she should dust the room, shut the door, and proceed to another room. When all the bedrooms are ﬁnished, she should dust the stairs and polish the hand-rail of the banisters, and see that all ledges, window-sills, etc., are quite free from dust. Her husband is a ﬁne spinner, at Mr.-, where he has been from 1816, has ﬁve children. Her eldest daughter, now going on fourteen, has been her father’s piecer for three years. At her present age, her labor is worth 4s. 6d. a week, and has been worth as much for these last four months; before, it was worth less. At present her husband’s earnings and her daughter’s together amount to about 25s. a week-at least she sees no more than 25s. a week’; and before his daughter could piece for him, and when he had to pay for a piecer in her stead, he only brought home 19s. or 20s. a week. Rent of house, 3s. 6d. a week.
Breakfast is generally porridge, bread and milk, lined with ﬂour or oatmeal. On Sunday, a sup of tea and bread and butter.-Dinner, on week days, potatoes and bacon, and bread, which is generally white. On a Sunday, a little ﬂesh meat; no butter, egg, or pudding.- Tea-time tea, and bread and butter: nothing extra on Sunday at tea.-Supper, oatmeal porridge and milk; sometimes potatoes and milk Sunday, sometimes a little bread and cheese for supper: never have this on week days Now and then buys eggs when they are as low as a halfpenny apiece, and fries them to bacon.
They never taste any other vegetables than potatoes; never use any beer or spirits; now and then may take a gill of beer when ill, which costs a penny. Perhaps she and her husband may have two gills a week. Her husband never drinks any beer or spirits that she knows of beyond this. The house consists of four rooms, two on each ﬂoor; the furniture consists of two beds in the same room, one for themselves, the other for the children; have four chairs, one table in the house, boxes to put clothes in, no chest of drawers, two pans and a tea kettle for boiling, a gridiron and frying-pan, half-a-dozen large and small plates, four pair of knives and forks, several pewter spoons. They subscribe Id. a week for each child to a funeral society’ for the children. Two of the children go to school at 3d. a week each: they are taught reading for this, but not writing. Have a few books, such as a Bible, hymn-book, and several small books that the children have got as prizes at the Sunday School. Four children go to Stott’s Sunday School.
QUESTION. Does your daughter, who pieces for her father, seem much fatigued when she comes home at night?
ANSWER. No, she does not seem much fatigued. She is coming of an age that perhaps she may be. She has a good appetite. Hears her complain of headache sometimes; does not hear her complain of not sleeping.
Q. Do you think that people in your own way of life, spinners and such like, and their families, are better oﬀ than yourselves, or worse oﬀ, or just about the same?
A. Well, some’s better, some’s worse, some’s the same. It is according to their work-whether they work upon ﬁne or coarse work.
Q. I want to know whether the most are like oﬀ to yourselves. Now, at Mr.-mill, are most of the parents of children as well oﬀ, or better oﬀ, than yourself ?
A. Well, they are most of them at his mill as well oﬀ as we ourselves, because it is one of the best mills in the town. There is not many better than his. In answer to questions concerning herself, she said she should be forty years old on Whitsun Monday: that at fourteen years old she began frame- tenting, and worked at it for two years every day, from six in the morning till eight in the evening-some times from half-past ﬁve in the morning She then went to stretching, at which she worked till twenty-ﬁve years old: at that she worked fourteen hours a day regularly every day. At twenty-ﬁve years old she married, and has staid at home ever since. Her father was a bleacher, her mother a spinner Has eight brothers and sisters; but can can’t give no idea whether her brothers and sisters are bigger or less than her parents, be- cause her mother took them all away to America when she was a child.
Q. Should you say you were as healthy a woman now, as if you had not been a frame tenter or a stretcher?
A. Well, I don’t know but what I am. I have not my health very well at present. I do not know that work injured it.
Q. How many diﬀerent mills were you in when you were young?
A. In four mills. Has heard diﬀerent language at some from others; some very bad some very well. A child may pick up much bad in mills. Better
to put a child in a mill than let it run in the streets; it won’t get as much harm in a mill.
Q. Do girls run a chance of being bad by living in mills; in short, to be unchaste?
A. I can’t say. I never see’d nothing of bad wherever I worked. It is
according to their own endeavors a good deal.