Daily Archives: February 16, 2010

Domestic Servants – Part 1 – Women

Ever wondered what it would have been like to be a domestic?  To slave over your mistress or master in the hopes of earning a few measly pounds a year?  You would have been one among many, that’s for sure.  Nearly every household who could afford the expense employed servants.  Their number was a symbol of social standing with the aristocracy employing as many as fifty while those of the middle class might employ three or four, or as was often the case, only one, most likely a maid of all work.

The Domestic Working Class

In 1806, the number of domestics numbered around 910,000. 110, 000 of them were men.  The first official census was enumerated in 1801, putting us a little off the mark for the 18th century, but the number of total population figures in at approximately 8,892,536 including Wales and England. Greater London during that time had a population of about 900,000.

From estimates dated 1775 to 1801, servants accounted for anywhere between 1 in 10 persons to 1 in every 4.5. But enough about the math!  The population was growing a great deal during the mid to latter part of the 18th century and suffice it to say, domestics accounted for a large class of workers. Their living quarters were modest, their wages low, and the hours miserably long. This especially applied to females because they filled positions modern-day women are familiar with today: “unskilled” housework.  Men were more commonly involved in cultivating and protecting land, husbandry, and attending to luxuries–that is to say, work that required apprenticeship.  Surprise, surprise, right? Curiously, there was a tax instituted in 1776, paid by employers, of one guinea per male servant (the tax was slightly higher for bachelors, slightly lower from families).  The result?  Men were effectively prohibited from doing housework.

Henry Robert Morland – late 18th century

To launder, sew, empty chamber pots, dust, haul water for baths, light fires, and shop–all these duties fell within the realm of women’s work.  Although household positions came with wages, the domestic burden lay upon the female.  Girls, often aged thirteen to fourteen years old, sometimes as young as eleven, were employed as the lowest order of servants: maids. A high turnover rate existed due to innumberable grievances and disputes between domestics and masters, but women could expect to continue working until marriage, typically around the age of 24 or later. Married women, and even more seldomly, married couples, were employed in households.  Many masters also imposed a strict dictate of celibacy, banning boyfriends and any others who might be interested in their female staff. This rule, however, was broken by masters themselves.

Female servants were deemed sexually available to males of the house: masters, their sons, guests, and other servants. These girls, often arriving in London in hordes, were typically farmers’ daughters, more often than not from northern England.  They were naive, young, and desperate for wages. Lucky for them, there were endless ways to offend their employers, including inciting the envy of a wife or mistress.

Domestic Servants and Abuse

While domestics were responsible for their fair share of thievery and dishonety, they lived at the mercy of their masters. Pregnancy was often cause for immediate dismissal. Since gaining employment in another house required a character reference, unresolved disputes resulted in much misery. Those who were fired might face months of unemployment. Worse yet, while those fired were owed wages up to date of dismissal, a servant who quit was owed nothing.

It was an untenable situation for many as their financial outlook was already poor.  Wages could be deducted for breaking a household item, making a mistake, forgoing church, or other offenses such as drunkenness. Grounds for dismissal were myriad: insubordination, dishonesty, theft (guilty or suspected), or merely for the master’s convenience when he and his household traveled abroad.

A Little Frosting on that Cake?

All was not awful, though, as perks did exist.  Housekeepers received leftovers from meals. Ladies maids enjoyed castoffs from their mistresses. Tips or vails were a happy occassion.  Upon departure of guests, domestics would line up in the foyer, eagerly waiting their one shilling. These vails sometimes accounted for half their yearly income, which was rather a lot when most maids rarely made over £10, but the frequency of these perks dwindled by the end of the century. A fortunate domestic might be included in an inheritance, but windfalls were rare. As such, domestics were always on the lookout for the slightest economic opportunity, whether through fair means or foul.  Another popular way to supplement income?  Selling used tea leaves.

While domestics were supplied with room and board, allowances also padded income. These included a predetermined allotment of tea, clothes, and let’s not forget, the benefits of class.   A strict, social hierarchy, much like the ones their employers ascribed to, existed among domestics.  Working for a lord was better than working for a merchant, and even within a household there were superiors and subordinates. The upper eschelons of domestics enjoyed better wages, sat at a separate dining table than their lower peers, and experienced greater privileges than their lower ordered peers.

Hierarchy of Domestic Servants

Upper Order

Companions: Addressed as “Mrs” for the sake of courtesy, these women accompanied their mistresses on whatever excursions the day might require. They were akin to 24 hour on-call friends. Shopping, playing cards, aiding their mistress’ comfort–they did whatever the occasion called for. Companions came from genteel upbringings and possessed a “polite education.” They were versed in music, languange, conversation and the arts.

Waiting Women & Ladies Maids: Also known as abigails, a ladies maid was preferably French, more commonly English. She was responsible for dressing her mistress, caring for her mistress’ clothes, carrying messages, encouraging or discouraging lovers, and accompanying her mistress on errands.

Housekeepers:  Known to be of a certain age, housekeepers were typically mature and had either run her own household or possessed extensive experience in household affairs. She worked alongside a house steward (a male domestic). They bought provisions, dispensed funds as needed, and kept household accounts.  In addition, she was responsible for managing the lower order servants (the maids). One woman would often perform this position in conjunction with another. The most common combination was housekeeper and cook or housekeeper and ladies maid. Paid: £10-20 by the late 1700s.

Cook:  Performed the same duties as the man cook, her male counterpart, but was considered his inferior. Paid: £7-15.

Lower Order

Chambermaids:  Attended to the chambers or rooms. Dusted, swept, made beds, warmed beds, took care of fires, attended dressing room, and cared for windows.

Housemaids: Also known as “spider brushers” from all the dusting they did. They mended garments, made beds, opened windows, tidied, served tea (they were the ones to resell it) washed windows and stairs, polished fireplace fixtures and door looks, and emptied chamber pots.

Nurserymaids: Wet nurses, cared for children

Kitchenmaids: Assisted in kitchen activities.  Through experience, she might become an assistant cook.

Kitchen Maid – Johannes Vermeer – 1658

Maids of all work: See Day in the Life of a Maid of all Work. These maids were employed in even the most impoverished families.

Scullery maids: Lowest of all the servants and typically very young, she assisted the kitchen maids. She also scoured pots, stoves, pans; cleaned vegetables, scrubbed scales off fish, and plucked poultry; provided hot water to the house, lit fires to heat water; cleaned away garbage and debris on floors. She might have cleaned and emptied chamber pots and/or also assisted in watching the cooking of food. She would never touch any luxuries like china or glass.

Scullery Maid – Guiseppe Crespi – 1710-1715

I hope you enjoyed learning about domestic female servants. They were absolutely essential to running a house and since most of us take care of our own household affairs, I think we can sympathize. 

So what kind of servant do you feel like most days? 

And remember to come back later this week for my post on male domestic servants!