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!

35 thoughts on “Domestic Servants – Part 1 – Women

  1. Thank you so much for posting this article!!!! I’m doing a research on maids and was wondering which period would be most interesting. I was thinking about focusing on the 19th century but after reading your article I’m taking the 18th century into consideration. Do you have any books you could recommend?

    1. I recently read somewhere (kicking myself for not writing down the reference!) that Irish maids were considered unhireable by the English in the 18th century. A fascinating indication of social prejudice, but one domestics during that time confronted constantly. As I understand, junebugger, maids were truly at the mercies of their masters and yet were gaining more autonomy, some even going so far as to verbally express their opinions, a taboo among domestics. But employment was relatively easy to find as the gentry and middle classes were growing and wanted nothing more than to emulate the aristos. As such, women came from the country in droves, attending hiring fairs (mops) or responding to newspaper advertisements/servant registries.

      DAILY LIFE IN THE 18th CENTURY ENGLAND by Kirstin Olson has some interesting references to maids, including wages and positions. If you’re interested in fiction for perspective, PAMELA by Samuel Richardson was a wildly successful novel published in 1740 chronicling the life of lady’s maid. I also believe LIFE IN GEORGIAN ENGLAND by E.N. Williams (may be hard to find) has a chapter on lower-class life, including maids. Google books has quite an assortment also. Check out Amanda Vickery, Carolyn Steedman (includes 19th century) and David E. Hussey (BUYING FOR THE HOME…).

      Hope that gives you a good start! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post and apologize for the late-coming response.

      1. Hi Susan, Your article is amazing and I am so fortunate to have stumbled upon it now, as I am acting in a Restoration scene from the play ‘The way of the world’ by william congreves. My character is ‘Foible’ Lady in waiting to ‘Lady Wishfort’. This has helped me understand my character a lot as well as her role of Lady in Waiting. Very interesting indeed; just shows why so many women nowadays are so business orientated while some of the men have changed their status to be house husbands looking after the kids. Women standing up against traditions of man’s control and dictation.

        Also thank you, for the above mesgd reference books as I can look into it more indepth.



      2. Hi Laura,
        ‘Foible’ Lady in waiting to ‘Lady Wishfort’ sounds like a wonderful role to play! I’m happy to hear the post helped you gain an inside look into ladies in waiting. You might also enjoy the 18th century text ‘The Lady’s Maid’ It gives advice from a mistress to her maid on duties, proper comportment, etc.

  2. This has help me immensely with my research for my personae. It also led me to new ideas in ways that I wish to portray myself. I would love to see your documentation! Thank you for such marvelous information!

    1. Oh, goodness. I wrote the domestic post quite a long time ago, but I’d be happy to see if I still have documentation notes. I’ll post them here if I do.

  3. I’m trying to figure out how many servants the typical 18th century middle-class household would have had. I’m looking in particular at some of the toymakers and printers in Birmingham–John Baskerville in particular. What’s the best way to figure out how many servants would have made up the household? Have you come across a list of typical servant make-up in relation to social class?

    1. Any middle class household that could afford it would have at least one servant. I can’t give you any specifics on the professional classes in Birmingham per se, but a solidly middle class household and upper middle class would have anywhere between 3-4 and possibly up to 10 at the most, respectively.

      There are no census records at this time so it’s a bit of a difficulty finding concrete information. There are, however, a number of books on domestic classes in the 18th century. Many are out of print but libraries should have them.

      Contemporary historian Amanda Vickery has books on middle class households, though they focus largely on women, I believe.

      See also books like Bridget Hill’s English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century

      Hope that’s at least a starting point!

  4. I identify with the ‘scullery maid’ as my first casual jobs was working in a tiny ‘pantry’ washing up in aged care home and getting trays ready for teas. Then in a ‘closet’ washing ash-trays in a tavern (it being 20th century there was a bouncer who stood nearby to make sure no drunken bloke came and molested me!
    Doesn’t matter what century it is, multitudes of male employers seduce and/or rape young domestic servants. Very common – both Nans in 1930’s and then the social injustice and shame for illegitimate births.
    “Moll Flanders” comes to mind. 1721 – two sons of the house after her services.

    1. Thanks for sharing your modern context to what I tend to narrowly define as an historical issue, Julie. The power dynamic between masters/mistresses and servants is troubling because it seems absolute in situations where opportunities were severely limited (or, in the case of C18 female servants, almost nonexistent). But, yes, the dynamic certainly spills over to more contemporary positions.

      I hope you didn’t suffer overmuch from your “scullery” days. Hired fists are, indeed, dissuasive and an unfortunate necessity.

  5. Hello, I really liked your post, thanks.
    I wonder if you have any information about slaves in 1.850, customs, punishments, escaped to Canada

    1. I’d love to help, Amaya, but unfortunately 19th century history involving those topics is not a strong point for me.

      Hope you find what you need elsewhere.

  6. A really good article. I’m writing a story set in a small town in northern England in 1750. This has helped me a lot.

  7. Very helpful article! I am currently learning about 19th century women in History and wanted to learn more about it. This article was everything I needed and more. Good job and thank you for the info 🙂

  8. Thank you, Susan, this is a fascinating and informative post! Unfortunately the link to ‘ Day in the Life of a Maid of all Work’ seems not to be working – maybe because I’ve found your post so late.

    1. That’s exactly why I wrote it– for my own reference but also to help other writers! Glad you can make use of the info, Abby.

  9. A nurse maid was not a wet nurse – she would have been a woman hired to breast feed a baby either because the mother had no milk or did not want to feed herself and would only be employed until the child was weaned.
    The nurse maid or nanny was in charge of the nursery and would have effectively been the child’s mother until it was old enough to require a governess. The child would have spent his/her early life in the nursery and in general only saw his/her parents for an hour a day when they were taken to the drawing room although this was not always true for every family.

  10. Hi, thanks for a great post. I was wondering, can you do a post about how bells were used in big houses in 19th century? I’m watching ‘Downton Abbey, and they have used them a lot. What I mean, how did the whole bell system work in a big house like that?

    1. Hi Kaitlyn, I’m taking a break from new posts on my blog right now but I do appreciate suggestions! I’d give you a quick answer to your question if I had one but unfortunately, I know very little about the intricacies of the bell pull system. Happy historical hunting! I think half the fun is having questions like these in the first place.

  11. Hi! This was so great!! I’m trying to find out what age a maid would be hired in Russia in late 1800s/early 1900s? I know there were families with maids aged 12 but I’m wondering where they commonly would have come from?
    Thank you x

    1. Hi Aida,
      I’m happy you liked the post. I’m not sure when young Russian girls left their homes to work as maids but I’m guessing 12 (and probably younger) was not uncommon given that children in the developed world used to work at very young ages. Good luck with your research and I hope you find the answer you’re looking for!

  12. I have a question: I would REALLY APPRECIATE knowing how housekeepers could have been hired in the 1890s. Do you know perhaps? I’m writing a book about a housekeeper and I DESPERATELY must know this!

    1. Hi W.D,
      I’m afraid I can’t be of much help beyond telling you info off the top of my head which could possibly be wrong for your time period. I suggest looking at first-hand sources. Try google books and set search for around the turn of the century. Happy historical sleuthing!

  13. I see in 1880 census my great grandmother was a Sevant & she lived there with her baby son, this was in Kent Island, Queen Anne, Maryland,

  14. My 4x grandmother was a chambermaid for a wealthy family in London during the 1820’s. Thanks to diaries and several DNA matches, we recently discovered the Lord of the estate regularly sexually abused her and impregnated her 3 times. The family was shown the evidence in January of this year. To make a long story short, my relative was apparently one of many women this Lord abused.

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