The Chamber Maid Brings Tea, Pehr Hillestrom, 1775
A lady’s maid’s day, unlike that of her peers, starts as soon as her mistress wakes. The hour is variable, depending on the individual mistress and whether the household resides in the city or the country, but generally, a lady’s maid begins her official work later than the rest of the servants.
Attending to her mistress’s person comprises the first task of the morning. After ablutions are taken care of and her mistress’s hair and body are dressed, a lady’s maid is responsible for tidying her mistress’s rooms. This may not be the case with experienced ladies’ maids, but in households where there are few servants or a lady’s maid is relatively new, learning the finer details of upkeep are an important part of her position. Even after a lady’s maid has graduated from general housemaid duty, washing hair combs, removing stains from soiled garments, and starching muslins number among the many exigencies of personal attendance that must be addressed on a regular basis.
Lady Fastening Her Garter (otherwise known as La Toilette), François Boucher, 1742
In households where maids are numerous, it may seem weird for a lady’s maid to act the part of a housemaid. It’s really not. The primary reason is to ensure her mistress’s privacy in both everyday situations and in rarer occasions when the mistress falls ill. Although chambermaids and maids of all work will by necessity enter the mistress’s rooms, it is best to keep these visits limited. All work in the rooms must be done out of the mistress’s sight. Timing, therefore, is absolutely essential.
As soon as the mistress departs her rooms in the morning, a lady’s maid tidies and refreshes all belongings and articles under her care. In a time before central air, a shut-up room would go stale throughout the night. A good airing, therefore, is the first order of duty. Windows are thrown open, bed curtains drawn apart. Any clothes that remain out of closet are put away in the dressing room. The accessories associated with ablutions must also be put to rights.
As neatness is a lady’s maid’s prerogative, dust and grime are directly under her purview. Not even a loose thread on the carpet is tolerated by a meticulous lady’s maid. The general notion here is to return the room to its original state—as if nobody had touched anything. Wash basins, glasses, and water jugs must be cleaned of soap scum and fingerprints. To keep up with the steady decline of cleanliness in the room, a strict schedule of supplying fresh water and changing towels is encouraged.
By James Gillray, 1810
After the mistress’s rooms are picked up and dusted, the thread and needle work begins. Plain work (darning stockings, mending linens) occupies a large deal of this time. Exactly how much is determined by the amount and state of garments in the laundry.
Before the laundry goes out to the washerwoman, it’s the lady’s maid’s job to sort through the dirty pile to determine what needs mending or what items are beyond repair. As a sartorial accountant of sorts, it’s important for a lady’s maid to maintain an inventory of her mistress’s wardrobe from the start of her employment. Any time a garment leaves the room for the purposes of laundering, she is expected to write up a bill of any costs associated with the garment’s upkeep.
Considering the number of times a mistress changes her outfit in a single day, preventing theft and accounting for misplaced or missing items in the wardrobe is necessary if a lady’s maid is inclined to keep her post. Since she stands to benefit from her mistress’s cast-offs (as she will likely receive them), a wise lady’s maid serves as steward of her mistress’s belongings and keeps a hawk’s eye on anything that leaves the room.
The Jealous Maids
This does not mean a lady’s maid is encouraged to wear anything spangled or luxurious that is handed down to her. To put on the airs of a mistress by wearing her tarnished finery, even under the mistress’s allowance, is a common offense. According to anonymous Lady, “A neat and modest girl will wear nothing dirty and nothing fine.”
With these parameters set, a lady’s maid has the discretion to do with her mistress’s unwanted garments as she sees fit. Charity is always encouraged. In those days, linen was the only suitable fabric for dressing wounds. As such, old scraps were in high demand in hospitals. The poor were also endlessly in need of clothing and a lady’s maid could do much good by donating items to the impoverished.
I touched on this in the last post, but it’s worth noting that a lady’s maid enjoys more freedom than the average domestic. Once her day’s work is complete, she has leave to improve her mind by reading. Along with other activities such as sewing, her evening hours are largely devoted to leisure. This is both a blessing and a curse. Because ladies’ maids experience privileges denied other domestics and they appear to have the ear of their mistress, they were often subject to jealousy from their peers.
Another downside of the position is that ladies’ maids seem to have more down time than the rest of the household. In reality, they are at the beck and call of mistresses who keep late hours. Suffice it to say, a lady’s maid does not sleep until her mistress does. The life of a lady’s maid, then, revolves around the schedule, temperament, and demands of her mistress. Her happiness, too, but judging by the quantity of complaints surrounding the position, that would require an altogether separate post by yours truly.
The Last Shift, Carrington Bowles
Additional posts about a lady’s maid and domestic servants: