The Servants

by Ellen Micheletti

We are so used to modern conveniences that we have forgotten how much sheer labor is involved in keeping a house without them. Imagine having to take care of a huge mansion with no vacuum cleaners, no washing machines, no bathtubs or indoor toilets, no piped in water and no central heating. Now try and keep this place clean while you and your neighbors burn coal that fills the air with smoke and smuts.

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Readers of historical novels are familiar with some of the servants that large establishments employed to do all the work required to keep the place running smoothly. Large estates had an army of outdoor servants (gardeners, gamekeepers, and grooms) and an equally large army of indoor servants. The number and kinds of servants varied depending on the social status of the employer and the size of the estate. I am going to concentrate on the indoor servants only, and the servants who are most likely to be encountered by readers of historical fiction.

Male servants ranked above female servants and non-liveried servants, those who did not wear uniforms, ranked above those servants who did. The highest ranking male servant (who in some ways was more a professional employee than a true servant), was the land steward. He was often the son of a minister or businessman. Some land stewards were attorneys and had their own homes and own businesses on the side. The steward was the manager of the estate. He hired and fired workers, settled tenant complaints, saw to the harvesting of crops, managed the timber, collected the rents and kept all the financial records. Very wealthy men with more than one estate had several land stewards. A reader often encounters a land steward (sometimes called a bailiff) in regency fiction. David Wiggins in Carla Kelly's The Lady's Companion is the steward who manages the farm for Lady Bushnell.

The highest ranking male house servant was the valet. He cared for his employer's clothing, shined his shoes and boots, did the hairdressing and barbering and made sure the gentleman looked good. A valet had to be well-dressed himself, but was not to outshine his employer. When the gentleman went shopping or travelling, the valet went along since there were men who literally could not dress or undress themselves without assistance (those regency coats and boots were tight!)

A few, very wealthy homes employed a house steward, but he is not often encountered in fiction. The highest ranking male house servant, next to the valet, was the butler. The butler's duties varied depending on the size of the house. He was in charge of the wine cellar and in the days before refrigeration, that was a delicate task. He was in charge of the silver and gold plate, china, and crystal. He supervised the cleaning of this valuable silver and gold and guarded it against thieves. As time passed, the position of the butler gained more and more prestige until he became the top servant in Victorian times - in charge of the men and women underservants. While the butler did not wear livery, he did alter his clothing slightly while on duty - he wore a black tie rather than a white one for instance. It would not do to mistake the butler for a gentleman.

The highest ranking indoor liveried servant was the footman. Footmen did many jobs around the house - both indoors and outside. Inside, he laid the table, waited at table, served tea, answered the door and assisted the butler. Outside, he rode on the carriage, opened doors, served as an escort when a lady paid calls, and carried torches to deter thieves when the lady and gentleman went out at night. The footman carried letters to and fro and special footmen called "running footmen" ran in front of or beside a carriage. These running footmen had mostly died out by the time of the regency, but in their prime, they were colorful characters, both literally and figuratively. They often wore very bright and luxurious livery and some noblemen would organize footraces between their running footmen. The qualifications for being a footman were good looks and a good physique. Their livery was knee breeches, often plush ones with silk stockings (footmen had to have good legs) and coats of satin and velvet with starched shirts. Footmen had to powder their hair - a custom that did not die out among the Buckingham Palace footmen until Prince Philip put a stop to it. He thought it was unhygenic.

Sometimes, in Regency novels, a reader will encounter a page. A page was a young boy who was sort of an apprentice footman. He performed odd jobs and tasks and was put into livery to stand around and look good when the lady chose to entertain. Sometimes the page was a young Black boy who was put into an especially fancy livery and treated almost like an ornament.

Women servants did not rank as high as men and were not paid as much even though their work was often harder. A footman carried letters, but a chambermaid often had to climb flights of stairs with loads of coal for the fire or cans of hot water for the bath.

The highest ranking woman servant was the housekeeper. She kept the keys to all the storage closets and supervised the maids and cook. She served as the butler's right hand helper. She kept books and household accounts and ordered food and supplies. She very much ran the house.

The next highest woman servant and one often encountered in regency novels is the personal maid or "abigail," as regency slang termed her. She dressed and undressed the lady, cleaned, pressed and mended rips in clothing and did the lady's hair. In the Victorian age, when clothing was very heavy and elaborate (and buttoned and laced up the back) a women could literally not get dressed or undressed without assistance just like the regency fops with their tight coats. Personal maids also looked after the jewelry and served as a companion and confidante. It was very much the thing to have a personal maid who was French, but if a lady could not find a French maid, an English personal maid who could speak a few French phrases was almost as good.

The cook was considered to be of better quality if she had trained with a male chef. Not many people were wealthy enough to afford a male chef, so they searched for female cooks who had trained with men. The cook was the dictator of the kitchen. She is sometimes portrayed in fiction as a tyrant and that was true in some real life cases. There is a very funny scene in Mary Balogh's The Famous Heroine where Lord Francis is amazed to find that his new wife Cora is not only not afraid of the cook, she has been swapping recipies with her. The cook had many kitchen helpers to assist her in the massive amounts of cooking that had to be done. There were always scullery maids (the lowest of the female servants) whose job it was to clean the pots and pans. These poor girls spent their days with their hands in hot water and harsh washing soda. After a large party, there could be hundreds of greasy pots and pans to clean before the girls could go to bed.

There were several kinds of maids - chambermaids, parlormaids and maids-of-all-work. These young women were the ones who swept, dusted, polished, cleaned, washed, fetched and carried from early morning till late at night. In Frank Dawes' book Not In Front of the Servants, he gives a schedule of the week for maids that has them working from 6:30 am till 10:00 pm with one half-day off a week. They had to do all the cleaning and polishing with none of the labor saving devices we take for granted. There was no such thing as polish for instance. Furniture polish was made from linseed oil, turpentine and beeswax. Carpets had to be brushed by hand, lamps had to be cleaned and filled and fires had to kept lit and tended. This necessitated maids lugging large amounts of coal up flights of stairs to all the fireplaces, and a large estate could have many, many fireplaces. The sheer amount of work involved in a maid's job is difficult to imagine. Maids wore two kinds of clothing. In the mornings when most of the heavy work was done, they wore cotton print dresses and heavy aprons. Later in the afternoon, they changed into black dresses with ruffled aprons and caps with streamers. By Victorian times, all but the wealthiest had given up footmen and the maids answered the doors and announced visitors.

The era of large estates and many servants died out after World War I. For a long time, a job as a servant was the only one a respectable young woman could get, and after jobs in offices and factories became available, few young women or men wanted to spend long hours working for little money and little chance to have a life of their own. More job opportunities, smaller houses and more labor saving devices finally put an end to the huge numbers of servants who used to work in stately homes.

Sources:

  • Victorian Household Hints by Elizabeth Drury, Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
  • Not In Front of the Servants by Frank Dawes, Taplinger, 1974
  • Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant by Pamela Horn, St. Martin's Press 1975
  • Etiquette by Emily Post, Funk & Wagnalls, 1922
  • Victorian Life and Victorian Fiction: A Companion for the American Reader by Jo McMurtry Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1979

In 2003 PBS aired Manor House, created by Channel 4 in the U.K. - the website provides lots of terrific information

Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
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