1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: Household Servants

We barely touched on household staff in the 1879 Players Guide. Given the lack of labour-saving appliances, having visiting or live-in help to run the household wasn’t a luxury in the Gilded Age, it was a necessity. Laundry alone took three days – one for pre-treating and soaking, one for the actual washing with things left to dry overnight, and one for folding and ironing. Running a larger house, with visitors over for dinner on a regular basis, entertaining in the parlor in the afternoon, a few children in the nursery, and the proper attire and conveyances for an upper middle class social station, took a crew of specialists. With four pages, we were able to give a brief overview, but there’s so much more to it. Let’s have a deeper look at three of the household positions: the housemaid, the valet, and the footman. The opportunities to use this material when playing GMCs should be patently obvious.

The housemaid differed from the maid of all work in that she did not double as a cook or kitchen staff, or nursery maid. She had enough to do just with keeping the place clean and presentable. Up before dawn, the upper house maid opened the shutters, tidied up the parlor or breakfast-room or other rooms used by the family in the morning, and made sure the fires were properly stoked (if lit). The hearth rugs had to be rolled up and later taken out and beaten, and a bit of canvas laid down in their place for the fireplace cleaning. The brasswork had to be polished, the ashes swept out, and the brickwork gone over with a stiff brush to remove any accumulation of soot. Once a week, the entire thing had to be cleaned, which meant soap and hot water for marble hearths, and sand and cold water for brickwork. If there was a lower housemaid, she got stuck with taking the carpets out for beating and scrubbing with fuller’s earth.

Once the family was up, the housemaid had to tend to the bedrooms. The beds themselves and the rooms were both aired, and the bedclothes changed at least weekly. More laundry, hooray. Dusting and general tidying was every morning. Twice a year, or more often in some households, the entire room got turned out, with all the furniture deep cleaned, the mattress restuffed, and the floors scrubbed within an inch of their lives.

Then there was cobweb removal, the stairs and landings to sweep, the curtains to adjust and keep clean, bedroom china such as the washstand bowl and ewer that had to be emptied and cleaned, and the coal scuttles to fill. And the slops. Did we mention that a lot of houses didn’t have indoor plumbing until very late in the era? That meant the household staff going out back to the privy first thing in the morning no matter the weather. The family, on the other hand, had chamberpots, basically big ceramic kettles, that they relieved themselves in first thing in the morning, and put a lid on to keep down the smell. Those had to be gathered, taken to the privy and emptied, washed out, and put back for the next time they were needed. While the lower housemaid might get stuck with the privy end of it, the upper housemaid had to bring them down and take them back up to the bedrooms.

Even when she sat down she didn’t get to rest. No, there was sewing to be done. There was always a pile of clothing waiting to be mended, and if she got through that, there was decorative embroidery to do for the next set of counterpanes for the mistress of the house’s bed. The housemaid might or might not tend to the master and mistress’s dress shoes. Those might be seen to by the valet, butler, lady’s maid, or dressing maid, if such were present in the household.

At the end of the day, the housemaid closed the shutters, made sure the fires were banked, turned down the beds, and set the living areas in order for the night. At some point in all of this, she had to find time to eat and tend to her own clothing and personal hygiene. In the UK census three decades running, “housemaid” was the second largest profession in the nation, right after “agricultural worker”. Given all the duties, yes, it took a small army of these women, and they were all women, to keep the households of everyone from the marginally well off to the very rich indeed functioning.

The valet had somewhat of a tarnished reputation. All servants had perquisites, small privileges that made their lives more comfortable and gave them a bit of extra income. The cook sold the collected grease and tallow to the candlemaker’s boy. The housemaid collected the ends of the candles for the same purpose. Valets were infamous for pushing the issue, pressing their luck sometimes, and using their station as gentlemen’s personal servants for their own gain.

When a gentleman with a valet in his employ needed, or decided he wanted, a new item of clothing, quite often they would direct their valet to obtain the item and let them know how much it cost. For example, the gentleman had previously visited a shoemaker, and had a set of bespoke lasts made, so that he could have custom-fitted shoes produced. On seeing a friend’s new shoes in the latest French style, the gentleman decides he must have a pair of such, and tells his valet, go and have the shoemaker produce these. The valet hies himself to the shoemaker’s, and bewails his predicament, that his master has directed him to procure a pair of shoes in the French mode, but has given him very little in the way of budget. Of course, the shoemaker will not want to lose such a prestigious customer, and is pressured by the valet to grant a discount, or at the very least to be a bit more reasonable in the price. With shoes in hand, the valet then goes back to his master, and bemoans the avarice of the shoemaker, who has taken advantage of his customer’s need to follow the latest of fashion by raising his prices for shoes in the French style. The valet then pockets the difference.

Given the market for used clothing and personal accoutrements, small wonder the valet had a whole raft of tricks to obtain these items from their masters. The handkerchief you want? Oh, sir, do you not remember, you gave it to that lady at the gin-palace last week, you and she were both perhaps a bit deep in your cups at the time. You came home last night without your umbrella, perhaps you left it on the omnibus. Your snuffbox is already half empty? Well, Roderick does take a heavy pinch, but if you don’t offer him a go at it when you take a bit yourself, that would be rude. And the handkerchief, and the umbrella, and the snuff that has been pinched out of the box all ends up turned into coin in the valet’s pocket.

Not to say these men didn’t do honest work. They tended to their charges with the attention of a dresser seeing to the star of a Broadway show. Clothing must be laid out, sent for cleaning, returned promptly. If the master was a bachelor living alone, or a retired military man, the valet took on the duties of housemaid, butler, footman, and pretty much anything else as required. If his master were to wed, and retain his services, the valet would become a high-status member of the household, ranking below the butler but above the footmen, equal with the lady’s dressing-maid. And the opportunities for padding his compensation grew exponentially. With such temptation, and the expectation that every servant would have a few perqs anyway, is it any wonder that the valet developed so many tricks of the trade?

The poor footman had no such opportunities. Stuck in the household’s livery, in clothing more befitting the previous century, he answered the door, delivered messages, served the meals, and announced guests. When the master or mistress went out in a coach, he ran after it like a Dalmatian, or if lucky rode standing on a peg on the back and clutching a handle he prayed was screwed in properly. When the coach came to a stop, he had to be in proper order, not out of breath, at attention, at the door to open it for the passenger to emerge. Under the butler’s gimlet-eyed supervision, he polished the silverware, and as directed by the valet, prepared razor strops for the gentleman of the house. The housemaid could dump the lamp wick trimming on him. She could also send him out for coal for the scuttles, and have him tend the fires in the dining room and other semi-public spaces of the house.

The details of how all these things were done could fill a book. There was an entire protocol around answering the door, accepting a calling card from a visitor, presenting it on a tray to the appropriate member of the household, relaying the answer back to the visitor, and if they were admitted bringing the visitor into the house, tending to their things (coat, umbrella, &c.), escorting them to the proper room and announcing their entry. A similar kerfuffle attended the departure of a guest, with the footman dancing attendance upon them in a manner similar to that of the valet upon his master. Let’s not even get into the rules for serving at table. That’s a can of worms that once opened can only be recontained in a larger can. If the footman was fortunate, though, attended to his duties properly, and was fortunate, he might win a place a a valet, or even a butler, although that usually meant leaving for another household, and leaving the staff that he’d been part of sometimes for many years.

If you’re interested in further details of the household staff and their duties, I’d recommend visiting http://18thcand19thc.blogspot.com, which has a series of articles covering each of the positions in turn. There’s also a wealth of primary sources, with a short bibliography appended hereto. Most of these are available on Google Books.

  • Adams, Samuel, etal., The Complete Servant, 1825
  • Beeton, Mrs. Isabella, The Book of Household Management, 1861
  • Beeton, Samuel Orchart, Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-day Information, 1871
  • Cosnett, Thomas, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Rememberancer, 1823
  • Francatelli, Charles Elmé, The Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, 1867
  • Stepping-stones to Thrift, 1883
  • The Footman, 1855
  • The Servant’s Guide and Family Manual, 1831