Domestic Servants (1861)


From Walter L.  Arnstein, The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in British History, Volume II: Since 1688 (D. C. Heath and Company:  Lexington, Massachusetts,  1993), 176-178.  Women who worked for pay in Victorian Britain  were most likely to be employed  as domestic servants. In her bible for homemakers, The Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton outlines the duties of both servants and their mistresses.


The custom of “society  is to abuse its servants: a facon de parler such

as leads their lords and masters to talk  of the weather, and,  when ruefully inclined, of the crops, leads matronly ladies, and ladies just entering on their probation in that  honored and honorable state,  to talk  of servants, and,  as we are told, wax eloquent over the greatest plague in life while taking a quiet cup of tea....   It  is a conviction of ”society”  that  the race of good servants has died out, at least in England,  although they do order these things better in France;  that  there is  neither honesty,  conscientiousness, nor the careful and industrious habits which distinguished the servants of our grandmothers and  great-grandmothers; that  domestics no longer know their  place;  that the introduction of cheap silks and  cottons,  and,  still more recently,  those ambiguous ”materials”  and tweeds, have removed the landmarks between the mistress and her maid, between the master and  his man.

CHOICE OF   SERVANTS.–When  the distinction  really depends on things so insignificant as dress, when the lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tournure of calf, it is  not surprising that  she should find a domestic who has no attachment for the  family,  who considers the  figure he cuts  behind her carriage,  and the late  hours  he is compelled to  keep, a  full  compensation for the wages he exacts,  for  the  food he wastes,  and  for the  perquisites he can  lay  his hands on.   Nor  should the fast young man,  who chooses his groom for his knowingness in the  ways of the turf and in the tricks of low horse-dealers, be surprised if he is  sometimes the victim of these learned ways.  But  these are the  exceptional  cases,  which prove the  existence of  a  better  state  of things.   The  great masses of  society among us are not thus deserted: there are few families of respectability,  from the shopkeeper in the next street to the nobleman whose mansion dignifies the next square, which do not contain among their dependents attached  and  useful servants; and where these are absent altogether, there are good reasons for  it.

MASTERS AND MISTRESSES.-It has been said that  good masters and mistresses make good servants, and this to a great extent is true.  There are  certainly  some men  and  women in  the  wide field of  servitude whom it would  be impossible to train into good servants, but the conduct of both master and mistress is seldom without its eect upon these dependents. They are not mere machines, and no one has a right to consider them in that light. The sensible  master and the kind mistress know, that  if servants depend on them  for their  means of living,  in  their turn  they  are dependent on their servants for very  many  of  the  comforts of  life;  and  that,   using  a  proper amount of care in choosing servants, treating the like reasonable beings, and making slight excuses  for the shortcomings of human nature, they will, save in some exceptional cases,  be tolerably well served, and,  in most instances, surround themselves with  attached domestics....

WOMEN SERVANTS  are specially likely to  be influenced by  their mistress’s treatment of them,  and yet we venture to assert that  good mistresses are rarer than good masters, so many of the former lacking consideration  for their servants.

In many cases they do not give them the help which it is their duty to aord.  A  timely hint or even a few words of quiet reproof may be lacking when  needed, and still more so the kind words and the deserved praise for work well and carefully done. It a fact that we must take some trouble with our servants.   The  wheels of domestic machinery will not run well without constant care.  There is no necessity for a mistress to be continually fussing round and  superintending her servants’ work, but  she must first make sure that  they do it  thoroughly and well.  Also she must take time and pains to show her domestics  how she likes the work done....

THE NUMBER OF  MEN-SERVANTS IN A  FAMILY varies according  to  the wealth and position of the master, from the owner of the ducal mansion,  with a retinue of attendants,  at the head of which is the chamber- lain and house-steward, to the occupier of the humbler house, where a single footman,  or  even the odd man-of-all-work, is the only male retainer.   The ma jority  of  gentlemen’s establishments probably comprise a servant out of livery,  or butler,  a  footman and coachman,  or coachman and groom, where the horses exceed two  or three.

To  a certain extent the number of menservants kept is regulated by the  number of women servants, this statement,  of course, not  applying  to such  out-door servants as coachman, groom, or gardener.

Occasionally  a parlor-maid is kept instead of a second footman, or a kitchen or scullery-maid does the work in the way of boot-cleaning, etc.,  that would fall to a third footman or page.  A  man cook is now more rarely to be found  in private service than formerly,  women having found it expedient to bring their knowledge of the culinary art more to the level of the chef; while in many cases those who have a talent for cooking have risen superior to him both in the way  they avor and serve the various dishes that  call for skill and taste....

THE FIRST DUTY OF  THE HOUSEMAID in winter is to open the shutters of all the lower rooms in the house, and take up the hearthrugs in those  rooms which she is going to ”do”  before breakfast.   in some families, where  there  are only a cook and housemaid kept,  and where the drawing- rooms are large, the cook has the care of the dining room, and the housemaid that  of the  breakfast-room, library and drawing-rooms.  After  the shutters are all opened,  she sweeps the breakfast-room dust toward the fireplace, of course previously removing the fender. She should then lay a cloth (generally made of coarse  wrappering over the carpet in front of the stove,  and on this should place her  housemaid’s box,  containing black-lead brushes, leathers, emery paper, cloth, black-lead, and all utensils necessary for cleaning a grate, with the cinder-pail on  the other side.   She now sweeps up the ashes, and deposits them in her  cinder-pail, which is a japanned tin  pail,  with a wire sifter inside, and a closely-fitting top.  In this pail the cinders are sifted, and reserved for use in the  kitchen  or under the  copper, the  ashes only being thrown away.  The cinders  disposed of, she proceeds to black-lead the grate, producing the black lead,  the  soft brush for laying  it  on,  her blacking and polishing brushes, from the box  which contains her tools.  The  housemaid’s box should be kept well stocked.   Having  blackened, brushed and polished every part,  and  made  all  clean  and  bright,  she now proceeds to  lay  the fire.   Sometimes it  is very dicult  to  get  a  proper polish to  black  grates, particularly if they have been neglected and allowed to rust at all.  But  later on we give recipes for treating them that  will be found useful.

Bright  grates require unceasing attention to keep them in perfect or- der.   A  day  should never pass without  the housemaid rubbing with a  dry leather the  polished parts of a  grate,  as also the  fender and  fire-irons.  A careful and  attentive housemaid should have no occasion ever to use emery- paper for any part but the bars, which, of course, become blacked by the fire. (Some mistresses,  to save labor, have a double set of bars, one set bright for the summer, and  another black set to use when fires are in requisition.)

The  several fires lighted,  the housemaid proceeds with her dusting, and polishing the several pieces of furniture in the breakfast-parlor, leaving no comer unvisited.  Before sweeping the carpet, it is a good practice to sprinkle it  all  over  with tealeaves,  which not  only lay  all  dust,  but  give a  slightly fragrant smell to the room. it is now in order for the reception of the family, and where there is  neither footman or parlor-maid, she now proceeds to the dressing-room, and  lights  her mistress’s fire, if she is in the habit of having one to dress by. Her mistress is called, hot water placed in the dressing-room for her use, her clothes-as  far as they are under the housemaid’s charge-put before the fire, hanging a fire-guard on the bars where there is one, while she proceeds to prepare the  breakfast....

BEDROOM WORK.-Breakfast served, the housemaid proceeds to the bed-chambers, throws up the sashes, if not already done, pulls up the blinds, throwing back the curtains at the same time, and opens the beds, by removing the  clothes,  placing  them  over a  horse, or failing  that,   over the  backs  of chairs.   She now proceeds to empty the slops.  In doing this,  everything is emptied into  the slop-pail, leaving a little scaldinghot water for a minute in vessels that require it; adding a drop of turpentine to the water, when that is not sucient to cleanse  them.  The  basin is emptied, well rinsed with clean water, and carefully wiped; the ewers emptied and washed; finally, the water- jugs themselves emptied out  and  rinsed, and wiped dry.   As  soon as this is done, she should remove and  empty the pails, taking care that they also are well washed, scalded and  wiped  as  soon as they  are empty.    Next  follows bed-making, at  which one of the other  servants usually assists; but,  before beginning, velvet chairs, or other things injured by dust, should be removed to another room. In bed-making, the fancy of its occupant should be consulted: some like beds sloping from the top toward the  feet, swelling slightly in the middle; others, perfectly flat; a good housemaid will accommodate each bed to the taste of the sleeper, taking care to shake, beat and  turn it well in the process. Some persons prefer sleep the mattress; in which case a feather bed is usually  beneath,  resting on a  second tress, and a  straw  palliasse  at  the bottom.

In this case, the mattresses should change places daily; the feather bed placed on a second matress, and a straw palliasse at the bottom.   mattress shaken,  beaten,  taken  up  and  opened several times,  so as  thoroughly  to separate the feathers; if too large to be thus handled, the maid should shake and  beat one end first, and then the other, smoothing it afterward equally all over into the required shape, and place the mattress gently over it.  Any feathers  which escape in this process a tidy  servant will put  back through the seam of  the tick; she will also be careful to sew up any stitch that  gives way the moment it is discovered. The bed-clothes an laid on, beginning with an under blanket and sheet, which are tucked under the mattress at the bottom. The bolster is then beaten and shaken, and put on, the top of the sheet rolled round it, and the sheet tucked in all round. The pillows and other bed-clothes follow, and the counterpane  over all,  which should fall in graceful folds and at equal distance from the ground  all round.  The curtains are drawn to the head and folded neatly across the bed,  and the whole finished in a smooth and graceful manner. Where spring mattresses are used care should be taken that the over one 1, turned every day.  The housemaid should now take up in a dustpan any pieces that  may be on the  carpet; she should dust the room, shut the door, and proceed to  another room.   When  all  the bedrooms are finished, she should dust the stairs and polish the hand-rail of the banisters, and  see that  all  ledges,  window-sills, etc.,   are quite  free from dust.    Her husband is a fine spinner, at  Mr.-,   where he has been  from  1816, has ve children.  Her eldest daughter, now going on fourteen, has  been her father’s piecer for three years. At  her present age, her labor is worth 4s.  6d.  a week, and has been worth as much for these last four months; before, it was worth less. At  present her husband’s earnings and her daughter’s together  amount to about 25s. a week-at least she sees no more than 25s. a week’; and before his daughter could piece for him, and when he had to pay for a piecer in her stead, he only brought home 19s.  or 20s.  a week.  Rent  of house, 3s.  6d.  a week.

Breakfast  is generally porridge, bread and milk,  lined with flour or oatmeal.   On  Sunday,  a sup of tea and bread and butter.-Dinner,  on week days, potatoes and bacon, and bread, which is generally white.  On a Sunday, a little  flesh meat; no butter, egg, or pudding.- Tea-time tea, and bread and butter:  nothing extra on Sunday at tea.-Supper,  oatmeal porridge and milk; sometimes  potatoes and milk Sunday,  sometimes a little  bread and cheese for supper:  never have this on week days Now and then buys eggs when they are as low as a  halfpenny apiece, and fries them to bacon.

They  never taste any other vegetables than  potatoes; never use any beer  or spirits; now and then may take a gill of beer when ill, which costs a penny.  Perhaps she and her husband may have two gills a week. Her husband never drinks  any beer or spirits that  she knows of beyond this.   The  house consists of four rooms, two on each oor; the furniture consists of two beds in  the  same room, one for themselves, the other for the children; have four chairs,  one table in the house, boxes to put clothes in,  no chest of drawers, two pans and a tea kettle for boiling, a gridiron and frying-pan, half-a-dozen large and  small  plates, four pair of knives and forks, several pewter spoons. They subscribe Id.  a week for each child to a funeral society’ for the children. Two of the children go to school at 3d.  a week each: they are taught reading for this,  but  not writing.   Have  a few books, such as a Bible,  hymn-book, and several small books that  the  children have got as prizes at the Sunday School.  Four children go to Stott’s  Sunday School.


QUESTION. Does  your  daughter,  who pieces for her father,  seem much  fatigued when she comes home at night?

ANSWER. No, she does not seem much fatigued.  She is coming of an age  that  perhaps she may be.  She has a good appetite.  Hears her complain of  headache sometimes; does not hear her complain of not sleeping.

Q.  Do  you think  that  people in your own way of life,  spinners and such  like, and their families, are better o than  yourselves, or worse o, or just about  the same?

A.  Well, some’s better, some’s worse, some’s the same. It is according to  their work-whether they work upon fine or coarse work.

Q.  I want to know whether the most are like o to yourselves. Now, at Mr.-mill,  are most of the parents of children as well o, or better o, than yourself ?

A.  Well,  they are most of them at his mill as well o as we ourselves, because it is one of the best mills in the town.  There is not many better than his.   In  answer to questions concerning herself, she said she should be forty years old  on Whitsun  Monday:  that  at fourteen years old she began frame- tenting, and worked at it for two years every day, from six in the morning till eight in the  evening-some times from half-past ve in the morning She then went to stretching, at which she worked till twenty-ve years old: at that she worked  fourteen hours a day regularly every day.   At  twenty-ve years old she married,  and has staid at  home ever since.  Her father was a bleacher, her mother a  spinner Has eight brothers and sisters; but  can can’t  give no idea whether her brothers and sisters are bigger or less than her parents, be- cause her mother took  them all away to America when she was a child.

Q.  Should you say you were as healthy a woman now, as if you had not  been a frame tenter or a stretcher?

A.  Well,  I don’t know but what I am.  I have not my health very well at  present. I do not know that  work injured it.

Q.  How many dierent mills were you in when you were young?

A.  In four mills.   Has heard dierent language at  some from others; some very bad some very well. A child may pick up much bad in mills.  Better

to put a child in a mill than  let it run in the streets; it won’t get as much harm  in  a mill.

Q.  Do girls run a chance of being bad by living in mills; in short, to be  unchaste?

A.  I can’t  say.  I never see’d nothing of bad wherever I worked.  It  is

according to their own endeavors a good deal.