Daily Archives: 3 October 2016

High-class Distrust of Labor-saving Innovations

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 162-196:

The most basic technological amenities were not seriously to take root in the majority of English country houses until well after the First World War, and sometimes beyond the Second. In fact the more labour-intensive the house was seen to be, the more it was seen as upholding the values of the old world order. Although there were some significant changes made to English houses in the late nineteenth century, human effort was on the whole considered vastly preferable to modern amenities. Houseguests shivered in the cold of country houses where, recalled Lady Cynthia Asquith, ‘you perambulated long, icy passages in search of the nearest bathroom – if there was one’. Labour was cheap: the servant problem was a problem for the cash-strapped, not the rich. At Beech Hill Park, a vast Victorian house in Epping Forest, there was a hall entirely covered in mosaic that had to be washed with milk by hand every week by five maids; yet there was no telephone in Beech Hill and it was lit entirely by candles until the late 1940s.

A general distrust for new technologies percolated through the classes. Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, wondered why he should install a hot water system in his London house when he could always employ two or three girls to carry the bath water up and down stairs as required. Too much newness became regarded as vulgar: Mrs Loftie, author of books of advice on interior design, warned against gas, a form of lighting which had once been embraced by the fashionable but by the early twentieth century had become too popular and was now associated with trade showrooms and other iniquities. ‘Nothing can compete with the gasolier [gaslight chandelier] in tawdry deformity,’ she cautioned.

In 1912, the Illuminating Engineer expressed the view that gas was a ‘middle-class luxury. It never invaded the marble halls of the West End; and of course, the poor could not get it. It was admitted to the rich man’s kitchens and domestic offices, and its attractions beckoned the workman to his only club, the corner pub. As a domestic light in the fullest sense of the word, it was almost as sure a sign of respectability as the keeping of a gig.’ In grand houses, gas lamps were generally confined to the servants’ hall, where they enabled the staff to work till late at night; gas was considered too smelly and too damaging to antique furniture to be used in other parts of the house. The inimitable patina of age became central to the national idea of Englishness, and to this idea, new technology was often considered positively threatening. The American economist Thorstein Veblen noted in 1892 how the attraction of old-fashioned beeswax candles to illuminate evening dinner parties was suddenly revealed when gas and electric lighting became widely available to the middle classes. The reason was said to be the flattering rosy glow that candles cast, but behind it lay a snobbery about industrial mass production. The lady of a house in Wigmore Street was typical: her new maid, Elizabeth Banks, reported in 1891 that there were gas fittings but her mistress declined to use them, preferring to use candles that her maid had to clean up afterwards. ‘In the halls, on the stairs and in every room of the house, from the kitchen to the fifth floor, candle grease was liberally sprinkled, and my brown paper and flat iron were in constant demand.’

The stateliest homes still relied on lamp men, whose job for generations had been to patrol the corridors of English country houses, lighting and tending the oil lamps or candles that were the only source of light. Lamp men were retainers of the old sort, associated with homes that had no need of flashy modern accoutrements that needed only the turn of a switch. Trimming, cleaning and maintaining the lamps was an arduous daily job: at Erddig in Wales, the Yorkes had forty oil lamps requiring constant attendance, for a dirty lamp created clouds of soot. ‘An Old Servant’, the author of an anonymous little memoir written in the First World War, described ‘strings of soot hanging from the ceiling all over the room; everything was thick with greasy soot’ when a lamp was inadequately cleaned.15 At Badminton House, seat of the Duke of Beaufort, the lamp man was totally blind and felt his way expertly about the corridors – and was still doing so in the 1920s. At Belvoir Castle there were at least three lamp and candle men who laboured continuously at snuffing wicks, filling lamps and cleaning and de-waxing glass – a full-time job. ‘Gas was despised, I forget why – vulgar I think,’ was how Lady Diana Cooper remembered it.

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Professionalizing Nursemaids, latter 1800s

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 687-705:

Mrs Panton, who took the brisk view that a new baby is ‘a profound nuisance to its relations at the very first’, recommended outsourcing childcare to professionals at the earliest opportunity. Working-class women, almost certainly mothers themselves (by the end of the nineteenth century it was estimated that the average working-class married woman aged forty had borne between seven and fifteen children) had for generations been the wet-nurses and nursemaids to yet more generations of children. But as the urban middle-class home began to seal itself off from the world of the poor during the nineteenth century, these women became viewed as less than suitable as primary child-rearers. The enormous expansion in the number of toiling little nursemaids, children themselves, who worked in the middle-class home, were testament to the growing distance between the daily life of middle-class parents and their children: there were 5,937 nursemaids employed in 1851; by 1871 the number had risen to 75,491. But nursemaids were the servants of the nannies; and nannies of a more professional type became increasingly desirable, qualifications beyond childminding being sought after.

The establishment in 1892 of the Norland Institute raised the status of their nursery nurse and nanny to the level of educational mentor and moral guide. The Institute’s first principal, Isabel Sharman, observing that ‘nowhere but in England does the child live such a separate and distinct nursery life’, looked to the teachings of the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel to inject some helpful educational play into the rigid routines of the English child. Recruited among girls not quite academic enough to become teachers, Norland students were always to be considered, at the insistence of the Institute’s founder Mrs Emily Ward, ‘gentlewomen’. They would not eat with the servants and were instructed that on arrival in a new home they should place their silver hairbrushes ostentatiously on their chest of drawers to make evident their superiority to the servants’ hall. Norland nurses did not clean, wipe, launder or sweep: their concern was solely the tending of their charges’ moral and psychological development.* Nonetheless, the work clearly crossed into domestic labour, without this being specific, and Nurse Christine Tisdall in 1895 received a glowing reference from an employer in Edinburgh who praised her abilities ‘to perform the duties of a servant in the spirit of a lady and without causing friction in the household’.

* Norland nurses were also responsible, in 1907, for the first crèche for working class children, enabling working women, mainly from the laundry industry, to leave their children all day in professional care. The first crèche was in Hammersmith, London, at the reasonable cost to their mothers of four pence a child or seven pence for two. When they opened a second in nearby Acton, they had 2,436 attendances in six months.

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Feminization of Domestic Service, 1800s

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 822-857:

By 1900, the job of the male servant, though respected within the world of service itself, to the world beyond was no longer considered entirely manly. Once, domestic service had been a man’s work, the household servant the descendant of the members of the sporting and military retinues of the medieval nobleman. The best cooks were men, the front-of-house servants were men, and women were employed only for the most menial tasks or as lady’s-maids. But the nineteenth century had seen the increasing feminisation of domestic service. By the 1870s, according to the journalist C. S. Peel, writing in 1929, parlourmaids were already beginning to take the place of footmen and pageboys in even the largest houses, ‘and in the nineties it began to be the fashion to keep two, or even three, parlourmaids instead of butler and footmen’. Male indoor service never entirely recovered its appeal.

It was Charles Mayhew’s view that the liveried servant, who had once cut such a fashionable dash about town, had been ‘made ridiculous’ by cartoons in popular periodicals such as Punch’s ‘Jeames of Berkeley Square’. ‘How infinitely superior was the manly and self-respecting lacquey or major-domo of one hundred years ago to the servile and obsequious servant of modern days,’ wrote the butler ‘John Robinson’, in an article in The Nineteenth Century in 1892. The article, ‘A Butler Speaks’, is a poignant call for employers to treat their male servants with proper respect, as trained professionals, as people with feelings. Robinson wrote it in response to the publication of a mocking piece by Lady Violet Greville in the National Review, which poked fun at male servants and their ‘foibles’. Lady Violet had written in a tone that suggested, wrote Robinson, that employers thought there was something ‘low, mean and degraded’ about the very idea of the manservant. The role of the upper-manservant, he wrote, was to be always at the beck and call of his master, to be subject to the same indignities of loss of freedom as other servants. ‘His opportunities for self-improvement are usually very small. The hours he may call his own are fitful and rare. His duties may be light, but if he wishes to prove himself a good servant he must always be on the alert.’

The male servant, though he still maintained a high profile in the grander houses, was increasingly in retreat. In 1861 the census tells us that there were 62,000 male indoor servants and 962,000 female servants. But by 1901, the numbers had changed to 47,000 male indoor servants and just under 1.3 million female ones. A tax in 1777 on male servants (brought in to raise funds to fight the Americans in their war of independence) probably sparked the decline.* By the middle of the century, following the agricultural depression of the 1870s, a flood of rural girls came to work in the houses of the city and shopkeepers, clerks and other members of the expanding middle class who had not before employed servants could for the first time employ the single, overworked girl who was to characterise domestic service for the next century.

Yet despite the decline in numbers, male servants still earned considerably more than their female counterparts. A butler in 1912 could take home an average of £50–£80 per annum with three weeks’ holiday a year, while a housekeeper could expect to earn in the region of £30–£50. And a ‘man cook’, by far the most fashionable option in the kitchen (especially if he were French) could earn a really handsome £100–£150, while a female cook, however celebrated and skilled, would be extremely lucky to earn more than £100. (In 1825, Samuel and Sarah Adams, the authors of The Complete Servant, had paid tribute to the superior mystique of Continental male cooks: ‘In the house of fashion, he is generally a foreigner, or if an Englishman possesses a peculiar tact in manufacturing many fashionable foreign delicacies or of introducing certain seasoning and flavours in his dishes.’) Furthermore, while men tended to the decorative end of the profession, with hours spent listlessly waiting in the hallway for visitors or contriving complicated dinner dishes, women were the grafters, undertaking the bulk of the heavy manual work. ‘How they worked those girls! Up at five to clean and light the fires, to polish the steel grates in the Adam fireplaces, to whiten the hearths and later to take up the brass cans of hot water to the bedrooms. We men only started at seven and could sit down in the afternoons, but the girls had to then darn and repair the linen – and all for eight pounds a year,’ remembered Ernest King.

* This was not the case in Ireland, where the tax was never imposed. Dorothea Conyers from Ireland noted as late as 1920 the willingness of Irish servants to do any work allotted to them. ‘Every Irish servant will do everyone else’s work cheerfully, the men come in to help the maids polish the floors and shoes, and the maids are quite willing to feed the horses if the men are all out.’ (Dorothea Conyers, Sporting Reminiscences, p. 131.)

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