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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