Category Archives: labor

English Villages as Imaginary Edens, c. 1900

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1392-1423:

Many social reformers of the turn of the twentieth century, Dr Barnardo among them, abhorred the demoralising and alienating effects of industrialisation and found a solution in the ideal of the healing hierarchies of a rural paradise lost, the essence of England. If housekeeping inculcated the discipline of thrift and the battle against waste, mass production was the very agent of superfluity and excess. The pre-industrial utopia was enshrined in another kind of social ecology, and at its centre was the mutual dependency that had existed between the classes in the imagined manorial village of the past. ‘The village is the expression of a small corporate life,’ wrote Sir Raymond Unwin, the architect of the garden cities of Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, ‘in which all the different units are personally in touch with each other, conscious of and frankly accepting their relations, and on the whole content with them.’

In the new garden cities, lych gates, mullions and gables jostled together in harmonious asymmetry, in contrast to the hastily erected tenement sprawls of industrial cities. Alfred Lyttelton MP hailed the garden city as the model of a community in which ‘the squire and the parson and those who clustered round the parsonage or the mansion lived together harmoniously with no sign of tyranny or patronage on one side, or of servility or loss of independence on the other’. The garden city was a vision of a very English Eden, both radical and reactionary, espousing the ‘practical socialism’, the ‘muscular Christianity’, of its founders, yet at its heart deeply paternalist: it was a heaven of many levels, where public service flourished at the top only if nourished by the wholesome craftsmanship and service of those at the bottom.

In fact, although the English landed estate still exercised considerable rural influence, the English village was already more often than not a hybrid community of cottagers, landlords and incomers. Three miles south of Farnham, Surrey, is the scrubby heathland landscape of a small community known as the Bourne, the subject of George Sturt’s 1912 book Change in the Village. Sturt was a wheelwright by trade and his book describes vividly a world in which the traditional communal economy had been replaced by a commercial one. This had brought, wrote Sturt, a creeping loss of self-respect in the villagers: ‘inferiority had come into their lives’. The Bourne was not an ideal village as the garden-city reformers might have imagined one: there was no benevolent manor, no village green for dancing round a maypole; there was little indication in the Bourne of the happy hierarchies so beloved of the celebrators of ‘Merrie England’. The old crafts and skills of the past had been gradually replaced by piecework for minimum wages which left the villagers too exhausted for the traditional rural festivities that well-meaning outsiders wished them to enjoy. They were resolutely unsympathetic to the ‘self-conscious revivals of peasant arts which are now being recommended to the poor by a certain type of philanthropist’, wrote Sturt.

The greatest visible change in the Bourne during the early years of the twentieth century was the proliferation of suburban villas that had sprung up on the edge of the village. In the new economy of rural life, it was very often the new villa on which village livelihoods now depended. These middle-class households had gardens that needed tending and ‘even the cheaper villas . . . need their cheap drudges’. Other traditional sources of income were increasingly insecure: machinery was gradually replacing labourers; large laundries were replacing washerwomen working at home. In villages like the Bourne, where there was no big-house tradition, poorly paid and unprotected drudge work was the only domestic service available. Sturt tells of a struggling farm labourer whose daughter paid half the family’s rent from her earnings as a servant girl in a villa. To the argument that working in a middle-class home raised the servant’s aspirations, Sturt had a brisk retort: ‘The truth is that middle-class domesticity, instead of setting cottage women on the road to middle-class culture of mind and body, has sidetracked them – has made of them charwomen and laundresses, so that other women may shirk these duties and be cultured.’

Some dynamics haven’t changed much over the last hundred years.

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Alternatives to Domestic Service, 1800s

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1362-91:

Elizabeth Banks was inspired to undertake her 1892 investigation into service to find an answer to the question that vexed the English middle classes: why was it that many girls would do almost anything, even if it meant living off ‘porridge in the morning and watercress in the evening with no midday meal’, rather than undertake the work of cleaning someone else’s home? She visited a young seamstress living in terrible conditions – ‘the unwomanly rags, the crust of bread, the straw and the broken chair’ – in a lodging-house in Camberwell on eighteen pence a week. When the dismayed Elizabeth offered to find her a job as a housemaid, ‘with a nice clean bedroom, plenty to eat, print dresses in the morning, black stuff in the afternoon, with white caps and aprons and collars and cuffs’, she was astounded by the girl’s outrage at the suggestion: ‘“Did you come only to insult me?” she demanded, stamping her feet. “I go out to service! I wear caps and aprons, those badges of slavery! No, thank you, I prefer to keep my liberty and be independent.”’

The servant-employing classes struggled to grasp why so many girls did not appear to be grateful for the opportunity to get their feet under a more comfortable table than the one they had come from. Was not the home a haven both moral and practical, a place of safety? The nineteenth century had been haunted by the spectre of the lost child of the Industrial Revolution: the chimney sweep, the crossing-sweeper, the pickpocket, the match-seller, the five-year-old child who had gone blind sorting buttons in a sweatshop. In the popular imagination they were perceived as orphaned (even if this were not in fact the case), adrift, alone and prematurely aged by malnutrition, poverty and abandonment. The social reformer Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 descriptions of the ‘rookeries’ or London tenements in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London almost single-handedly sparked an age of public health reform. Chadwick’s picture of a world of struggle, suffering and hopelessness was entirely cut off from the comfortable family world of the prosperous; nineteenth-century London, he wrote, was a labyrinth of filthy box-like slums, leading one from the other and ‘reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases rising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions’.

According to Henry Mayhew, in 1868–9 there were 17,000 known tramps in England and Wales and 17 per cent of them were under sixteen. In 1889, of the 192,000 registered inmates of workhouses, 54,000 were under sixteen. Dr Thomas Barnardo, the most celebrated of all Victorian philanthropists and a fiery street preacher, was moved to set up his first home for children when he discovered eleven young boys, barely clothed, sleeping along an iron gutter open to the elements. The annual accounts of Dr Barnardo’s children’s homes contain fearful catalogues of the ailments suffered by those picked up on the streets and given refuge: rickets, knock-knees, goitre, spinal paralysis, deaf and dumbness; and lung diseases like consumption, bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma, which were the legacy of the dust inhaled while working long hours in factories. In 1906, Edith, a five-year-old girl, ‘nobody’s child’, was found by Thomas Barnardo wandering the streets apparently completely unwanted – absolutely nothing at all could be discovered of her origins or parentage. Another, a crippled boy of ten, was referred to Barnardo’s after the boy’s mother, a rubbish-picker, was burned to death by an upturned paraffin lamp.

Efforts were made to contain these wandering, vagrant children by the institution of industrial schools, but the focus of the schools was largely penal and the pastoral work of caring for ‘waifs and strays’ was left to private charities and individual philanthropic endeavours. By 1878, in London alone, there were fifty philanthropic societies dedicated to the welfare of children.

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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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Kit Carson’s Skillset

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1271-1293:

If Fremont had become a household name, so had his scout. By 1845, thanks to the expedition reports, Kit Carson’s name, with its sturdy alliterative snap, had crossed the threshold of the national imagination. Fremont painted Carson as an explorer of nearly mythic competence and perspicacity on the trail. He consistently came across as courageous but never rash, a person with a sure presence of mind. And also, crucially, a person who seemed to have enormous stores of luck on his side: Time after time, the stars smiled on Kit Carson. In nearly every contretemps Fremont got himself into, Carson found the way out.

The special thing that Carson had couldn’t be boiled down to any one skill; it was a panoply of talents. He was a fine hunter, an adroit horseman, an excellent shot. He was shrewd as a negotiator. He knew how to select a good campsite and could set it up or strike it in minutes, taking to the trail at lightning speed. (“Kit waited for nobody,” complained one greenhorn who traveled with him, “and woe to the unfortunate tyro.”) He knew what to do when a horse foundered. He could dress and cure meat, and he was a fair cook. Out of necessity, he was also a passable gunsmith, blacksmith, liveryman, angler, forager, farrier, wheelwright, mountain climber, and a decent paddler by raft or canoe. As a tracker, he was unequaled. He knew from experience how to read the watersheds, where to find grazing grass, what to do when encountering a grizzly. He could locate water in the driest arroyo and strain it into potability. In a crisis he knew little tricks for staving off thirst—such as opening the fruit of a cactus or clipping a mule’s ears and drinking its blood. He had a landscape painter’s eye and a cautious ear and astute judgment about people and situations. He knew how to make smoke signals. He knew all about hitches and rope knots. He knew how to make a good set of snowshoes. He knew how to tan hides with a glutinous emulsion made from the brains of the animal. He knew how to cache food and hides in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. He knew how to break a mustang. He knew which species of wood would burn well, and how to split the logs on the grain, even when an axe was not handy.

These were important skills, all of them, though they were hard to measure and quantify. But in the right person, a person who was also cheerful on a trail he already knew well, who had a few jokes up his sleeve and possessed an absolute honesty—they were invaluable.

Fremont’s nickname, The Pathfinder, was a misnomer several times over. For it was Carson, not Fremont, who had usually “found” the path—and often as not he was merely retracing trails that had already been trod by trappers, Indians, or Spanish explorers. In Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series, the main protagonist, Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Hawkeye, a.k.a. the Pathfinder, wears buckskins, lives with the Indians and follows their ways. It was Carson, not Fremont, who actually lived a life that resembled Cooper’s hero.

He was multilingual but illiterate.

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Mountain Man Fur Trapper Culture, 1830s

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 320-341:

From his new comrades, Carson learned to savor beaver tail boiled to an exquisite tenderness—the trapper’s signature dish. He became expert with a Hawken rifle and a Green River skinning knife. He began to pick up the strange language of the mountain men, a colorful patois of French, Spanish, English, and Indian phrases mixed with phrases entirely of their own creation. “Wagh!” was their all-purpose interjection. They spoke of plews (pelts) and fofurraw (any unnecessary finery). They “counted coup” (revenge exacted on an avowed enemy), and when one of their own was killed, they were “out for hair” (scalps). They said odd things like “Which way does your stick float?” (What’s your preference?) They met once a year in giant, extended open-air festivals, the “rendezvous,” where they danced fandangos and played intense rounds of monte, euchre, and seven-up. Late at night, sitting around the campfires, sucking their black clay pipes, they competed in telling legendary whoppers about their far-flung travels in the West—stories like the one about the mountain valley in Wyoming that was so big it took an echo eight hours to return, so that a man bedding down for the night could confidently shout “Git up!” and know that he would rise in the morning to his own wake-up call.

From these men, too, Carson began to learn how to deal with the Western Indians—how to detect an ambush, when to fight, when to bluff, when to flee, when to negotiate. It is doubtful whether any group of nineteenth-century Americans ever had such a broad and intimate association with the continent’s natives. The mountain men lived with Indians, fought alongside and against them, loved them, married them, buried them, gambled and smoked with them. They learned to dress, wear their hair, and eat like them. They took Indian names. They had half-breed children. They lived in tepees and pulled the travois and became expert in the ways of Indian barter and ancient herbal remedy. Many of them were half-Indian themselves, by blood or inclination. Washington Irving, writing about Western trappers, noted this tendency: “It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures, and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave.”

The fur trappers knew firsthand that Native Americans were ferocious fighters—some legendarily so, like the Blackfoot and the Comanche. But they also knew that the Indian style of battle was often very different from European warfare, that it was difficult to engage Native Americans in a pitched battle, that their method was consistently one of raid and ambush, attack and scatter, snipe and vanish. The mountain men said that Indians were often like wolves: Run, and they follow; follow, and they run.

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