Well, here is Chapter 6 of A Bird in the Hand.
Happy Spring. I hope you’re all able to celebrate by having sex outdoors or, failing that, by enjoying being out and about. My knee is coming right along. I thought we would talk about…
All Those Servants
This is a pretty expansive topic, so I’ll go ahead and label this Part 1
During the Regency, about ten percent of the total population was employed “in service.” Today, we have a real fascination with the idea of servants and the elegance and extravagance they engender, but that’s only a small piece of the reality. All but the poorest families had some kind of permanent domestic help. It wasn’t strictly a symbol of status; it was just plain necessary. (Understand, however, that more than 60% of the total population counted as “the poorest families.”)
It’s important to remember that most of our technology ultimately exists to replace or expedite tasks that have historically been accomplished through manual labor. This is an era that predates electric power and for the most part, indoor plumbing. Picture your house or your apartment. Now try to imagine keeping it clean without the use of a vacuum cleaner, all purpose sprays, Swiffers, Pledge, paper towels, Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, etc. If you want hot water, you need to go and get coal or wood, build a fire, go and get cold water, drag it into the house (or down the street) and then heat it up. All of your meals need to be prepared from scratch. All of your clothes and linens need to be washed, mended, and in many cases made by hand. Also, there are probably some kids running around the place, and there’s no such thing as public school.
It all adds up to more than one family can handle. If you think about all the services and conveniences we readily pay for today that simply weren’t available back then, it’s not so hard to imagine that you might be able to afford room, board, and a subsistence-level wage for a maid-of-all-work.
Subsistence-level might be too generous a term. The average salary for an experienced maid was something like £14/year. Even adjusting generously for inflation, that’s only about £600 or $1000 in today’s money. Per year. Then again, she works 14-16 hours a day and she wears hand-me-down dresses, so what exactly does she need money for, right? Hey, for that price, you could probably take on a few more! And you definitely would have, because as I mentioned, there’s a lot of work to be done around here.
The majority of all servants were women, and the default servant was the female maid. This was the case for several reasons, none of which pertained to the intensity of the labor:
- There’s something deeply ingrained in human culture that slates women to be the caretakers of the home. Even in modern times, male domestic help is very uncommon. (Mannies, male nurses, male housekeepers, etc.)
- Men could find work in other professions; women could not. Domestic service is one of the few places women could be freely employed, and so they were.
- Women could be paid a lot less than men. Women have always been paid a lot less than men. I think this has to do with the assumption that men will at some point have wives and families to provide for, so it’s really more a case of men being paid more – but the end result is the same. During the Regency, women in comparable positions earned only about half as much as men.
- Male servants were specifically taxed by the government. From 1777 on, employers had to pay 1 guinea/year (£1.05) on each male servant. (This tax was first introduced to help fund the American War for Independence.)
Despite the dominant presence of women in domestic service, we know there were plenty of male servants too. We’ve seen them in their wigs and that ubiquitous 18th century livery. There’s a reason for that; we were meant to see them. While female servants were strictly necessary to keep a household running, male servants became a luxury. As such, they were only found in the wealthiest of households, and were outfitted in more and more elaborate uniforms to reflect their showpiece quality. Footmen, coachmen, grooms, and butlers were part of a family’s public face. They were seen with a family on the street, or attached to the coach. They answered the door, and they served the guests. The romantic notion of the strapping young footman does not come from authors’ imaginations. Being tall and handsome were important qualifications in men whose job it was to be visible.
Female servants were drab in comparison. They didn’t wear uniforms; that was a Victorian invention. They wore modest, serviceable dresses in light colors that reflected the simpler trends in women’s fashion at that time. They were largely unseen – and were certainly unnoticed – even by members of the household. The housekeeper acted as the liaison between the master, or more usually the mistress, of the house and the rest of the female staff, with the exception of the personal ladies’ maids, and the sometimes the cook. The romantic notion of female servants having affairs, or even regular interaction, with the master of the house largely does come from authors’ imaginations.
The idea that female servants were forced to submit to their male masters’ pleasure is completely medieval, whereas the idea that men might form romantic attachments to their servants is entirely too modern. There simply isn’t any evidence of this happening. This was a highly repressed, highly moralistic, highly rigid society where the ideal state of living was focused around domestic felicity and the propagation of legitimate children. Regency gentlemen did have affairs – most commonly with widows and other men’s wives. There is plenty of evidence here, in both letters and personal memoirs, but these affairs were generally not conducted across class barriers nor inside their own homes.
There’s one loophole here, which is that they may have been conducted in other people’s homes. Some sources suggest that male guests and lodgers (single men in boarding houses) were known to have seduced female servants, being indifferent to the havoc such actions could wreak within a household that wasn’t theirs. I haven’t found any direct accounts of this, but there are enough warnings and concerns expressed to conclude that it probably did occur. Female servants were also known to willingly or unwillingly engage in sexual relationships with other male servants. Unfortunately, most of these scenarios would likely result in the dismissal of the female servant – especially if she happened to become pregnant.
But it wasn’t all bad…
The reason we hear the word “household” used interchangeably with “staff” when referring to domestic servants pertains to the way they were regarded by their masters. As much as they were employees, they were also viewed as dependents. As such, masters were responsible for both the moral and physical well-being of their servants. Servants attended church. If they became ill, they saw the doctor. It was common to make monetary provisions for long-term servants in one’s will, or even pay a pension to a loyal servant allowing them some semblance of a modern retirement. There are a number of other habits, such as paying for school and apprenticeships for the children of servants, providing severance or other gifts should they need to let them go, that were totally unexceptional. These things weren’t guaranteed, but they were customary. In an era that predated any form of public assistance, the habit of private assistance was a real godsend. These sorts of benefits weren’t available in any other industry – those hundreds of thousands of people toiling away in the Lancashire manufacturies did not have 401k plans or tuition assistance programs. Domestic service wasn’t easy work – especially for the women – but it offered more protection and more opportunity than pretty much anything else at that time.
I think next time I’ll talk more about the specific jobs and salaries.
Many of the references in this post come from The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams. They published this in 1825, upon their retirement, after a respective 50 years of experience working in service. Anyone with an interest in Regency life should take a look. Beyond the instruction sets and job descriptions, it contains a ton of information referencing things expected to be common knowledge in daily life, such as post schedules, market weights, styles of address, coach fares, French phrases, and so on. It is available for free on Google Books.
So, once again, here is Chapter 6.