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Continental Monthly:

Devoted To

Literature and National Policy

VOL. VI. - September, 1864 - No. III.


Not of those affairs which are domestic in a broad, national sense; not
of any of our home institutions, 'peculiar' or otherwise; not of
politics in any shape, nor of railroads and canals, nor of interstate
relations, reconstructions, amnesty; not even of the omnivorous
question, The War, do I propose to treat under the head of 'Our Domestic
Affairs;' but of a subject which, though scarcely ever discussed except
flippantly, and with unworthy levity, in that broad arena of public
journalism in which almost every other conceivable topic is discussed,
is yet second to none, if not absolutely first of all in its bearings
upon our domestic happiness. I refer to the question of domestic service
in our households.

The only plausible explanation of the singular fact that this important
subject is not more frequently discussed in public is, undoubtedly, to
be found in its very magnitude. Men and women whose 'mission' it is to
enlighten and instruct the people, abound in every walk of morals.
Religion, science, ethics, and every department of social economy but
this, have their 'reformers.' Before the great problem, How shall the
evils which attend our domestic service be removed? the stoutest-hearted
reformer stands appalled. These evils are so multiform and
all-pervading, they strike their roots so strongly, and ramify so
extensively, that they defy the attempt to eradicate them; and they are
thus left to flourish and increase. We have plenty of groans over these
evils, but scarcely ever a thoughtful consideration of their cause, or
an attempt worth noting to remove or mitigate them.

This is surely cowardly and wrong. This great question, which is really
so engrossing that it is more talked of in the family circle than any
other - this profound and intricate problem, upon the solution of which
the comfort, happiness, and thrift of every household in the land depend
more than upon almost any other - surely demands the most careful study,
and the deepest solicitude of the reformer and philanthropist. The
subject just now is receiving considerable attention in England, and the
journals and periodicals of that country have recently teemed with
articles setting forth the miseries with which English households are
afflicted, owing to the want of good servants. But, unfortunately, from
none of these has the writer been able to extract much assistance in
preparing an answer to the only practical question: How are the evils
of domestic service to be remedied? I quote, however, an extract from a
recent article in _The Victoria Magazine_, in order to show how far the
complaints made in England of the shortcomings of servants run parallel
with those of our own housekeepers. It is to be noted that the writer
confessedly holds a brief for the servants. If the facts are fairly
stated, the relation between a servant in an English family and her
employer differs widely from the like relation with us;

'The prizes in domestic service are few, the blanks many. Ladies
think only of the prizes. Needlewomen and factory girls, when they
turn their attention to domestic service, see the hardworked,
underfed scrub lacking the one condition which goes far to
alleviate the hardest lot, that of personal liberty. People who
have never known what it is to be subject to the caprices of a
petty tyrant, scarcely appreciate this alleviation at its true
value. They expatiate upon the light labors, the abundance, the
freedom from anxiety which characterize the lot of servants in good
places, with an unction worthy of Southern slaveholders. What more
any woman can want they cannot understand. They think it nothing
that a servant has not, from week to week, and month to month, a
moment that she can call her own, a single hour of the day or
night, of which she can say, 'This is mine, and no one has a right
to prescribe what I shall do with it' - that, in most cases, she has
no recognized right to invite any one to come and see her, and
therefore can have no full and satisfying sense of home - that many
mistresses go so far as to claim the regulation of her dress - that
even in mature age and by the kindest employers she is treated more
as a child to be taken care of than as a responsible, grown-up
woman, able to think and judge for herself. These are substantial
drawbacks to the lot of the pampered menial.... These complaints of
the readiness of servants to leave their places are based on the
assumption that they are under obligations to their employers. In
many cases, no doubt, they are, though probably least so where
gratitude is most expected. But, at any rate, employers are also
under obligations to them. When one thinks of all servants do for
us, and how little, comparatively, we do for them, it appears that
the demand for gratitude might come more appropriately from the
other side. It is an old saying that we value in others the virtues
which are convenient to ourselves, and this is curiously
illustrated in the popular ideal of a good servant. In the master's
estimate besides the indispensable physical qualification of
vigorous health - diligence, punctuality, cleverness, readiness to
oblige, and rigid honesty, of a certain sort, are essentials.'

We would look long through our laundries and kitchens for the
'hardworked, underfed scrub' of the above extract; and the 'servant who
has not from week to week, and month to month, a moment that she can
call her own, a single hour of the day or night, of which she can say,
This is mine,' etc., does not belong to so numerous a class that her
sorrows in this respect invoke commiseration in the public journals. But
great as is the difference still between English and American servants,
as indicated by the above extract, the former are in a steadily
'progressive' state, and every year brings them nearer in their
condition to the happy - and, fortunately for the rest of mankind, as yet
anomalous - state of American domesticdom. An article in the London
_Saturday Review_ thus comments upon this progress:

'It seems to be too generally forgotten that servants are a part of
the social system, and that, as the social system changes, the
servants change with it. In the days of our great-grandmothers, the
traditions of the patriarchal principle and the subtile influences
of feudalism had not died out. 'Servitude' had scarcely lost its
etymological significance, and there was something at least of the
best elements of slavery in the mutual relation of master and
servant. There was an identification of interests; wages were
small; hiring for a year under penal obligations was the rule of
domestic service; and facilities for changing situations were rare
and legally abridged. It was as in married life; as the parties to
the contract were bound to make the best of each other, they did
make the best of each other. Servants served well, because it was
their interest to do so; masters ruled well and considerately, for
the same practical reason. Add to this that the class of hirers was
relatively small, while the class of hired and the opportunities of
choice were relatively large. These conditions are now reversed. As
education has advanced, the social condition of the class from
which servants are taken has been elevated, and it is thought to be
something of a degradation to serve at all. 'I am a servant, not a
slave,' is the form in which Mary Jane asserts her independence;
and she is only in a state of transition to the language of her
American cousin, who observes, 'I am a help, not a servant.' It is
quite true that there are no good servants nowadays, at least none
of the old type; and the day is not perhaps so very distant when
there will be no servants at all.'

The servant classes of France, Germany, and the other Continental
countries, seem to be, to a great extent, free from the faults that
beset those of England and America. A recent number of _Bell's Weekly
Messenger_ thus discusses this difference:

'The truth is that among the Celtic and Sclavonian families service
is felt to be honorable; those engaged in it take it up as a
respectable and desirable condition. They are as willing to
acknowledge it as the physician, the lawyer, or the clergyman is to
admit and be proud of their own. A French female servant, at least
away from Paris, wears a dress which marks at once what she is. She
is not ashamed of her condition, and nowhere is there such real
attachment between servants and their employers as in France. In
England, on the other hand, it is difficult to persuade a young
girl to accept domestic service; she requires what she imagines to
be something higher, or - to use her own word - more 'genteel.' If
she be a dressmaker, or a shop girl, or a barmaid, she assumes the
title of 'young lady,' and advertises - to the disgust of all
sensible people - as such. This monstrous notion, which strikes at
the root of all social comfort, and a great deal of social
respectability, is on the increase among us. It is not quite so
rampant as it is in America, but it is tending in the same
direction. In fact, our household prospects are not promising.
Since we feel that home cookery is far from rivalling that of the
clubs, restaurants are being established in the city equal to those
of Paris, and the cartoon of _Punch_ is daily fulfilled with a
terrible accuracy. 'What has your mistress for dinner to-day?' says
the master of the house, on the doorstep, his face toward the city.
'Cold mutton, sir.' 'Cold mutton! Ah! very nice; _very_ nice. By
the by, Mary, you may just mention to your mistress that I _may_
perhaps be detained rather later than usual to-day, and she is not
to wait dinner for me.' With these things before our eyes, we
cannot but feel grateful to any one who will _bona fide_ undertake
to teach a little plain cookery. The want of this is the cause of
more waste than any other deficiency. The laboring man marries; but
he marries a woman who can add nothing to the comfort of his home;
she supplies him with more mouths to feed, and she spoils that
which is to be put into them; she becomes slatternly, feels her own
incapacity, and, finding that she can do but little of her duty,
soon leaves off trying to do it at all. As her family increases the
discomforts of her home increase, and the end is
frequently - drunkenness, violence, and appeals to the police

The writer of the present article pretends to no peculiar fitness for
the investigation of this important subject, and to no more varied and
profound experience than that which has fallen to the lot of tens of
thousands of others; but much observation leads to the conviction that
the experience of any single family extending through a series of years
of housekeeping, may be taken as a type of that of all families who have
to employ servants; and if what shall be advanced in these pages shall
have the effect of stimulating others more competent to thought upon the
subject, with a view to practical suggestions for the amelioration of
the universal difficulty, much will have been gained.

The chief evils we have to consider on the part of servants are,
briefly, ignorance, wastefulness, untidiness, pertness, or downright
impudence, and what is called 'independence,' a term which all
housekeepers thoroughly understand. I leave out of the category the
vices of intemperance and dishonesty, which, although lamentably
prevalent among the class to which we are accustomed to look for our
main supply of domestics, yet do not belong, as do the other faults I
have named, to the entire class, and I gladly set them down as moral
obliquities, as likely to be exceptional in the class under
consideration as in any other. With regard to the other specified
failings, every housekeeper will allow that it is so much the rule for a
servant to be afflicted with the whole catalogue, that the mistress who
discovers her hired girl to be possessed of a single good quality, the
reverse of any I have named, as for example, economy, neatness, or a
conscientious devotion to the interests of her employers, although she
may utterly lack any other, fears to dismiss her, for fear that the next
may prove an average 'help,' and have not a solitary good point. A girl
who combines all the above-named good qualities is a rare treasure
indeed, and the possessor of the prize is an object of envy, wide and

In commenting upon the causes which produce bad servants, I shall
confine myself more especially to those which develop in them the faults
of wastefulness, impudence, and 'independence,' both because every
housekeeper will allow that they are the most common as well as trying
of all, and because it is only for them, I confess freely, I have any
hope of suggesting a remedy. Ignorance of their duties is chronic in all
Irish and German girls when they first go out to service, and their
acquirement of the requisite knowledge depends very much upon the amount
of such knowledge possessed by the housekeeper who has the privilege of
initiating them. Untidiness is almost equally universal among the same
classes, and, being a natural propensity, is extremely difficult of
eradication. It may be stated, however, that given an average
'greenhorn,' Irish or German, the notable and tidy housewife will make
of her a very fair servant, as well instructed as her native
intelligence will allow, and, unless a downright incorrigible, whose
natural slatternliness is beyond the reach of improvement, a certainly
tolerably neat, and possibly a very tidy servant. And just here I will
remark that it is an unquestionable fact that the good housekeeper has a
much more encouraging prospect of making a useful servant out of one of
these same 'greenhorns' than of a girl who has been longer in the
country, and who has nevertheless yet to be 'licked into shape.' Of
course this remark covers the whole ground, and it is obvious that to
_start_ a girl right in habits of economy, respectfulness, etc., is
quite as important as to start her right in any other good habit. It is
not necessary to say further that starting right is not of itself
enough: there must ever accompany the progress of the servant in
improvement, the watchful eye and guiding hand of the skilled mistress
and head of the family. I cannot, within the scope of this article,
enter into the consideration of the important correlative branch of my
subject, which includes the fitness of housekeepers to make good
servants out of the rough, to keep good what they so find, or to improve
such as they receive, be they good or bad. It is obvious that this
fitness presupposes a practical knowledge of the science of
housekeeping - (how worthy it is to be called a 'science'!) - and a
willingness to accept and carry out the responsibilities which devolve
upon the mistress of a family. I admit that very many of those who keep
servants are utterly unfit in many important senses for the
responsibilities of family economists. Yet I still believe it possible
for even the most inexperienced housekeepers to adopt and pursue, in
their management of servants, one or two cardinal principles which will
save them a vast deal of vexation. Of these, more hereafter.

The very prevalent pertness and 'independence' of servants are due,
primarily, unquestionably to the great demand for them, and the ease
with which situations are procured. This is not, in my judgment, because
the supply is inadequate; I do not believe it is. It is because the
frequent changings of servants by our families places it in the power of
every one of the former to procure a situation without the slightest
trouble. A girl about to leave a place has but to inquire for two or
three doors around, to find some family about to change 'help.' This
'independence' is also undoubtedly fostered by a false and exaggerated
idea which these girls imbibe from their brothers, 'cousins,' etc. - the
voting 'sovereigns' of the land - of the dignity of their new republican
relation. Most of the 'greenhorns' _begin_ humbly enough, but, after a
few months' tutelage of fellow servants, and especially if they pass
through the experiences of the 'intelligence offices' (of which more
anon), they are thoroughly spoiled, and become too impudent and
'independent' for endurance. The male adopted citizen, fawned upon by
demagogues for his vote, is 'as good as anybody;' and why not Bridget
and Katrina?

Now I do not broach the abstract question of equality: I am willing to
admit that in the eye of our Maker we are, and before the law ought to
be, all equal - that is to say, _ought all to have an equal chance_; but
to abolish the idea of subordination in the employed to the employer,
and to abrogate the relation of dependence of the servant upon her or
his master or mistress, would simply be to reverse the teachings of
inspiration and nature. As well say that the child shall be independent
of the parent as that the servant shall not be subject in all reasonable
things to the master.

It is worthy of remark that this spirit of insubordination spoken of is
far more rife among girls of Irish birth who go out to service than
among the Germans, Scotch, or English. Neither is there among these
latter so much clannishness, or disposition to establish the feeling
under consideration as a _class_ prejudice and principle of conduct, as
there is among the former. The absence of such a homogeneity of feeling
among German, English, and Scotch domestics makes them much more
favorable subjects for the operation of the rules I propose to suggest
for their improvement.

The clannishness just alluded to is a very important influence among
those which tend to produce insubordination and other serious faults
among servants. Every housekeeper must have observed that a marvellous
facility of intercommunication exists among the servant classes, and
more particularly among the Irish. There seems to be some mysterious
method at work, whereby the troubles and bickerings of each mistress
with her 'help' are made known through the whole realm of servantdom. It
is no uncommon thing for a mistress to have minutely detailed to her by
her hired girl the particulars of some difficulty with a previous
servant, with whom she has no reason to believe the narrator has had any
intercourse. So frequently does this happen that many housekeepers
religiously believe that the Irish servants are banded together in some
sort of a 'society,' in the secret conclaves of which the experiences of
each kitchen are confided to the common ear. This belief is not confined
to American housekeepers, but obtains very extensively in England also.
The arrest and punishment of a woman in London for giving a good
'character' to a dishonest servant, who subsequently robbed her
employer, naturally caused some excitement in housekeeping circles in
that city, and numerous communications to _The Times_ evinced the
feeling upon the subject. In one of these 'A Housekeeper' boldly asserts
that there are combinations among the servants, and that housekeepers
who refuse to give a certificate of good character are 'spotted,' and
find in consequence the greatest difficulty in obtaining any servants
thereafter. Indeed, she asserts that in some instances, so rigorously
does the system work, offending families have been compelled to
relinquish housekeeping, and go into lodgings or abroad, until their
offence was forgotten! The fundamental principle which our housekeepers
believe to pervade these societies is that employers are fair game; that
the servant has to expect nothing but to be oppressed, persecuted,
overworked, ground down, and taken advantage of at every opportunity,
and that it is her duty, therefore, to hold the employer at bitter
enmity, and to make the best fight she can.

Now such a belief can scarcely be termed absurd, and yet it is
unquestionably groundless. The mysterious 'understanding' of servants,
and their wide knowledge of each other's experiences, may be explained
upon a perfectly simple and rational theory, and I think we may venture
to reject the 'society' hypothesis altogether.

Servant life is as much a world in itself as political, religious, or
art life. Indeed, its inhabitants are even _more_ isolated and
self-existent than those of any other sphere, for while the politician,
theologian, and artist are generally, to some extent, under the
influence of interests and passions other than those which belong
exclusively to their special walk, the dwellers in kitchens have but the
one all-embracing sphere, and its incidents, which seem to us so
trivial, are to them as important as the great events which we think are
worthy of being embalmed in epics or made imperishable in history. To
them the reproof of the mistress or the loss of wages for the careless
pulverization of a soup tureen is lawful theme for the agitation of all
servantdom. Martin Luther had his tussles with pope and devil, Handel
and Gluck had their wars with the hostile cabals, Henry Clay had his
John Randolph and Andrew Jackson - and Bridget and Catharine have their
disturbing and absorbing questions of 'wages,' and 'privileges,' and
other matters; and a wrangle that the mistress forgets in a day, the
maid carefully cherishes in her memory, and makes it the theme of widest
discussion. Without resorting, then, to the improbable notion of the
existence of a secret society among the servants, through which the
knowledge of our difficulties with them is disseminated, I think the
theory above outlined sufficiently explains what seems so mysterious.
There can, however, be no question that the feeling among servants
generally is unfortunately something like that alluded to above as the
imaginary inspiration of a hypothetical society, namely, that employers
are oppressive, exacting, and utterly selfish; and there is certainly a
tacit understanding that, as between servant and mistress, it is
'diamond cut diamond;' and the habit domestics have of making common
cause with a sister in trouble, no doubt practically works as much evil
as if such a society as has been mentioned really existed. The girl,
confronting her adversary, in military phrase, feels a hundred comrades
'touching her elbow,' and her lip is wonderfully stiffened thereby. Now
it is needless for me to say that the idea that these poor girls have,
that their employers are their natural enemies, is wrong and absurd, and
every housekeeper should endeavor to make this clear to her servants. If
this false idea could be eradicated, and the true theory established
that the interests of the employer and employé are identical, much will
have been accomplished toward making better servants.

Among the influences which are at work to spoil servants, none are more
baleful than the system, as at present conducted, of 'intelligence
offices.' These agencies _might_ be and _ought_ to be among the most
useful of our social institutions: they _are_, as a class, utterly
worthless, and many of them are positively dens of thieves. Almost
without exception they are conducted upon the vicious principle I have
just above discussed, and in them the servant is confirmed in her belief
that the employing class is a class of cruel oppressors. The interest of
the _employer_ seems to be held by the managers of most of these
institutions as absolutely of no account. The following conversation,
which actually took place in one of these offices, between its
proprietor and an applicant for a domestic, will illustrate, better than
a lengthy disquisition could do, the system upon which too many of these
employment agencies are conducted:

LADY. I want a girl for general housework.

PROPRIETOR. Well, I can suit you, if you _can_ be suited. Here's a girl,
now, just out of a place, and I can recommend her (beckoning to one of

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Online LibraryVariousThe Continental Monthly, Vol. 6, No 3, September 1864 → online text (page 1 of 18)