Some information on domestic servants
Posted by Helen on April 27, 1998 at 07:49:07:
I came across this in a book I was reading for something completely different: the article is by Patty Seleski, "Women, work and cultural change in 18th and early 19th London" in Tim Harris, Popular Culture in England, c. 1500-1850 (Macmillan, 1995).
Mary Ann Ashford worked as a servant in London during JA’s lifetime. In 1844 she published her autobiography, Life of a Licensed Victualler’s Daughter because she saw a book which was supposed to be the life of a servant girl but in fact was a novel. This made her realise she had never read anything from the servant’s perspective (other than moral tracts) and so she was inspired to write down her own life. In 1803 she went into service age 13, having been orphaned. She saw herself as losing social position through going into service - her relatives had wanted to place her "more genteelly" in a miliner’s. Between 1803 and 1817 she changed jobs 14 times, for a variety of reasons: one mistress scolded her, another starved her then dismissed her for theft because she ate some cheese, another had too many regulations for her liking. But she also left a good mistress because she was offered more money.
Seleski uses Ashford’s story to talk about the domestic situation of women during this period, arguing that servants were "cultural amphibians" through whom the culture of the elite was brought to the masses. She cites two books: J.J. Hecht The Domestic Servant Class in C18th (Routledge, 1985) and B. Hill Women, Work and Sexual Politics (Blackwell, 1989) as authorities on the subject. Other useful books she mentions are L. Davidoff and C. Hall Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class (Hutchinson 1987) and N. Armstrong Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (OUP 1987).
Domestic service was the main employer of women aged 18-24, with perhaps 80,000 female domestic servants in London alone! and at least half of London households having at least one female servant! There was an increasing trend to mainly female servants in households - about 82% of all servants were female by 1850.
Women servants were actively discouraged from having ‘followers’. Their time off was strictly limited to eg. Sunday afternoon (to go to church) and one whole Sunday a month and one evening a week (to spend with their families). Of course this didn’t work and they often ended up walking in the fields with men (how shocking)!
Seleski explains that middle-class theories about how households worked labelled women as natural managers of the household. There was a pressure on them to live up to this type which had its effect on the relationship between mistress and servant. But at the same time, just as industry was becoming more regulated, so was domestic management: mistresses were encouraged to have lots of rules for their servants and were seen as reforming them (both religiously and culturally). Household manuals contained lots of instructions on how to order the household (times for servants to rise, what each should do etc). Mistresses were told that they should know the character of every servant, and that they should get up early themselves to supervise the housework (late risers were seen as failures in good management). Thus female servants were at the intersection of two drives by the middle classes to control others: control of the workplace and of women. Through these controls they were supposed to be made "good women" (ie happy with their lot in life, industriously doing others’ housework and paragons of moral virtue).
Women servants were famous, in the face of these social pressures, for their changes of employment (thus like Mary Ashford taking control of their own lives and not being subdued by the reforming mistresses): about half stayed in a job for one year at a time. However, there were also mistresses who were seen as incompetent because they failed to keep control over their households: Seleski cites a 1790 case where a woman was criticized because she didn’t even know her servant’s name (this was when the servant was brought to trial after the death of her illegitimate child - obviously this was not a well regulated household!).
One final piece of information: the next article in the book is on the workplace and says that most men worked at least 12 hrs/day, 6 days/week!
- Thanks! One for the file! (nfm) Laura W 23:32:31 4/29/98 (0)
- I am very grateful as well, Helen! nfm Ann2 16:31:31 4/28/98 (0)
- Excellent Info. THANKS! (NFM) ElaineL 12:28:15 4/27/98 (0)
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