Nineteen Ways a Servant’s Job Was Worse Than Yours | Phactual

Nineteen Ways a Servant’s Job Was Worse Than Yours

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Nineteen Ways a Servant’s Job Was Worse Than Yours

If the last thing you want to see is a sinkfull of dirty dishes after a long day at work, be grateful you’re not a British domestic in the Edwardian era, who worked where she lived and was lucky to see a half-day off. In Servants, author Lucy Lethbridge details the many ways a Downton Abbey life wasn’t so gracious in the stairs beneath the drawing room.

We like to imagine ourselves in filmy Regency dresses or plush gentleman’s clubs, but the reality is, the vast majority of us would have lived as members of the lower classes. You probably weren’t ever going to get anywhere near a fabulous Lady Mary gown, no matter how extra hours you put in scrubbing the fire grate.  Here are seventeen hard-life facts about the servant world that’s long passed:


1) Before the twentieth century, servants were considered a mark of social status, and all but the most poverty-stricken employed at least some help. This made for a great deal of employment, but not much efficiency: One journalist counted the involvement of eight servants in the process of making and delivering a single-bowl meal to an invalid family member.

2) One of the many morning tasks of maids was to get on her hands and knees and clean a house’s front steps with a scrubbing or whitening stone.

3) Lighting was a problem before the advent of electricity, one which demanded servants who did nothing but tend to lamps. The Marquess of Bath required four hundred lamps in one estate alone.

4) Maids who encountered their employers were expected to stop what they were doing and face the wall, avoiding eye contact. In the same way, gardeners added yards and yards to long-way-around trips with wheelbarrows so as to avoid being seen from the windows.

5) Ever wonder why Victorian houses are so complicated and maze-like, with all those creepy, endless corridors and doors? They were designed that way to separate the servants from the families they served. It was considered gauche to encounter the smell of cooking or any evidence of the servants who made a large house run.

6) The daily duties of ladies’ maids including washing all the coins in her employer’s purse.

7) Like your name?  Too bad. In many houses, servants were all addressed by the same name– for example, the first footman was always called John even if his actual name was Thomas. Why, after all, should a duke concern himself with memorizing the names of all three hundred hired hands?


8) Height could dictate your pay and servant’s station.  Men who wanted to be footmen or women who wanted to be upper-class parlor maids and were under six feet tall were out of luck. Petite women were doomed to the kitchen and the scullery; short men never made it out of the stables– except maybe to ride his lordship’s horses as jockeys.

9) British households in India employed servants to carry the women of the household on their backs during monsoon season when wheeled vehicles became stuck.

10) Merry Christmas: Many employers presented their entire female staff with… a bolt of cloth with which to make a new uniform dress for the year.

11) Quietness was prized above all in an indoor servant. They were required to wear shoes that didn’t creak and were cautioned against breathing too loudly.

12) In large households, linen was tracked by embroidering numbers and the mistress’ initials.

13) After the arrival of electricity, some families wired the lighting in the servants’ quarters to a central switch. That way, they could institute a firm “lights out” time so that the staff wouldn’t be temped to read into the night.

14) During World War I, with many men at the front, women took over domestic jobs that were usually male roles. Some became “footgirls” in place of “footmen,” complete with pink uniforms.

15) In the wake of the war, England’s “first personal service bureau” advertised for single women of gentle birth in need of work. The Universal Aunts were carefully indexed by skill. One boasted that she “can slide down banisters at a push.” But can she slide up?


16) If you’ve ever wondered why your cleaning agent smells artificially of lavender, pine, vinegar, or lemon, the reason stretches back to the aftermath of World War I, when manufacturers began producing cleaning agents such as “Mansion House” to speed the jobs that used to be done by hand. Those oils were originally used to spruce up homes from the kitchen to the parlor. Work that was once done in grand houses by large staffs now had to be completed by smaller crews– many men had been lost in the war, and women began to work increasingly outside domestic service thanks to looser social expectations.

17) As World War II approached, England provided block visas to any Germans willing to work as domestics. German and Jewish evacuees bonded throughout Britain in local clubs and musical organizations.

18) For all that human machinery, by 1947, only 6% of British households had hired help.

19) Queen Elizabeth, however, still employs Ladies in Waiting and many other traditional servants, along with other members high-ranking members of the royal family.


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