Edited Transcripts

Service! with Felisa Fargazer


Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: We had best get this started.

Before we proceed, some housekeeping reminders:
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7) Edited and unedited transcripts of these proceedings will be posted at aethersalon.blogspot.com.
There, that is all the points but one – this is not the Poetry Slam, appreciation is not shown with temporary-rez ammunition, danke.

Let me introduce our speaker now. Lisa Fargazer arrived in New Babbage–in her present state, at least–about two and a half years ago. She stayed with the urchins for a while, but early this year, decided it was time to make her way in the world. She was hired as a maid-of-all-work at the Murgam Asylum, and has been working there ever since, despite the interesting troubles that crop up there from time to time. Recently, she has even taken on a bit of a supervisory role with the new maids that have been hired.

Fraulein Fargazer, the floor is yours.

Felisa Fargazer: I know most of us, when we think of the English servant, have pictures of the fleet of workers in the great houses–‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ being the touchstones. However, since New Babbage has a distinct lack of such great estates–we’re not Caledon, after all *wink*–this talk will focus more on the experience of servants in middle-class homes, which will be more in line with what would happen in New Babbage, and is at least somewhat similar to what I experience in my work at the asylum. Of course, it being an asylum, I do have to deal with duties–and hazards–no house servant could imagine. I hope that this will help you to begin populating the houses and streets around you with more of these unseen people–in your mind’s eye, if nowhere else.

In case you doubt the ubiquitous nature of the servant, consider this. In the 1891 census of England and Wales, the total population counted was about 29 million. Fully 5% of that total–1.4 million–were people working as indoor servants in private homes.

zaida Gearbox: dat was 1891 didn’t it used to be more?
Lisa Fargazer: (I’m not sure, Zaida–that was the only year of information I found.)

That total was very gender-skewed; only 4% of the 1.4 million (about 58,500) were men and boys; all the rest were girls and women. A fair number started work young, too–over 107,000 girls and nearly 7000 boys in service were between 10 and 15 years of age.

Hysshia a’Suolla an Isala Ph.D.: I guess not all servants where registered, as some wouldn’t have been paid, especially in the country estates?
Lisa Fargazer: (That, I don’t know, Ms. Isala.)

Many of these servants worked in the great houses and estates for the rich; most of the middle-class had to content themselves with either hiring a workhouse child or getting a charwoman to come in part-time. As the Victorian age progressed, though, more middle-class families found themselves able to hire a servant. Still, the fact that the household of Miss Bookworm Hienrichs includes two servants–a housekeeper and a cook–shows that, while they may not be rich, they are certainly more well-to-do than most (and more well-to-do than even their typist realized *grin*).

I may as well, though, go through the hierarchy of the different types of servants, especially those in the rich houses and estates, as those at the lower end would often try to learn the skills needed to work their way up the ladder. Included are the average pay scales for each type in the early 1890’s, to help give you an idea of how each was valued.

At the very top were the house and the land stewards–who weren’t actually considered servants, but were professional employees, at or above the level of the family lawyer. The land steward managed the estate and its farms, collected rents, and settled disputes between tenants. He was paid anywhere between 100 and 300 pounds per year. The house steward took care of the hiring, firing, payment of, and purchasing for the servants of the estate, and earned 50-100 pounds per year.

Next came the Upper Staff, the creme-de-la-creme of the servants, who ate separately from the rest of the staff, and were deferred to by them. The Butler was the highest-ranking servant, and was responsible for the smooth running of the household; he earned between 40 and 60 pounds per year. The Housekeeper was responsible for the female staff (or, if there was no butler, all the staff), as well as maintaining the house’s furnishings. Being a woman, she earned, of course, less than the Butler–usually 5-10 pounds per year less.

The Cook or Chef supervised the kitchen staff, and prepared the family’s meals (undercooks would prepare the meals for the staff). Their pay varied widely, depending on their own abilities and the size of the household, and could be anything from 30 to 300 pounds per year. Finally, there were the Lady’s Maid and the Valet, the personal servants to the mistress and master of the house. In addition to helping them dress and caring for their clothing, they often acted as general companions, and even handled secretarial duties. Their pay was usually 20-30 pounds per year.

Next came the Lower Staff, those who, quite often, slept at the top and worked at the bottom. The Footmen were at the top of this hierarchy; as they were often the most visible of the servants, appearance usually took precendence over ability. They served family meals, assisted the Butler, and accompanied the family on shopping and other outside expeditions. Their pay was usually about 30 pounds a year.

Chamber maids and Parlor maids came next, earning about 20 pounds per year. Chamber maids were actually ranked higher, as they were responsible for cleaning the family bedrooms, and thus were “closer” to the family. Parlor maids cleaned the sitting and drawing rooms.

The House maids were general purpose workers, earning about 16 pounds per year. Then there were the Tweenies–the Between maids–who would work in the house or in the kitchen as needed, and earned about 15 pounds per year. Kitchen maids, who, of course, assisted with kitchen work, also earned about 15 pounds per year. At the bottom of the heap were the lowly Scullery maids, who cleaned the kitchen and scrubbed the dishes, earning a mere 13 pounds a year.

New servants were generally found in one of three ways: word-of-mouth (considered the best way, as one got advice from people one knew); a registry office, where ladies could interview as many as 20 or 30 girls before settling on one; or through advertisements. All servants, after their first job, had to have a character reference to obtain new jobs, and even with that, prospective employers often visited the previous employer to ask face-to-face about the prospective servant, inquiring about their morals, honesty, cleanliness, capability, temper, and health. And yes, in that order. It was very important to the Victorians that their servants not not put on airs above their station, and that they be deferential–for instance, always walking a few paces behind when attending the family on an outing. As The Spectator put it, “…one woman cannot do happily the will of another woman simply because it is her will, without looking up to her in some degree… If domestic service is to be tolerable there must be an attitude of habitual deference on the one side and one of sympathetic protection on the other.”

(Considering the relationship between myself and my employer, Canergak… my job was obviously doomed from the start. The doom just hasn’t arrived yet.)

For the middle-class, if they could afford just one servant, the maid-of-all-work was the key one to hire, as she would handle the vast majority of dirty and heavy work–cleaning, carrying coal and water, making beds. (And this was, indeed, heavy work, as a coal scuttle would weigh between 28 and 30 pounds, and a jug of bath water weighed 30 pounds.) If another servant or two could be afforded, then a cook and either a housemaid or a nursemaid were the next priorities. Most, though, could only afford the one servant, who then entered into a life of seemingly never-ending work.

Myrtil Igaly: how much would she be paid?
Lisa Fargazer: (Probably the lower end of the payscale I talked about before. On the level of a scullery maid or Tweenie.)

The day for the typical maid-of-all-work in a Victorian home would start no later than 6:00 a.m.–and often earlier. She would go around and draw blinds and curtains, and open shutters, throughout the home (except for the family bedrooms, of course). In the kitchen, she would start the fire and polish the range, check that the boiler had water, put on the kettle, and do other chores, such as cleaning the household’s boots.

When that was done, she would wash her hands and head up to the dining room. There, she would open the curtains, cover furniture and ornaments with cloths, fold up the hearth rug for shaking outside, and then clean the grate, fire irons, and fender–a daily, dirty chore. Then she would clean the furniture, mantelpiece, and carpet in that room. After that was done, she’d move out to clean the front hall, entrance, and steps, including shaking out mats and rugs, and finally empty all the downstairs fireplaces of cinders, which would be used to bank up the kitchen fire.

With the last of this pre-breakfast work done, she would go change into a clean dress and apron. Then she would lay out the dining table, then go cook breakfast and serve it to the family. While the family ate, she might or might not have a chance for her own breakfast before going upstairs to air the bedrooms, and strip the beds to air them (and yes, this was done daily). She would also turn the mattresses, and empty and rinse the chamber-pots (if this was before her family got indoor bathrooms). Three times a week during the summer (less often in the winter), she would wash the bedroom floors, which was an extremely laborious process, involving repeated scrubbings with water, soap, and vinegar.

Since her clothes were now dirty again, she would put on a large bed-making apron and remake the beds. In this, at least, she was usually assisted by the mistress or daughters of the household. All rooms in the house were at least dusted each day, with lamps and candlesticks taken down to the scullery room for cleaning there. Once a week, though, on a rotating schedule, each room was “turned out” and thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned. If the family was on the more fashionable schedule of eating their main meal in the evening, this cleaning could be done in the morning, leaving the afternoon free for other chores, including preparing the meal, and giving the maid the chance to change again into clean clothes to serve the meal.

That evening meal, of course, had to be cooked before it could be served, and the dining room had to be tidied again while the meal was cooking. And cleaned yet again after the meal was eaten. Then the maid could go to the kitchen for her own dinner. Afterwards, she would wait on the family in the evening, and mend any of her clothes that needed it. As night came on, she would close shutters and blinds throughout the house, and put out the fires and lamps. Her last chore of the day would be to rake out the kitchen fire and lay it ready for the next morning. All of this was considered normal, and perfectly achievable by one person, but it could be well after dark, even close to midnight, by the time she was able to go to bed.

As I mentioned above, the maid had to change clothing a few times each day, especially if she needed to serve meals or otherwise wait on the family after having done heavy cleaning. Earlier in the 1800s, most servants didn’t wear uniforms, but simply their own plain working dresses. At that time, the difference between the quality fabrics worn by the ladies, and the cheap fabrics worn by everyone else, was easily apparent; nor could the working classes afford the styles and touches fashion dictated. By the 1850s and 1860s, though, new manufacturing methods and cheap cotton from India meant that the distinctions between working-class clothing and the clothing of the middle-class was less immediately visible. To keep the servants from looking too much like the mistresses, uniforms were created, and often a maid would need at least a few sets of working uniforms, as well as a special, dark grey or black uniform for going to church.

Unfortunately, maids had to supply their own uniforms *before* they could start working as a maid. (Most menservants were provided with theirs by their employers. Yet more gender discrimination…) A typical uniform for a maid included a print dress, apron, cap, stockings, and high-button boots. A girl who wanted to go into service had to either scrape together enough from loans from friends and family, or else start work at a factory until she’d saved enough to buy the necessary outfits, which could take as long as two years! (Thankfully, Beryl was kind enough to loan me the money I needed to buy my uniforms from a maid who’d outgrown hers.)

A tradition soon developed of employers giving fabric to their maids for Christmas so they could make or renew their uniforms. Of course, that, too, was done at the maid’s own expense. She did, at least, get an allowance of about a shilling per week for her own laundry needs, though she had to wash her own caps, cuffs, and collars.

Jon Chen: Was this boxing day’s start?
Lisa Fargazer: (I think that was much earlier, Jon.)
Solace Fairlady: boxing day was for paying the tradesmen who visited, such as refuse collectors

In fact, let’s take a closer look at probably the busiest day of the week–laundry day. This was usually Monday, though preparations would actually start a day or two before, sorting the laundry items and checking each item for stains. Sheets and linens would be covered with lukewarm water and a bit of soda and left overnight. Greasy cloths were soaked in a solution of lime and water, boiled for two hours, left to settle, strained, rinsed again in more lime solution, and left overnight.

On Monday, the maid would arise two hours earlier than usual to light the fire, clean the washtubs and any laundry machinery the family owned, and get through her usual housework while the mistress made and served breakfast. That breakfast would be the only hot meal of the day, as the range and its boiler needed to be reserved for heating water. Even houses that had a copper, which could hold and heat twenty gallons at a time, still needed to use the range for more water, as a single wash took fifty gallons.

As soon as the water was hot, the first load, sheets and other linens, were taken out of their overnight soaking water, rinsed in hot water, and rubbed or beaten with special sticks that were used in washtubs. The sheets were then wrung out, and the water thrown away. A bar of soap was shaved, cut into pieces, and dissolved in boiling water to form a jelly, which was rubbed through the sheets. Water was added to create a soapy mass, and the sheets agitated by hand again. More hot water was added, and the sheets rubbed a third time. The water was thrown out again, more taken from the copper (if the household had one), and the linens were put in their first rinse, then wrung out. Then they were put in the copper itself, along with one teaspoon of soda to every two gallons of water, and boiled for an hour and a half, to thoroughly remove the soap. Once that was done, they were removed, rinsed yet again in boiling water, then rinsed one last time in cold water that had had “blue” put in it. (Soaps of the time had a tendency to turn whites yellow; “blue” was a lump of dye, tied in a piece of cloth and mixed through the cold water, that would counteract this yellowing. Of course, if someone was careless, the wash would come out with yellow and white streaks…) After this rinse, everything was wrung out for the last time, and hung up to dry.

So there you have it. Eight different processes–one soaking, two washes, one boiling, and four rinses. And that was one load. The easiest load. Thankfully, the asylum has its laundry taken care of by other means. (And if New Babbage doesn’t have, somewhere, an entrepreneur with a warehouse-sized building stuffed with large, steam-powered machines to take in and clean people’s laundry, then by golly, it *should.*)

With so much to do, it’s no wonder turnover among the servants was high, especially in households that only employed one servant. The average time spent at any one post was three years. Girls entering service, especially from workhouses or from the country, would often work just for their keep in their first job, while they acquired the training they needed to work their way up the hierarchy; they also needed that all-important reference to aid them in finding a better job.

Jon Chen: When a girl entered service, how long might her career and life be?
Lisa Fargazer: (Jon, it varied–some did it for life, some for only a few years, if that. It depended on a number of factors.)

And indeed, if a maid was hard-working, behaved well, and showed the desire and ability to learn, most mistresses would not only not stand in their way for bettering their position, but would actively assist. For instance, one woman heard of a position as lady’s maid that she thought would suit her own housemaid. She actually went to the other lady herself to further her maid’s case, she gave the maid a week off to go and learn a skill she was missing, and even arranged for her own milliner to teach the maid specialized skills that would help her cause.

Of course, if a maid behaved other than well, she likely wouldn’t last long. Maids could be dismissed for a wide variety of offenses–drunkenness, or pregnancy out of wedlock, being obvious ones, of course. But even something like dressing above one’s station could be grounds for dismissal, as that showed a lack of deference.

zaida Gearbox: what if dey was only dressed up for church?
Lisa Fargazer: (Zaida–even dressing more than their usual style for church was greatly frowned on.)

There were other, more pleasant, ways to leave service, though. Even the busiest maids often found time to meet men–on their half-days off, if at no other time. It was an interesting dichotomy, though; marriage, and leaving service because of marriage, was honorable. Being courted was not. Masters and mistresses did their best to bar “followers” from their maidservants–which only made those stolen moments of courting all the sweeter.

Myrtil Igaly: Do you mean once they’re married they aren’t servants anymore?
Lisa Fargazer: (Myrtil–correct. Once a woman married, her job was her home, not anyone else’s.)

I hope this talk has given you at least a basic picture of the life of the servant in Victorian times. There is, of course, much more to it than I could cover in our time. If you’re interested in learning more, let me mention two books that I used in preparing this Salon:

‘Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England,’ by Judith Flanders. I cannot recommend this book highly enough–it contains a wealth of detail about the Victorian middle class and how they lived. I learned so much from it!

The other book is ‘Not in Front of the Servants: A True Portrait of English Upstairs/Downstairs Life,’ by Frank Dawes. It does focus more on the larger households and estates, and covers time before and after the Victorian age, as well as during. A fascinating aspect about it is that it contains first-hand accounts from both servants and employers–mostly from the Edwardian age, but still interesting to read.

Thank you for attending, and I hope you enjoyed this edition of the AEther Salon.

Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: The Fraulein can answer more questions, we do have a few minutes.

Myrtil Igaly: So what about men servants, they can stay in service even if they’re married, right?
Lisa Fargazer: They could, yes.
Myrtil Igaly: But why were they less numerous, is that because they didn’t want to do the job or because people would prefer to hire girls?
Lisa Fargazer: Probably because the bulk of the indoor work was considered women’s work.
Lisa Fargazer: All the cleaning.
Lisa Fargazer: Indoors, for men, you had the footmen, and the butler. And perhaps the cook.
Lisa Fargazer: The outdoor work was more in line with men’s work.

Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Fraulein Fargazer, when would you say this style of service started and ended?
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Between what years?
Hysshia a’Suolla an Isala Ph.D.: I think the Great war ended this type of living-style, Especially the big fever after it.
Lisa Fargazer: Well, the real emphasis on deference in servants, and probably from that, the hierarchy within the servants, started around the beginning of the Victorian era.
zaida Gearbox: world war i or ii?
Hysshia a’Suolla an Isala Ph.D.: WW 1
Lisa Fargazer: World War I didn’t entirely end it, though it did start the upending of it.
Lisa Fargazer: It was WWII that truly ended it.
Hysshia a’Suolla an Isala Ph.D.: + the cheap industrialised appliences.
Myrtil Igaly: I suppose with more machines invented to help in the house, servants were less useful too?
Myrtil Igaly: yes that..
Lisa Fargazer: The first-hand accounts in the ‘Not in Front of the Servants’ book went up through the 1930s.
Lisa Fargazer nods at Myrtil.
Solace Fairlady: the end of the class system meant the end of srvants
Solace Fairlady: and the explosion of work in manufacturing
zaida Gearbox: but don’t some people still work as servants?
Solace Fairlady: compared to how many did?
Lisa Fargazer: Oh, yes. But far fewer, and in much better conditions.

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