Monday, April 23, 2012

The Servant Problem

Few of us are old enough to remember what an illustration like the one above refers to. Fewer still were raised in a house full of servants who did the necessary drugery so the rest of the household could frolic and play at will -- or at least maintain itself in the manner to which it was accustomed.

In fact, the idea of "servants" is almost bewildering now; did people really "serve" in other people's houses? They lived there? They took care of Their Betters? How can this be?


You'll note that in the illustration, three of the five smartly turned out servants are women, two are men, but in the real world of the Servant-filled Household, the ratio of female to male servants was closer to 9 t0 1; few households had even one hired man, while many -- never a majority, it is true -- had at least one female servant.

My father grew up in a household that had one live-in servant, a woman named Harriet who did the cooking and looked after the younger children. There was also a man who looked after the yards and the car, but he apparently didn't live with the household. A woman came in to do the laundry once a week. And from time to time, "girls" would come to do the heavy cleaning. There were a lot of children when my father was growing up (he was the second oldest of nine) and it was too big a job for my grandmother to handle alone; my grandfather certainly had enough money to afford "staff," and though he'd grown up on a farm, he had no intention of being saddled with yard work and other chores himself. He had business to conduct and politics to engage in after all.

My father called Harriet the Housekeeper not the maid or the cook or the nurse or the nanny. The idea of servants was somewhat troubling to him as it was, he said, to many of those in his household and his community. His family was reasonably prosperous at a time when many people were not, so he considered himself and his family very lucky on the one hand, and obligated to the less fortunate on the other.

Being less fortunate, however, did not mean that someone necessarily had any less dignity.

"Housekeeper" is much a more dignified title than maid or nanny or cook.

My grandparents had servants because they believed they needed them in order to maintain their preferred lifestyle, and most of the servants they had were women because most of the work of the household was "women's work" and most of those available to serve Their Betters were women.

We may ask why that was so.

Why was it necessary -- especially among the middle classes -- to have servants at all, and why was there apparently a surplus of women in the working classes who were willing to go into domestic service?

The larger families of the era (my father was born in 1901) don't really explain it. In fact, the larger families should have made it possible for most people to get by with fewer or no servants. And that's essentially what happened. Most people in America at the time were poor, couldn't afford servants, and wouldn't have known what to do with them if they could afford to have them. The middle class was really quite small, a cadre of professionals and small land-owners who primarily served the interests of their Betters -- the Plutocrats and Oligarchs of the Gilded Age.

Those men lived very well indeed, in vast houses -- often several of them -- staffed by troops of servants who took care of every need and whim of their masters, to an extent almost unimaginable -- indeed, almost perverse -- by modern standards.

The Master/Servant relationship was critical to the social and employment conventions of the times. It was barely possible to even think outside that box.

My grandfather had grown up on a farm in rural Iowa, and his father -- I found out not so long ago -- had been brought to this country as a boy (well, a teenager) from Ireland by his father (who I know nothing in particular of, but I assume he was a tenant farmer in Ireland before the Potato Famine. According to the records I've seen, they emigrated in 1850, at the tail end of the Famine.)

I had been told that my ancestors were deeply involved in the American Revolution, descended from stalwart and quite early Colonial stock, at least back then they were immensely wealthy. I found out a few years ago that none of this was true. It was all Blarney. They were Irish not American Colonialists, and from what I could tell, they were Shanty Irish to boot. Which helped explain some of the things that never quite made sense to me when I was younger. Certain characteristics persist...

They had pretensions, though, as did many Americans, specifically many recent American immigrants, and so they did what they could to fulfill them.

Having someone to do the work of the household was part of it.

In 1910, according to Census records, there were approximately 1.9 million women working in domestic service nation wide; that works out to about one "girl" per household or family, but only about 10% of households had even one servant in their employ, which strongly suggests that only a few households employed most of the domestic servants (male and female) then at work in the United States.

It wasn't unusual for some of the more pretentious and better off households of the Plutocracy to have 30 or 70 or even 100 domestic employees, something that would be considered highly unusual now, even for our most robustly overcompensated CEOs.

There were so many servants in some of the larger estates because there was so much to do and there were few labor-saving devices available and used by households, even the most pretentious, in those days.

My father said for example, that they didn't get electricity in their house until around 1913. Cooking was done on a coal-burning range until the 1920's. I can only guess when the ice-man stopped coming.

Laundry was done by hand until washing machines were widely available, and even then, the process of using an early wringer washer wasn't that much of a labor-saving endeavor over the previous boiler and washboard tedium.

House cleaning was a twice a year affair during which the entire house was emptied of furnishings -- so as to "air" -- every surface was scrubbed to the bone, new paint or paper was applied where needed (sometimes even where not) and everything was put back more or less where it had been. This entailed days of effort and one can anticipate that several hired individuals (men and women) would be necessary to do all the moving and scrubbing and painting and restoring.

For the most part, poor people -- which meant the vast majority of Americans -- didn't follow this routine in their own households; they couldn't even if they wanted to. Some would be put to work serving other people's households, but most were kept more than busy trying to keep their own households together and to survive as best they could on their unstable earnings from "at will" employment in factories or working hard-scrabble farms.

My mother's father was a streetcar conductor in Indianapolis, for example. He wasn't well-off at all. During my mother's early childhood, the Indianapolis street railway was subject to a number of strikes, and I've read some of the testimony about the working conditions that led to the strikes. It wasn't pleasant reading. Many workers were paid -- when they were paid -- less than $.10 an hour, and their workdays were typically 12-14 hours long, so their earnings could be $20 a month or more if they could keep up the pace, but often they couldn't do it. Often, too, they were shorted in their pay-packets by various deductions and fines levied by the transit company. If they weren't able to maintain the pace of work, they were called on less and less, say only for fill-in work, and their pay plummeted even below the meager amounts they could make on a full time schedule.

Strikes were called to force an increase in wages, more regular scheduled employment, an end to common practices of favor and disfavor by the transit company, and a maximum 10 hour day. The strikes turned ugly, and from what I was told, I assume that my mother's father paid the price for his temerity in striking with his life. His death when my mother was 4 years old was deemed an accident, "crushed between the cars," but it happened soon after the end of one of the strikes, and at least in my view, it was probably not an accident at all. More than a few strikers were killed and injured during and subsequent to the Indianapolis transit strikes.

All this was before World War I, and as it happened, the transit strikes were essentially for naught as none of the objectives of the strikers were achieved.

After my mother's father was killed, her mother was in dire straits and in a quandary as often happened to widows in those days. She had no benefits, no savings, no property. But she had a little daughter to take care of and few or no prospects for either employment or re-marriage. So what was she to do?

As I understand it, her own mother took her and my mother in for the time being, but what arrangements were made, I don't know. I was told my mother's mother did go into domestic service briefly but found herself unsuited to serving other people and was either fired or quit within a few months. Lucky for her -- I guess! -- she did remarry not long afterwards, to a man who had been a friend of her late husband's, and shortly the new household moved to California, Land of Opportunity, where my mother's step-father ran a Flying A filling station, providing a modest living that was in many ways far better than anything they might have had in Indiana.

In those days you could live modestly and well in California whereas doing so in many places Back East was more and more difficult or downright impossible.

Since I've lived in the Gold Rush Country of California for many years, I've often wondered why so many people made the expensive, arduous and dangerous trek out here from what should have been a kind of libertarian paradise Back East, when they must have known there was practically no chance at all that they would find Gold and become rich, rich, rich.

I've read a lot of the correspondence of Argonauts from 1849-52 or so, and their stories are really striking and heartbreaking. It was, first of all, very costly to mount an expedition to California in the early years, and those who did so spent a lot of money up front for transport and supplies and continued to spend on the trek. Assuming they survived the journey, once they got to California, they were in almost every case deeply disappointed. They were barely alive, they were broke, many of the supplies they had so carefully assembled for the trek were long gone, much of it abandoned along the route. Often they were sick and could barely put one foot in front of the other. Everything they found in California was "wrong." It wasn't what they anticipated at all. Few ever found even a flake, let alone a nugget, of Gold. Many -- initially very many -- died shortly after arriving. Despondency, depression, starvation, murder and disease stalked the land.

And still they came.

Eventually, more came than perished and bit by bit a new society was pieced together on the ruins of what used to be and of expectations of what would be.

It was a new society that depended on more and more people coming West, something that was still true when I was a boy, and to a limited extent is still true today.

It depended on people who were dissatisfied enough with their previous lives to pack up and head to The Coast, prepared to risk everything for the possibility of a Better Life. California existed as a Land of Opportunity for the poor, the working class, domestic servants, and for others who were far better off, to try their luck at Something Else Again, and if they were lucky and persistent, they could do very well indeed -- as many did for many years, and a few still do today.

An elemental aspect of this New Society was to limit and eventually eliminate the need for servants and to ensure a sense of Dignity for all Californians. (Well, as long as you were White; racism in California was endemic and virulent when my mother was a girl; it still was in many ways when I was a boy.)

In California, you got rid of the Servant Problem by getting rid of the need for servants. Small households, efficient houses, easy and cheap access to electricity and water (often through public power and water companies), extensive public health and educational facilities, a relatively benign climate, all contributed to make it possible to live well without household help, and without the expectations and the strictures of hide-bound societies Back East.

It was a form of liberty few ever thought would be theirs, especially in the smaller cities that dotted the state. Finally, people could "relax." It was more a psychological than a physical relaxation, because people were still working very hard, but often it was in work they wanted to do rather than "had" to, and in many cases, it was work for themselves rather than someone else.

In a kind of ironic twist, the trade off for such relaxed liberty was conformity.

I'll try to get into that another time.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate this piece. It should be read far and wide.