Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Below Stairs

There's a great David Lean/Noel Coward film called This Happy Breed. It chronicles the lives of an average lower-middle class family between the two wars. The family live in a suburban semi, Celia Jonston plays the mother and she drops her "hs", John Mills is the boy next door and gets a bit "gor blimey guv'nor" every now and then. However, the film is a realistic protrayal of life for the middling family between 1918 and 1939 and for much of that time the family have a servant.
In most of my pre-war homemaking books it is assumed that the reader will have at least one servant, otherwise she would be reading books which specifically cater for the wives of working men, penny cookery books and so on. The wives of clerks, butchers, craftsmen and skilled labourers etc., would have had a girl to help them in their homes unless hard times forced them to economise.

It seems however, by 1910 things were beginning to change. In How to Keep House, by C S Peel, the writer laments that

The young working girl of today prefers to become a Board School mistress, a post-office clerk, a typewriter, a shop girl, or a worker in a factory - anything rather than domestic service; not because the work is lighter or the pay better, but because in these professions she has the full use of her hours of liberty, and, more important reason than all, she enjoys a higher social position: she is in point of fact a "young lady."

Many other books of the period are slightly panicky in tone when discussing servants and the servant crisis, and magazines from the 1920s/30s, such as Good Housekeeping are full of suggestions on how to manage with limited help: how to use new time saving equipment, such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines and gas stoves and fires. Victorian attitudes to social class were crumbling fast and by the end of the second world war it is assumed, by the writers of most post-war books I own, that their readers will be managing their homes without help.

I hope to be posting a few post-war examples of "the daily round" over the next few days, but first I thought I would post an example of the duties of the average Victorian maid. I think it makes an interesting comparison between what my modern day routine is (see this post) and what the 1950s housewife's routine was and what was expected of the 1860s maid of all work. Just to give a little social background, a maid of all work would have been the only live-in servant in the household, and she would probably work in the home of a single woman or a lower-middle class family. She may have been very young, between the ages of 11 and 13 when starting work, and was perhaps a daughter of farm labourers. In the book, from which I've taken the following extract, Warne's Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book, her list of duties lasts for three, closely printed pages. I'll just give you the gist of it.

The general servant must be an early riser.
Her first duty, of course, is to open the shutter, and in summer the windows of all the lower parts of the house.
Then she must clean the kitchen range and hearth, sifting the cinders, clearing away the ashes, and polishing with a leather the bright parts of the stove, or range.
She must light the fire, fill the kettle, and as soon as the fire burns, set it on to boil.
She must then clean the room in which the family breakfast. She must roll up the rug, spread out a coarse piece of canvas before the fireplace, an (if it is winter) she must remove the fender, clean the grate, and light the fire. The she must lightly rub over the fire-irons with a leather, replace them, and the fender, and sweep the room over, first pinning the curtains up out of the dust.
She should then let the dust settle for a few minutes, turning meantime into the kitchen to get the breakfast things ready to bring in. In five minutes or so she must return, and thoroughly dust all the furniture, the ledges about the room, the mantelpiece, and all ornaments. Not a speck of dust shall be left on any object in the room. Then she lays the breakfast cloth ready for breakfast, and shuts the dining-room, or breakfast-room door.
Her next duty is to sweep the hall, or passage, shake the doormats, clean the door step, and polish the brass knocker, if there is one. Then she cleans the boots, washes her hands and face, puts on a clean apron, and prepares the toast, eggs, bacon, kidneys, or whatever is required for breakfast.
Previously, however, she will carry the urn that her mistress may make the tea.
She then has her own breakfast, goes up tot he bedrooms, opens the windows, strips the bedclothes off, and leaves the mattresses or beds open.
By this time probably the bell will ring for her to clear away the breakfast things. She should do this quickly and carefully; bring a dustpan, and sweep up the crumbs, put back the chairs, make up the fire, and sweep up the hearth.

I am half way down the first page of this list of duties, but they end on the third page with the writer addressing the maid of all work directly.
Find time for your own work of an evening, and take care to leave no holes in your stockings or rents unmended. "A stitch in time saves nine;" and if every Saturday night you men all your fractures, both in clothes that return and those that are going into the wash, you will keep your needlework nicely under.
Be personally clean. It is the great charm of ladies; and a good wash all over every night before going to bed will refresh you, make you healthy, prettier, and more cheerful that if you fell asleep still dirty from your daily toil.
Be active, cheerful, good-tempered and obliging, and you will find work easy and employers kind.
Do your daily duties with all you might, remembering Whose eye is always on you; and believe that the Great King who gives us our daily work to do, will not leave unmarked the efforts of even a little maid of all work.
Well, I think there's much to mull over, here. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it all.


Niki RuralWritings said...

Sadly neither my library nor my video rental service has that movie ~ sigh. I did however watch 1900's House (again) while piecing together my quilt...earlier time period but gives one a good look at the huge volume of work in keeping house Victorian style. Makes me feel a little guilty for the whining about housework I sometimes do.
have a good day

Left-Handed Housewife said...

I find domestic history of this sort both fascinating and very satisfying to read (imagine living in the sort of house where that kind of cleaning detail was attended to daily) and horrifying. To work that hard and not enjoy the spoils. To do the work that makes a family's life comfortable and yet not be a member of the family; in fact, most likely to be considered a lesser being.

The other thing it brings up for me is how much work there is to do in a house, even in our day of labor saving devices, and how often it is given to one member of the family to accomplish most of it. If I were to keep up with it in total, from the daily rounds of picking up and wiping up and all that, plus the bigger weekly jobs, that's all I'd have time for, other than cooking and childcare. It's a big job, and I think most of us at home--by ourselves, sans servants--do what we can, but are still overwhelmed by the Sisyphean aspect of it and feel some guilt for not getting it all done. But a girl must read, and a girl must knit, or a girl will go totally bonkers.

'Nuf said.


Scriptor Senex said...

I wouldn't mind a little maid of all work. But even better I would like one to reincarnate to tell me how to leave somehwre without a speck of dust. When I dust it just rises in the air and drops down again when my back is turned. We have an open fire to blame in one room but not the others. Does any of your library answer the question for me??

Tia said...

I do find there's nothing like reading through the hours and hours of daily grind to make me happier to sling a load of washing into the machine, whizz around with the hoover, and knock up a batch of meals for the freezer.

My very favourite books for putting me in the mood to do some serious home maintenance type cleaning are anything by Miss Read, and the Diary of a Provincial Lady.

I like your kitchen timer suggestion; funnily enough earlier this afternoon I set my own timer for 12 minutes of kitchen cleaning before picking LF up from preschool, and reading your blog is my reward for having done so!


Anonymous said...

All I could think was, "Yikes, kidneys for breakfast!".

I remember that my Grandma was a charwoman for a while for some middle class relatives...perhaps having someone living with you changed after the war, to having someone come in every so often to help with tasks.

Modern conveniences have negated the need for servants in middle class households now - unless of course everyone works fulltime then they might have a cleaner.

I don't really know what I'm talking about so tired, lol.


Angela said...

I loved "This Happy Breed" [or "Heppy" as Celia Johnson pronounces her vowels!] My grandmother was in service during Edwardian times - including to Lord & Lady Gamage [of Gamages Store in London] and her tales of a maid's life were amazing. I am so grateful for my labour-saving devices!
Ang xx

Islandsparrow said...

I really enjoy domestic history - I especially loved the early episodes of Upstairs-Downstairs. The life downstairs was fascinating.

My mother always had someone to help on a weekly basis - usually a "girl from the country". She would do the heavier chores like scrubbing, heavy vacuuming, windows etc.

When I was working full-time I had cleaning help as well. But I never felt quite as satisfied as when I did it myself.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Niki
You're right about the amount of work. I sometimes complain about the housework, but when you look at the duties of that poor maid, then, wow, it makes me want to count my blessings.

Hi Frances
Ooh, I couldn't have put it better myself. Fascinating and horrifying. Many of my books assume that you would have a "cook general" and a "housemaid", perhaps even a "parlour maid". If your husband was a professional man, it would have been likely you would have had two or three servants in your house. Now, I can't imagine living in close proximity to three adults whom I must treat as employees (rather than members of my household). Neither can I imagine a life where everything was taken care of for me, from childcare to cooking. It would have driven me crazy. I would have donned my bloomers and taken up good works, I'd have been one of those women lampooned by Punch! Frances, I could go on, it's a pity you don't live around the corner, we could've had a good old chinwag about this.

Hi Scrip
You want a maid of all work? My husband wants a Swedish au pair. You men are all the same (wink, wink). Well, until I can conjur up a maid to do your bidding you'll have to deal with the dust yourself. My only advice is to use a damp cloth rather than a normal duster. Damp your cloth, ring out all the moisture, and then wipe over your surfaces. It should trap the dust on the cloth rather than spread it around all over your living room. I hope this helps. I feel like a guru now!

Hi Tia
Ooh, yes, it does put things into persepctive rather. The poor little maid of all work would've killed for a modern oven, a vacuum cleaner and a washing machine!

I love Diary of a Provincial Lady. Whenever I look at my hiacynths I think of her. I'm ashamed to say I've never read any Miss Read, but I have a feeling I'd love her. There are tons of her books in my local second hand bookshop. I should buy a few.

I'm glad you use the oven timer too and I'm deeply flattered that my blog is your reward.

Hi Sarah
The DH dreams of deviled kidneys for breakfast. He fancies himself as an Edwardian country gent. My sister has a cleaning lady come, just once a week though, but she works full time.

You're right about having occasional help though, many 1950s books talk about "a woman from the village" or a "weekly char".

I hope you've had a good sleep my friend!

Hi Angela
I want to speak like Celia Johnson. I want to clip my vowels so short they're nearly non-existent! I love "This Happy Breed" and "In Which We Serve", great films!

I would've loved to have heard some of your grandmother's stories. I bet they were fascinating.

Hi Kathie
Yes, some of the 1950s books I have advise giving "heavy work" to occasional helpers. Also, many people still used a laundry service back then, which I think would take a lot of pressure off the homemaker. Most women I know who work full-time have help, it would be difficult to run a home without it if you work long hours, as so many people do nowadays.

Anonymous said...

We've never had it so good. Humbling to think that my distant relatives of yesteryear worked an awful lot harder than me.

~~louise~~ said...

Oh Dulce,
I adore this post. I am always both mystified & fascinated when I page through domestic books and articles. I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era until I am reminded of the "drudgery" of days gone by.

Thank you so sharing...

Left-Handed Housewife said...

Dulce--I wish we lived around the corner from one another simply on the basis of your use of words such as "chinwag."


galant said...

I think this is the first time I've looked at your blog (chosen from the list of blogs on Letters From a Hill Farm).
I also have How to Keep House (Peel) and I have written several times about collecting old housekeeping books (as opposed to cookery books) ... lovely to see it mentioned here! I also love the books by Pamela Horn who has written about life both above and below stairs.
A modern housekeeping book which I might recommend is Rachel Simhon's The Housewife's Handbook and an excellent book on consumerism is Deborah Cohen's Household Gods - The British and their Possessions.
Margaret Powling

galant said...

Just a PS ... I've only read one Miss Read book. They are cosy, the equivalent of a mug of Horlicks and a patchwork quilt. But I love their illustrations executed by John S Goodall - he had many lovely books published which are paintings without words, the History of An English Village, etc, and Edwardian Christmas. I am sure you would love these, they are a marvellous complement to Edwardian housekeeping books.
Margaret Powling

Angela said...

Thank you SO much for the lovely parcel which has just arrived safely!!
Love and blessings x x

50sgal said...

This is so interesting and today I post a blog about my own 'maid' situation here in 1955. I have always been interested in the servant history, but am finding the middle class american maid (rather live in or out) to be an interesting animal for further study. I wish I could find this film as I could watch it (isn't it made before 1955?) Very interesting and it has made me want to add another element to my project. Nice post.