Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Country House Servant by Pamela Sambrook

Back in the days of great family manors in England, many families had a house in London where they would spend the season, and another in the country, on their estates, where they made the money that enabled them to afford their high lifestyle and life in the city.

But servants made both houses run, and this book examines the three most ubiquitous of the servants on a country estate: Footmen, Housemaids, and Laundrymaids; their jobs, and the various ways the changing times and changing technologies affected their position and their duties.

First are the footmen, who were elevated slightly above the female staff in terms of rank and status. Contrary to many people's beliefs, Footmen did all of the cleaning of the silverware and oftentimes the plates and plate as well. For this purpose, they had their own pantry, in which was kept much of the cleaning apparatus for this work. Many took pride and delight in this work. They also had to move hip baths and carry the water for them, among various other duties, both inside and outside the house. And even though many of them worked very, very hard, their employers tended to view them as lazy and somehow less because they did cleaning work- usually the province of women.

Housemaids were generally content with their lot in life, but as the century drew on, the expectation grew that the owners of the house should have privacy in all things, and should not even see a maid working. The house should exist as if unseen fairies cleaned the rooms while the family was out of them, and perhaps only a swish of skirt briefly glimpsed around a corner should be seen. Needless to say, this made the housemaid's job harder, since this cut down on the time in which they had to accomplish their duties And if they were seen, they could be reprimanded or even sacked for the failing.

Some of the duties of the housemaids will sound outright bizarre to modern day people, such as acting as human bedwarmers (in the time before they were supposed to be unseen), and some of things that had to be done to close up the house, like pinning paper to the inside of the curtains, but even the cleaning they did on a regular basis was very regimented and subjected to very strict rules.

The last, and largest section of the book, is devoted to laundry maids and their duties. Laundrymaids were involved in cleaning the family's laundry, and were considered soiled by the soiled linens they handled on a daily basis. This led to the idea that laundrymaids, in particular, were sexually "loose" and promiscuous. And some of them may have been, but not all of them. But because of this reputation, they were segregated from the rest of the house, and in some cases, from the rest of the servants as well. Laundries were sometimes segregated to outbuildings. If not, they were located in the most distant part of the manor from the family's rooms. Laundry itself was not to be seen, being brought to the laundry in underground passages or other unseen ways.

The process of doing laundry, like many things back then, was much more onerous than it is today. Linen required a different cleaning process than cotton, and different methods of whitening. Stain removing had to be done first, before the linen was washed, dried, mangled and ironed, a process that took days, and had to be completed near to perfection for the family to be satisfied.

As time went on, however, the availability of new machines to do the washing caused new problems, and eventually, the laundry was moved off the estate entirely, either into towns or "bothies", partway between manor and town. It was then that the age of the laundrymaid truly declined, and laundries became much more commercial, and, paradoxially, mostly run by men while women did the work.

I found this an interesting book, but it seems that Laundrymaids were the most interesting to Ms. Sambrook, as their section seems to take up 2/3 to 3/4 of the book. Or perhaps they were simply less easily classified, their duties less easy to describe than those of the housemaids or footmen.

This book is mainly about the lower servants rather then the upper. No Butler or Housemaid duties are described here, except somewhat in passing, nor valets, grooms or lady's maids, all of whom were in the upper hierarchy and would probably only have been at the country house when the family was there.

For all that, it's a fascinating look at the duties of various servants, and how the advance of technology really changed the manor house system, both for the better and worse. And while technology in cleaning was responsible for some of those changes, other changes after the war caused even greater changes- because when young people could get a job where they weren't sequestered in one place for months at a time, and had some sort of upward mobility, they stopped seeking out servant jobs, making the manor house system be unable to be maintained.

None of that is really discussed in the book, but I know it from other reading. In short, this book points out the onerous nature of work as a servant, and the low opinion most employers had of their servants, despite the hard work, the very hard work, that all of them did. It's more interesting as an overview of the kind of work delegated to servants, and which servants did which work. Parts of the section on laundry work and laundry maids are actually pretty boring, but I would still recommend this book.

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