Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The domestic service question

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume V  (1861) 
The domestic service question
by Harriet Martineau


We have our choice at this season of a wide range of theories for discussion, and of complaints of social evils to sympathise with and consult over. Men’s wits are exhilarated by foreign travel, or any other form that their autumnal holiday may take; and they at once see things more plainly than usual, feel them more strongly, and have a more urgent desire to say what they think and feel. So we have every year renewed complaints of old grievances, or striking representations of new ones, presented to us in all newspapers, from the 12th of August till London fills again in November. Sometimes it is hotel bills, at home or abroad, that we are called upon to be shocked at; sometimes it is dull divines; sometimes the increase of celibacy in the higher classes; sometimes the poverty of curates; the rise in house-rent; the shutting up of Scotch domains from tourists; the adulteration of food; the dreariness of sermons, or a dozen things besides. The most inexhaustible and irrepressible of topics, however, is perhaps that of the nuisance of Domestic Servants: and this year we have heard more than usual of it—for some sufficient reason, no doubt.

The topic seems to have been always an old one. Within the historic period we find traces of it wherever the ways of social life are touched upon. All generations of servants are prevented from forgetting that there are Scripture texts against them. There was “eye-service,” there were “men-pleasers,” in St. Paul’s day; and it is probable that householders then believed, as ever since, that there was a time when servants were what they ought to be. I have seen a grumbling mistress of a family, who was wont to insist that “the former days were better than these,” excessively surprised to find so old-fashioned a personage as Shakspere expressing the very same notion that she had supposed to belong to our day.

O, good old man! how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service wrought for duty, not for meed!
Thou art not for the fashion of these times.
Thou art not fo“As You Like It,” act ii. scene 3.

The question is whether future generations of housekeepers will be making the same moan, or whether there is any prospect of relief. It is a question which has occupied me, for one, at many intervals in my long life; and it occupies me and many others now as much as if we had never thought it over before. The reason of this, and of the lively re-agitation of the question, is that a change in the conditions of domestic service really is taking place. It must be met with good sense, or it will have to be endured as a great domestic misfortune. The fact is, the wages of domestic servants, as of all working people, are rising, and housekeepers must pay high for service which they declare to be continually less worth having. At the same time they cannot do without servants; and, unless they give their minds to the case, so as to manage it wisely, there is nothing before them but a life of petty warfare at home, long years spent in scolding, or being scolded, and the certainty all through that all points in dispute will have to be yielded by the employer. There is no chance of peace and comfort between parlour and kitchen but in the employers settling with themselves what points they will hold to and what they will yield; or, to put the case more pleasantly, what compact should be made between employers and servants on the footing of both doing as they would be done by.

I certainly have nowhere found a more hopeless haziness of ideas than on this whole subject. Gentlemen usually want that their servants should do exactly as they are bid—only without giving the trouble of bidding them; and ladies want that their maids in all capacities should be perfect, and in the precise way of perfection which suits each lady’s taste. As for servants, one is afraid to inquire what they expect, seeing how little we are able to enter into such a position as theirs, or to estimate the amount of disappointment they must have suffered in their vocation, from their own fault or other people’s. We may obtain some notion of their views by considering for a moment who they are, and where they come from.

In London newspapers the airs and the faults of butlers and footmen are prominently treated of; but, taking in the whole country, the preponderance of female servants is so great that the men sink almost out of sight. Only the wealthier and smaller classes of housekeepers employ men-servants; and the outcry against servants comes just as much from the middle ranks as the upper; so we must turn to the larger class to understand the case.

The maid-servants of England and Wales exceed half a million in number. Of these nearly two-thirds have been born in some rural district, and most of them in the cottage of a day-labourer or journeyman artisan. When mistresses expect perfection of their servants, do they represent to themselves how they have been brought up? Were those ladies themselves ever inside a labourer’s cottage? Did they ever see how the little girls get breakfast and dinner ready—how they eat their meals—how they nurse the baby—how they walk and dress themselves, and set about mending their clothes? If not, they can have no notion how much the future housemaid, cook, or nursemaid has to learn. And how do the young things learn it? Who can tell us? I, for one, never could make it out.

The children, at best, go to school for some years; and a good school here and there must have done much towards providing good servants within its own influence. It has awakened the children’s minds, and enabled them to form some ideas of duty, and some habits of neatness and order; it has enabled them to read and write, and to obtain conceptions of further knowledge; and it has taught them to sew. A very small proportion of the 300,000 country girls have obtained that much benefit from school. As for any training in house-work or cooking, that is a quite modern notion as a part of school-education, and it has hardly come into visible operation yet. Except an endowed school here and there, too often sunk into neglect and disrepute, there has hitherto been no established means, as far as I know, for the early training of domestic servants.

How, then, have they got trained? Of the half million, nearly every one must have been able to do something in the way of her vocation, on entering service: where did she learn it?

The wives of small shopkeepers and of artisans train some,—obtaining their services for their maintenance and teaching. This is the largest single resource that I know of. Next comes the old country practice of ladies sending for a school-child occasionally, to help in the house, and learn what she could; a process usually followed by the elevation of the most promising to permanent service. Ladies who take trouble in this direction are benefactresses of their generation; and I trust they usually find their reward in being themselves well suited. The happy relation existing between the Napier family and their servants has been so plainly spoken of in print that I need not scruple to refer to it here, nor to say that, in one of their households, the training of the fourth generation of one family of servants is now going on, with every prospect of continued domestic comfort and friendship. I may observe here (what it is highly necessary to observe somewhere), that, while we hear loud and multitudinous complaints of the nuisance of domestic service to both parties, we must not suppose the malcontents to be in the majority because they make the most noise. It is precisely the comfortable and satisfied parties that have nothing to say, unless asked. To them the relation is a simple and natural one, and unless appealed to, they do not think of telling the world that they are happy, any more than they would in their conjugal or parental relation. We are justified in hoping that, where we hear nothing to the contrary, employers and servants are satisfied.

While London newspapers have been showing up the sauciness, and incompetence, and personal folly of servants, there have been all degrees of comfort and discomfort throughout the country, as there have been all sorts of intellects and tempers at work. There are households where the servants arrived, years ago, indisputably respectable in character, but with serious drawbacks,—in health, in temper, in mental or outward habits; and where those same servants are now living, healthy, improved in temper, awakened intellectually, and thoroughly trained in their respective departments. To the back doors of those houses come respectable servants from the neighbourhood, just to ask whether there is no chance of a vacancy, and to petition that, if there should be one, they should be sent for, that they might “really settle,” which they find it so difficult to do. In the same neighbourhood, there may be a house or two, where the mistress complains that she has no peace, because “now-a-days no servant will stay.” She hires at a distance that the reputation of her service may not deter applicants; and she has no choice, for she cannot get a servant where she is known. She means to be kind, and promises rewards, if only the new cook and housemaid will stay; but in a little while she finds, some morning, that the fires are not lighted; or some evening, in returning from a visit, that the bell is not answered. Her maids have absconded, as usual; and she pokes questions about the precincts of other people’s houses, to learn how they make their servants stay on for years together. When the point of difference is found, she thinks herself right; and she goes on treating her maids as if they were in a nunnery, or teasing them about their work, or requiring undue homage from them, or stinting their comforts; and her complaints are much more likely to get into the newspapers than all the complacencies of all the comfortable.

Such differences belong to no particular period. The contrast is owing, not to distinctions of centuries, but to distinctions of human character. There have been reasonable and unreasonable mistresses in each generation, from the days of the patriarchs downwards: and there have been good and bad servants, satisfied and discontented, according to their position and temper. The peculiarity of the present time is, that the relation of labour to its employers is undergoing a change, and that the change is felt in the department of domestic service, though that department differs from all others in its conditions.

To take this last point first:—an employer of other kinds of labour has a right to expect good service in return for the pay agreed upon, while it is not clear that he has a right to expect the same thing in domestic service. Every agricultural labourer, every carpenter, blacksmith, or other artisan has received an express training for his business. He has worked in the field with his father from childhood, or he has been an apprentice in the workshop for five or seven years. He has had the means of learning his business; and his employer expects him to know it. If he does not, he is very properly sent away, and a better workman is easily found. Very different is the case of man or maid-servant; and especially the latter. There are no natural means of instruction for her; and she must be an ignorant and troublesome servant to somebody, before she can be a valuable one to anybody. In the native cottage she may be made honest, truthful, clean, and industrious; but she can learn nothing there of her business in life. How few cottagers’ wives can boil a potato, or make good bread! and in keeping the dwelling clean there is no resemblance to the housework of a town or country mansion. There are no schools for these arts,—no apprenticeships for domestic servants to betake themselves to. While no such resources exist, employers have not the right to demand able service in return for pay. Honest service they may claim; but not able service; for the candidate can neither promise (except in some fortunate instances) a good quality of service, nor be blamed for deficiencies.

While there is this difference between this and other kinds of labour, all alike are coming under the rule of change which is governing the relation between employers and the employed. Everywhere the labouring classes are becoming more independent: their compacts wear a different aspect from those of old times: their pay is higher; and the benefits they receive consist more exclusively in pay. It is not the question here whether this change is a good or an evil; or how much of both there may be in it. We are concerned with it only as it affects the footing of servants with their masters and mistresses. The latter are aghast at the wages now asked by servants; and at the same time they complain of the growth of the vices of the kitchen,—sloth, luxury, insolence, wastefulness,—while the incapacity for service seems to be greater than ever. Looking at the bare facts, they are true, in regard to a considerable proportion of the servants of the wealthier classes. The first important point is to beware of judging the general condition of domestic service from one province of it, however considerable; and the next is to see what is to be done. Nothing that can be said or done will affect the rate of wages. That is a settled point. What is to be said about the vices of the servants’ hall? and what about the bad quality of the service?

The most certain thing in the whole matter is that the function of domestic service is now divided into two orders, which are essentially distinct. So much practical unreasonableness and so much domestic uneasiness proceed from these two being confounded, that their distinctive conditions cannot be too carefully pointed out and remembered. One order of service is a domestic relation: the other is a selling and purchase of a particular kind of labour.

Where the old conception is the basis, the respective parties may, on the whole, think themselves fortunate. It has its troubles, and plenty of them, because human capacities and tempers are various: but there is a possibility of a far happier connection than can be looked for in the other case. When the mistress of an old-fashioned household hires a servant, she considers that she is taking a new member into the family; and she usually knows a good deal about the girl or woman before she engages her. Nine times in ten she has to teach and train for some weeks or months before she can enjoy the comfort of good service; and the common complaint is that as soon as the servant has made sure of her improved qualifications she goes away,—“to better herself.” Then she is called “ungrateful,” and the mistress is disheartened at having the whole process to go over again with a new subject. She says, now and then, that she will never train any more girls, or take any but thoroughly qualified servants: but she is pretty sure to go back to the old plan, and, I may add, to succeed at last.

For this purpose she must render it a difficult matter for her maid to “better herself” by change. Some ignorant and conceited women remain convinced to the end of their days that they may gain by higher pretensions: but there are always some who know when they are well off, and see the value of a settled position and a character for steadiness. Between such servants and their employers there is a connection in which high wages do not bear a part. In such households wages do not rise much higher than they were thirty years ago. But then, it is completely understood that long service gives a claim to protection and future assistance, which is at least an equivalent for the excess of pay given for short service. If the employer lives, the old servant keeps her place and wages after it becomes necessary to provide an assistant; or, in her old age, such an addition is made to the income from her savings as enables her to live in some other home. It has always been a great marvel to everybody except the mistresses who pay, how it is that servants have ever sold their labour for such miserable wages as have till now been given. Writers of tracts, and preachers of “contentment” to the poor, are fond of pointing out what a blessed lot is that of the maidservant, with her freedom from personal cares, her good food, clothes and lodging, and her converse with a higher class than her own: but these monitors say nothing of the prospect which lies before the servant, whenever her strength fails, or her sight, or hearing. Till lately, ten guineas a-year were considered good wages for cooks and housemaids, and less for nursemaids, throughout the provinces, and in the commercial parts of London. How is it possible for a woman to dress herself neatly, and bestow a trifle now and then on relation or neighbour, and lay by anything worth speaking of as a resource for old age, out of such a pittance as that? This is so clear now, when we think more than our fathers did of the independence of the working classes, that it is becoming understood that servants must either be admitted to share family ties and claims, or be as well paid as their neighbours of other trades.

The mistress who wishes her servants to settle will remember also that there is much trial on both sides, and that she must lessen her servants’ share to the utmost, or expect to lose them. It is a trial to them to be thrown together, without any choice of their own, to live in one another’s company incessantly, without relief. They are separated, on entering service, from family and friends, and cast among strangers; and they have not the safeguards against strifes and rudeness which are afforded by education and good manners. They are removed from the probability of marriage, and from the natural interests which would have exercised their faculties and affections at home. The fact that a very small proportion of the half-million of our female servants marry points to an arrear of suffering and privation which the preachers and tract distributors should take into the account. As for the reasons of the celibacy, there are several;—the over-proportion of women in towns,—the absence of opportunity for forming acquaintance,—and the caution of women who know that they must exchange a life of external luxury for hard privation in a cottage, or behind a little shop; but, whatever the cause, the employer should remember the fact, and render the case as natural and easy as she can. She will not seclude her maidens from all amusement; and she will not interdict “followers,” when once assured that the “followers” are relatives or respectable friends. If truly wise, she will cultivate the intelligence of her servants by books, newspapers, and conversation. That is the kind of house where the husband and children hear nothing of kitchen troubles; where nothing is locked up but papers, and where housekeeping is so much the cheaper for it that the neighbour who locks up everything is sure she is robbed, and insults her servants by suspicion more and more, till they leave her to “cook her own dinner,” and “answer her own door.” She is probably not robbed; but daily allowances of butter, sugar, spices, flour, &c., are sure to be all consumed, whereas, when the stores are open to use as wanted, the natural quantity only is taken.

Here we have the one sort of service,—the old-fashioned one,—and still, I hope and believe, the natural and durable method which on the whole prevails in our country, however little we hear of it amidst the clamour of complaint under the latest working of the other.

The other method is one of mere compact between the seller and buyer of that kind of labour which is called domestic service. Some of the employers say that they do not wish their servants to stay “too long;” that they get better service and more respectful manners from new servants, and therefore find or make occasion to part in a year or so. Others are in a state of constant fret that their domestics will not settle for many months together. All are dissatisfied; and, in my opinion, all who are dissatisfied are unreasonable. The one sort of mistress cannot expect to give, and never to receive, an unwelcome warning to part; and the other has no right to suppose her way of hiring appendages to be anything more than a bargain of the day.

If the ladies of England want to have well-qualified domestics, they must provide the means. Either they must bestir themselves to get training-schools, or other educational aids, instituted; or they must themselves instruct their servants; or they must pay high for service, and take with it whatever liabilities it may bring. To these conditions there is no alternative but going without servants.

Those same liabilities create the most clamour. We are wearied with complaints of the puppyism of the men, and the dressiness and affectations of the women, in the servants’ hall; and the complainants seem to think that a new curse has descended upon the land. It is far otherwise, as literature and tradition show. It is thirty years since a nobleman, a member of the Cabinet, a simple-minded and quiet man as could be, used to tell of a candidate for his butler’s place. Just as the newspapers now tell of the cook or nursemaid of last week, the aspirant was more full of his own requirements than of his master’s. Lord —— drew him out by repeated inquiries:—“Anything else?” and, when he had been told all about the “leisure hours,” the “liberty to invite friends,” and to “entertain them with a bottle,” and the “salary of three hundred a-year,”—he replied, “Say another hundred, and I will be your butler.” This is just like what we hear now,—and what Horace Walpole heard in his day, and what is heard in every generation of high life. The difference is in the increasing independence and loftier pecuniary claims of the class of domestic servants.

In our generation, as in all that went before, the sins and disgraces of the order are an ugly reflexion of those of their employers. If the only four-post bedsteads (and “curtains that close at the foot”) in some great houses are in the servants’ rooms, they are there because luxurious gentry in the last generation coddled themselves in such beds: and in twenty years, saucy servants will be seen insisting on having airy German beds, like the aristocracy. If valets lounge and yawn, and mince their words, and affect profound indifference to everything but their own indulgence, it is because they have seen these ways in their masters. If crinolines embarrass the kitchen and nursery, and the servants’ pew at church, it is because they embarrass the family dinner-table also, and the conservatory, and the carriage. If candidates for the kitchen and nursery talk, when they come to be hired, of their “compacity” as cook, and of their inability to “dispense without” a choice of joints or fish at the servants’ dinner, it is because they have had no sensible education in the first place, and that they have witnessed a reign of shams and self-seeking, in the next.

If this view of domestic service is anything like the truth, the facts will show, better than any preaching from any Hermit, what may be done, and what is to be hoped from it.

We must all be sorry for those sufferers under the present evils of transition, who are themselves innocent; and, indeed, for all who are at the moment helpless: but my own predominant impression is that the most ill-used class is that of the servants, who are expected to do what nobody has offered to teach them, and incited to imitation of qualities which they suppose to be “genteel,” and then spoken of with disgust and wrath for the natural consequences of the social influences under which they have lived. When the middle-class men of England become contented with their station and its attributes, the men-servants of the country will cease to caricature their vulgarities. When the women of England learn housekeeping, as our grandmothers did and our grand-daughters will, maid-servants will once more understand their business. Meantime, if masters and mistresses do not know how to check luxury and idleness, and rebuke affectation and insolence under their own roof, they have nothing to do but hold their tongues about their own trials, and silently satisfy themselves how much of their share of the “nuisance of domestic service” is of their own creating. All things considered, I think we might be spared this particular autumnal outcry till it can be reported that the condition of affairs is mending. I have, myself, no doubt that the present transition state might easily be made to merge in something at least as good as any domestic service ever yet known.

From the Mountain.