Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Domestic Service
By Edwin Percy Whipple (1819–1886)
From ‘Outlooks on Society, Literature, and Politics’

WE live under a republican form of government, where the rights of the citizen are supposed to be jealously guarded by law. Leaving out some limitations on the right of voting, which will readily occur to every reader, the statement is correct. The political rights of the individual are on the whole well secured and maintained; but these are not sufficient to confer social happiness. Political rights enable a man to have a voice in deciding what persons shall rule over him, and make and execute the laws of the country. But his political well-being may be relatively perfect while his social well-being is constantly vexed and tormented by certain peculiarities in the organization, or rather disorganization, of his household. He votes at certain times and at certain places once, twice, or thrice a year, and the annual expenditure of time in exercising this august privilege of the freeman is hardly an hour; but—taking man and wife as one—as soon as he proudly leaves the polls and enters his own house, he is no longer an independent citizen of a “great and glorious country,” but an abject serf, utterly dependent on the caprices of his domestics, or as they are ironically named, his “help.” He finds his wife the victim of an intolerable tyranny, which presses on her every day and almost every hour; exerting her energies in often vain attempts to put down an insurrection in the kitchen, or to conciliate the insurgents. He may have been during the day threatened by a strike of the laborers in his workshop, and have used all the resources of his patience, intelligence, and character in so adjusting matters that his men, being reasonable beings, agree to a compromise between labor and capital which does injustice to both. When he arrives at his house he encounters a conflict in which sullen stupidity, or vociferous stupidity, each insensible to reason, is engaged in battle with the “lady of the house.” This last conflict is too much for him; he commonly succumbs with the meekness of a galley-slave, and with a rueful countenance tries to eat his half-done potatoes and overdone beefsteak with the solemn composure of a martyr at the stake.  1
  It is important here to note that this is not a question of equality. The nominal master and mistress of the house may be just and humane, considerate of the rights of others, and sensitive not to wound their feelings: but they have to submit to the mortifying fact that the object of their help is to render them helpless; that a despotism is established in their house; and that their tyrants are their hired servants. There is more or less resistance going on for a time, but the autocracy of the kitchen is firmly established in the end. Frequent changes of help do little good. One spirit seems to animate the whole class. The new-comers announce, in true monarchical fashion, “The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!” Those who are dismissed find comfort, as they depart, in hearing this triumphant strain from the lips of their successors. They glow with the thought that the household from which they are expelled will still be taught to know that domestic life is indeed a “fitful fever”; that the art of “slaughtering a giant with pins” is not yet extinct in the world; and that the process of converting homes into hells is as well understood by the incoming as by the outgoing denizens of the house.  2
  There is a story going the round of the newspapers to this effect: that a wife, after reading the report of Queen Victoria’s speech, told her husband she was now a convert to woman suffrage, as the Queen had made as good a speech as a king. Her husband objected on the ground that Victoria, like the rest of her sex, when she says anything always makes a mess of it. “Look,” he continued, “at the Irish—” “Yes,” she retorted, “look at the Irish. If she had half the trouble with her Bridgets that I have, who blames her—” “But that is a matter of statesmanship, and not of domestic affairs,” was his response. Her reply was crushing: “My dear, it requires statesmanship to run domestic affairs. You just try it.” Probably this excellent stateswoman, with her power of managing refractory tempers and enforcing necessary rules, must often have been beaten in her efforts to maintain her persuasive or belligerent supremacy; must have sometimes sighed as she heard what Hood calls that “wooden damn” with which Bridget, after a reproof, slams the door as she descends to the realms she rules, and heard with a sinking of the heart the crash of crockery (sworn to be accidental) which occurred soon afterward. In fact, no statesman or stateswoman has yet solved the problem—and it may be that it is a problem impossible to be solved by human skill and intelligence—how to harmonize the relations between those who hire and those who are hired, so that persons of limited incomes can have a comfortable home. Take the majority of modest householders, who set up housekeeping on fifteen hundred or twenty-five hundred a year, and ask them, after twenty years’ experience of the petty miseries attendant on their employment of one or two domestics, the terrible pessimistic question, “Is life worth living?” and it is to be feared that their answer would be a sorrowful or splenetic or passionate “No!”  3
  More than half a century ago, Colonel Hamilton, one of the officers who won their laurels in Wellington’s campaigns in Spain and Portugal, published a book which he called ‘Men and Manners in America.’ He criticized both our men and manners with a caustic severity such as might have been predicted when a bigoted Scotch Tory assailed the people and institutions of a republic. His work exasperated almost every American who read it; and Edward Everett never wrote a more popular paper than his scorching criticism of it in the North American Review. The book is now forgotten. Still, one sentence in it survives in the memories of antiquarians, and it is this: “In an American dinner party, the first dish served up is the roasted mistress of the house.” It is to be supposed that the author only condescended to dine with persons distinguished by their opulence or official position; and it seems to prove that domestic service fifty or sixty years ago, in the mansions of the rich, was as much in a state of anarchy, owing to the incompetence or ill temper of the cook and her assistants, as it is now in humbler dwellings. Indeed, who has not occasionally seen, at ordinary dinner parties where no aristocratic Colonel Hamilton is present, the flaming countenance of the mistress of the house, as she takes her seat at the head of the table, indicating how hard has been her contest with her “help”?  4
  But at the time a Mrs. Schuyler, or a Mrs. Adams, or a Mrs. Quincy may have appeared to the British guest as a victim to the incompetency of her cook, a representative of the great house of Devonshire was subject to a tyranny of another kind. The duke happened to be prejudiced against port wine, which those who were admitted to his great dinner parties preferred to other wines. The duke’s butler, knowing his master’s taste, provided the best champagne and claret that could be purchased in Europe; but bought the worst port he could find at a low price, and charged the duke at the price which was notoriously demanded by wine-dealers for the best. The imposition was successful for years. Nobody who was invited to the dinners of a duke could dare to remonstrate against the liquid logwood they swallowed as port. At last one friend had the courage to tell the duke that his butler was a rascal. The result was an investigation of the facts: the offending servant was ignominiously dismissed; but not until he had amassed a comfortable amount of some two or three thousand pounds as a compensation for his disgrace.  5
  This is a pertinent illustration of the difference between our domestics and those of England. People are never tired of berating ours as barbarians, and contrasting them with those of England, who are thoroughly tamed and trained, and do their work with exemplary skill and propriety. In the great houses of England most of the servants are sycophantic and crafty,—bending their knees in prostrate adoration before the “gentry” they serve, but at the same time taking every secure opportunity to pick their pockets. An English servant of an English noble is apt to be the most ignoble of men.  6
  But the female English domestic is the ideal of many American women who can afford to hire one. The history and literature of England show the incorrectness of this assumption. Take the literature of England from the time of Charles the Second, and you will find that a majority of the clear-sighted dramatists and novelists represent the servant-maids as the obedient accomplices of their mistresses in every questionable act they do, but plundering those whom they serve. Even to the present day, one can hardly enter a theatre without finding the pert and unscrupulous chambermaid of the comedy to be a lively combination of liar and trickster, an expert in effrontery, malice, and mischief, and destitute equally of the sense of honor and the sense of shame.  7
  In the last century Fielding condensed the whole class in his Mrs. Slipslop. “My betters!” she indignantly exclaims: “who is my betters, pray?” As to the large question of domestic service, Dickens and Thackeray, in our own generation, have shown what people have to endure in the continual hostility between the kitchen and the drawing-room. David Copperfield, when he had won the adorable Dora, his “child-wife,” is daily tormented by the doings and misdoings of the wretches she employs as servants, and whom the adorable Dora is utterly incapable of converting into “help”; and in the household of Mr. Dombey, what a picture is presented of the kitchen aristocracy of the mansion in which the great merchant dwells, and in which he has the pretension to believe that he is the lord and master! How is he looked down upon, when he fails, by the meanest menial whose business it is to scrub the floors of his house! Indeed, the description of the assembly of Mr. Dombey’s domestics, when it is known that the firm of Dombey and Son has fallen into cureless ruin, is one of Dickens’s masterpieces. Thackeray, in all his novels, seems to be haunted with the idea of the utter falsity of English domestics, from the august butler of the palatial mansion down to the wench who does the lowest work of the cheap boarding-house. He is never more cynical than when he records the scandalous and unfavorable judgments delivered by the tenants of the kitchen on their masters and mistresses. One would hesitate, indeed, to undertake the forming of a household in England, if he were dolorously impressed by Thackeray’s monitions as to the essential antagonism between those who dwelt below the drawing-room and those who dwelt in the room itself. The two, being separated by distinction of caste, can rarely have with each other cordial human relations. There may be formal subordination and obedience on the part of the servants; but hate, envy, uncharitableness, rankle beneath the mask of sycophancy they wear.  8
  Much has been written about realistic fiction as distinguished from fiction which is eminently unrealistic; and English novelists who belong to the latter class are still prone to push upon the attention of their readers a revival of the old feudal relation between mistress and maid. It seems from these novels that they are bound together by the ties of mutual affection. The mistress condescends to make her maid her confidante, confides to her all her griefs and joys, and is rewarded for her protecting kindness by awakening in the bosom of her maid a sentiment of love which is entirely independent of self-interest. The husband of the lady is ruined by a trusted friend, who proves to be a villain, or he is made a bankrupt by some unfortunate speculation, or he is suspected of a crime which compels him to fly from his home and country: at any rate, he dies forever or disappears for a time. The disconsolate wife or widow calls the roll of her “pampered minions,” pays them their wages up to the day of their separation, and they depart from the house with an ill-concealed scorn of their ruined employer. But one aged domestic remains: she protests that she will never leave her mistress; she will serve her without wages,—nay, all the money she has saved up for a series of years shall be forthcoming at this moment of financial distress in the household; and ends by flinging herself into the arms of her dejected mistress, and in a flood of tears declares that she will never desert her beloved mistress—never! never!! never!!! Three points of admiration hardly do justice to the pathos of the scene. Scores of novels might be named in which it is rehearsed to the immense satisfaction of sentimental readers, who would never do anything of the kind themselves. Practical people are now apt to consider this disinterested, this sublime self-devotion of the feminine servant to the feminine employer as something bordering on the unreal, so far as their experience goes. Perhaps some of them are malicious enough to remember Mrs. Micawber’s repeated statement to David Copperfield, when the hot punch was passed around the table, that despite the injurious opinions which her distinguished relations had formed of her husband’s capacity to get an honest living for himself and family, she would never desert Mr. Micawber—never, never, never!  9
  Indeed, persons of limited incomes, whether poets, scientists, mechanics, clerks, or philanthropists, are commonly subjected, and always have been subjected, to the tyranny of domestics, without regard to their place of residence in one country or another. Neither genius, nor integrity, nor virtue, nor fame, nor saintliness of character, can check a virago’s tongue when she condescends to enter a comparatively poor man’s home, after she has served an apprenticeship, even as scullion, in the mansion of a millionaire. Perhaps nothing could better illustrate this fact than to cite an instance from the biography of one of the most prominent poets of the century. Thomas Campbell, after publishing ‘The Pleasures of Hope,’ and many immortal lyrics, such as ‘Hohenlinden,’ ‘Ye Mariners of England,’ and ‘The Battle of the Baltic,’ which had thrilled the whole nation, settled down in Sydenham with his wife and child,—poor, but with a great and wide poetical fame. In a letter to another immortal, Walter Scott, he humorously narrates a comic epic which had occurred in his own home. It seems that he hired a cook, recommended to him as faithful and sober, who had been with her husband for many years on board of a man-of-war. In the course of seven weeks, however, she developed her real character, and went from bad to worse. “One fatal day,” Campbell says, “she fell upon us in a state of intoxication, venting cries of rage like an insane bacchanalian, and tagged to our names all the opprobrious epithets the English language supplies. An energetic mind, in this state of inflammation, and a face naturally Gorgonian, kindled to the white heat of fury, and venting the dialect of the damned, were objects sufficiently formidable to silence our whole household. The oratrix continued imprecations till I locked up my wife, child, and nurse, to be out of her reach; and descending to the kitchen, paid her wages, and thrust her forthwith out of my doors, she howling with absolute rage. During the dispute she cursed us for hell-fire children of brimstone, whose religion was the religion of cats and dogs. I asked the virago what was her religion, since her practice was so devout. ‘Mine,’ says she, ‘is the religion of the Royal Navy,’ at the same time showing a prayer-book. After vainly trying to set the house on fire, this curious devotee set off for London on the top of a stage-coach, cursing as she went.”  10
  It seems that this is a typical scene. It has been witnessed since by so many small householders, that it is needless to remind them that a certain element of ceremonial religion mixes with the ribaldry and blasphemy of such domestics. “Mine,” the drunken brute exclaims, “is the religion of the Royal Navy.” All persons who have borne an active part in turning such creatures out of their houses must have noticed that a vague sense of formal piety finds utterance in their wild maledictions; still it is a piety which comforts itself in predicting sure future damnation to the masters or mistresses who call it forth. But perhaps the worst of the matter is that such domestic hornets develop the habit of swearing in employers who previously had shown no tendency to the vice. Indeed, to many heads of families a course of housekeeping is a school of profanity.  11
  The domestic service of the United States is mostly composed of immigrants who differ from their employers in race and religion. In one of the most splendid orations of Edward Everett, he happily contrasted the peaceful emigrants who came from Ireland, Germany, and other European countries, to settle here, with the descent of the barbarians on the Roman Empire. The former came to increase enormously the wealth and productive power of the nation they peacefully invaded; the warlike mission of the latter was to destroy and devastate what the genius and industry of former centuries had accumulated. The former came to create new capital; the latter to annihilate the capital which had previously been added to the stores of civilization. Indeed, the immense debt which we owe to what is called foreign labor—though laborers from abroad are so swiftly assimilated into the mass of our citizens, that the word “foreign” hardly applies to them—is practically incalculable. It has been for some time considered that the yearly additions to our population from this source is, in a great degree, an index of our advancing prosperity.  12
  There are evils resulting from this rush of new powers and influences into the rapid stream of our American life, but the evils are overcome in time by counterbalancing good. It certainly is provoking to have a few foreign socialists, escaping perhaps from the prisons of their native countries, or from the fear of being imprisoned in them, coming to this land of liberty and labor, and in corner groceries and lager-beer saloons announcing the doctrine that laborers cannot get their rights unless they begin their crusade against capital by robbery, arson, and murder; but it is hard to convince a workman who really works, that he is to become better off by destroying the palpable and permanent monuments of previous generations of laborers, such as houses, mills, railroads, and other evidences of labor capitalized. Indeed, the belligerent socialist is merely a reproduction of Attila and Alboin, acting a part which is foreign to our present civilization.  13
  This is one side of foreign immigration,—its beneficent side. The other side relates to the mothers, daughters, and sisters of the inflowing host, who “go out to service,” and who control most of the business. The gradual disappearance of American girls from service in families is a calamity both to themselves and the public; and it is based on an absurd prejudice that they lower their position and forfeit their independence in doing what they call menial work. They accordingly rather prefer to labor in factories, or swell the crowd of half-starved sewing-women, than to gain board, lodging, and good wages, in a private family. The result is that the Irish, German, and Swedish women who have had no education qualifying them for the business of cooks and general household work, learn their duties by experimenting on the meats given them to prepare for the table, and on the floors and carpets they are to scrub or sweep. This Kindergarten system results in educating them at last into domestics; but it is at the expense of a great breaking of crockery, a series of burnt steaks and chops which are uneatable, and a trial of the employer’s patience which gradually results in nervous prostration. The servants undoubtedly follow the Baconian theory that knowledge is obtained by observation and experiment; but their experiments resemble those of the Irish pilot, who, after remarking to the captain of the ship that the coast was full of sunken rocks, casually added as the vessel struck, “And that is one of ’em!”  14
  It would be a lesson in the study of human nature to note all the varieties of experience which the mistress of a house passes through when one servant, who has been educated in this way, departs, and another, who has also obtained an approximate idea of what good housekeeping means, applies for the vacant place. There is no form of “interviewing” more prolific than this, of incidents illustrating the conflicts and collisions of adverse specimens of human character. There for instance is the interesting invalid, who is bullied and browbeaten by the energetic virago who storms into the house, demands the wages which she thinks her services are worth, obtains them, and then dominates the household; reigning supreme until the master of the establishment is compelled to interfere, and dismisses her with words that savor more of strength than of righteousness. The list might go on to include the fretful, the economical, the bad-tempered, the shrewd, the equitable, the humane female heads of households that require help, but find it difficult to procure from those who offer it. Perhaps it would be well to condense and generalize the whole matter in dispute, by citing an example in which the applicant for a situation was confronted by a woman who had a touch of humor in her composition. In all the dignity of second-hand finery, resplendent with Attleboro’ diamonds and rubies, which must have cost at the least a quarter of a dollar a gem, the towering lady sweeps into the parlor, and demands a sight of the lady of the house. The meek lady of the house appears. “I understand you want a second-girl to do the housework.” “Yes,” is the gentle response. The high contracting parties forthwith proceed to discuss the terms of the treaty by which the claimant for the office of second-girlship will condescend to accept the place, stating her terms, her perquisites, and her right to have two or three evenings of every week at her own disposal, when her engagements will compel her to be absent from the house. The reply is, “It seems to me, if we comply with your terms, it would be better for my husband and myself to go out to service ourselves; for we never have had such privileges as you claim.”—“That is nothing to me. I have lived in the most genteel families of the city, and have always insisted on my rights in this matter. By the way, have you any children?”—“Yes, I have two.”—“Well, I object to children.”—“If your objections, madam, are insuperable, the children can easily be killed.”—“Oh! you are joking, I see. But I think I will try you for a week to see how I can get along with you.” The curt response is: “You shall not try me but the one minute which elapses between your speedy descent from those stairs and your equally speedy exit from the door.” The high contracting parties being unable, under the circumstances, to formulate a treaty agreeable to both, the applicant for the vacant place disappears in a fury of rage.  15
  It may be said that this is a caricature of what actually occurs in such interviews and encounters; but it has an essential truth underneath its seeming exaggeration. In almost all the professions and occupations in which men are engaged, the supply is commonly more than equal to the demand. In domestic service the supply of intelligently trained servants is notoriously far short of the demand. One must notice the readiness with which clubs, of late, are formed, for advancing all imaginable causes which can arrest the attention of intelligent, patriotic, philanthropic men. They meet weekly, fortnightly, or monthly, at some hotels noted for their excellent method of cooking the fish and flesh which are daily on the dinner-tables of the members, but cooked on a different method. The Sunday newspapers report the effusions of eloquence which the Saturday meetings call forth. The clubs multiply also with a rapidity which puzzles ordinary observers to account for their popularity. Perhaps a simple reason may be timidly ventured as an explanation of this phenomenon. Men who are classed as prosperous citizens like a good dinner, which they cannot get at home; and at stated periods they throng to a hotel, where the Lord sends the meats, and at the same time prevents the Devil from sending the cooks.  16
  It will be said that this attack on the present disorganization of our domestic service is one-sided. It is. Doubtless much may be urged in reply, arraigning the conduct of employers and defending that of the employees. Many evils of the present relations between the two might be averted by a mutual understanding of each other’s motives and aims. Still the previous education of domestics, not only in the enlightenment of their minds but in the regulation of their tempers, is the pressing need at present. If some charitable person should start a College for the Education of Female Domestics, its success in increasing human happiness would prompt others to follow in his lead. Such a college might turn out thousands on thousands of competent servants every three or four months. The diplomas it would give would command attention at once; and the way now followed, of sending to the girl’s “reference” and giving evasive replies, would be discountenanced. It would also give all classes of domestics a great lift in social estimation; the certificates that they have graduated with honor in such colleges would be equivalent to the B. A. or A. M. of colleges of another sort, when a young student applies for the position of schoolmaster in a country town or village. At any rate, a vast mass of unnecessary misery in families might be prevented, and a large addition made to the stock of human happiness.  17

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