Perhaps after prostitution, the most common occupation for a woman from the lower classes in times gone by was to be a servant to somebody else - even if this somebody else was her husband, a job which was unpaid of course. Not until the invention of labour-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines, in conjunction with education and women’s liberation, was it possible for poor girls, seeking ‘respectable’ employment to be anything other than handmaids to the rich. And it was ever thus.
For men, the situation was slightly different in that their most obvious options (well not always an option - often they were compelled into these roles) were as labourers and soldiers. Nevertheless many young boys and men also found themselves in domestic service, albeit in different roles to those of the women.
Another thing this particular profession shares with prostitution is that it is quite possibly the oldest profession for women. Not that it can technically be described as a profession of course, because, even now, large amounts of domestic work is unpaid. This would certainly have been true in ancient times, when the myriad of domestic tasks would have been carried out by slaves. A brief look at the literature on slavery would indicate that there were very few paid servants in the ancient world - indeed one source estimated that half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. There was probably an entire spectrum with regard to the treatment of the slaves from cruel to benign. Some obtained their freedom, some had position and authority, but for most it was a life of hardship and imprisonment leading to an early and sometimes cruel death.
Things didn’t get much better in the middle ages, where outright slavery, though it still existed, was replaced by serfdom in which a lord’s subjects provided labour in return for protection - even though the men were those pressed into service to provide the protection. Simultaneously though, there must have been some servants who were paid - either by receiving food, accommodation and clothing and in some instances by receiving a wage and a position in society.
By the eighteenth century the servants were more likely to be paid. Hogarth painted this group portrait of household servants (below right) and Daniel Defoe wrote quite a diatribe against maidservants implying that they held the upper hand due to their scarcity. It is hard to believe that he was right, but it is an interestingly different perspective. The article is reproduced on the MyLadyWeb website.
Apart from the dreadfully long hours and hard work for next to nothing, there was also the problem of the sexually predatory behaviour of the employers. No doubt many young women were forced, or at the very best, persuaded into sexual liaisons with their employers or their employers’s sons. In a few very rare instances this might have led to marriage, but the higher up the social ladder the employing family were, the less likely this would be. Nevertheless the children of these liaisons may have been provided for, they may not. Daniel Defoe sees this situation as one completely contrived by the servants with the young men as the victims. “If she be tolerably handsome, and has any share of cunning, the apprentice or her master's son is enticed away and ruined by her. Thus many good families are impoverished and disgraced by these pert sluts, who, taking the advantage of a young man's simplicity and unruly desires, draw many heedless youths, nay, some of good estates, into their snares; and of this we have but too many instances.” I suspect that this was not the usual case, but it’s interesting to see the other side. There might be a lot of romantic novels written about a young maid capturing the heart of the master, but I doubt it happened all that often.
As a personal family history aside, there seem to be two instances in our family history where the servant did indeed become the mistress - eventually. Ann Bartholomew must have captivated Joseph Beckwith, a man much older than herself and for whom she worked as a servant, for she eventually bore him twelve children, some whilst he was still married to his first wife, and was with him for many many years before, as an old man, he finally married her. James Dearman, the convict (yet to be written up) left a wife and children in England. To support herself, Catherine went to work for a carpenter as his housekeeper and seems to have borne him several children. I do not think he ever married her though, he gave the chilldren his surname.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the heydays for domestic service though. Domestic service ranked second after agriculture as the employer of most people in Victorian England and I have no doubt that every family history (unless you are an aristrocrat) has at least one servant in it. This continued into the Edwardian era but thereafter declined enormously. I don’t think I need to describe much about life in the servants’ hall - Downton Abbey and Upstairs and Downstairs as well as numerous other films, television programs and novels have given us a very detailed view - albeit somewhat romanticised I suspect. For it would have been very hard work. The hours were long - from dawn to late evening, and days off were few and far between. The rules were exacting and the hierarchy strict and no doubt onerous. There were no labour-saving machines. Housemaid’s knee and other such occupational complaints were common.
Not all servants worked in large houses with a massive staff of course. Many worked on their own for one family, doing everything, not just their allotted task. Even my grandparents, Gerald Osmond Hubert Mollett and his wife Beatrice Maude Magee, had a live-in servant for a while at least - and they were not rich. Labour was cheap and plentiful.
I don’t know that there is one factor that contributed to the decline of domestic service. No doubt it began with World War One, often cited as the end of the English class system. Other factors were advances in technology - vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, etc., universal education, women’s suffrage and subsequent liberation, World War Two - during which women were needed to do the jobs that the men - whisked away to war - were not there to do. The aristocracy and landed gentry declined - they lost their money and could no longer afford to maintain those vast estates, for labour became much more expensive and the rights of the workers, with the rise of the unions, became paramount.
And today? Is domestic service dead? Well no. Although it is different.
There will always be vastly rich people who need others to do all the domestic drudgery. And it seems at the moment that these rich people are becoming increasingly wealthy and increasingly needy of servants. They do not need quite as many servants as before though because machines, of course, do a lot of the work which would have taken previous generations of servants many hours. And they certainly have better conditions. Witness the staff of Chatworth House posing in the location for their annual ball. In the less developed countries of the world the rich can draw on a plentiful source of cheap labour. Even those lower down the social scale can do the same, and servitude is still a fact of life for the majority. In the wealthier countries the rich have to pay - though probably not always as much as they should. Mind you the Daily Mail article in the LInks section quotes some pretty high salaries. Lower down the scale though there are always poor immigrants willing to work for lower wages than they should be paid.
For the rest of us - well that is changing too. Increasingly, women are working as well as raising a family and they need help to do this. And so there is an ever growing army of people who provide cleaning services, ironing, child-minding, gardening, maintenance even cooking. Most of these are well-paid and regulated, but there is still the potential for exploitation - students, illegal immigrants, backpackers are vulnerable because they need the cash. I myself worked as an au-pair for a few months. I lived with the family and was indeed treated as one of the family, but I worked quite hard, looking after the children and only had one day off a week. I had only pocket money for a wage, although, of course I was fed magnificently (it was France after all), and I also had my own room. I enjoyed the experience and gained a huge amount from it - but I was a student and only doing it for a very short time. There are young and not so young women who do this all the time.
How to research our servant ancestors? Well difficult. If they worked in a large house you may be able to track down the records of the house somewhere - either at the house itself or at a local library or archive. Some of these archives have records of their servants which may give you more information. But of course you would have to know what house your ancestor worked in. Census records, are of course, a primary source. If your ancestor was a criminal, like our James Dearman convict, then you will find quite a lot of information from places like the Old Bailey website, Ancestry and Findmypast. County record offices have records too as do the various Australian state archives. No doubt America has a heap of records, but I confess I have not investigated America much. And last but not least there are the Workhouse records - for many servants ended up there. Do visit the Workhouse site to find out everything there is to know about this Victorian institution.
I’ll leave you with a last picture from the Impressionist Berthe Morisot entitled The LIttle Maidservant. Yes it’s somewhat romanticised, but she does look like she is working very hard.