Friday, November 6, 2009

Regency Domestics II: The Housemaid

“The house-maid, in a regular family, will find it necessary to rise about five o’clock,...”1

And from then until she retires at probably nine or ten o’clock in the evening, she will accomplish a prodigious amount of work. Reading contemporary accounts of her duties is absolutely mind-boggling.

“Her principal business is to keep the furniture clean, under the direction of the housekeeper; great industry and natural cleanliness is requisite in this department.”2 But her work involves much more than this. She starts the day in the main floor apartments—the morning room, dining room, library, etc. with cleaning stoves and fireplaces, brushing carpets and sweeping floors, shaking curtains, dusting ornaments and mirrors as well as picture frames, and finally polishing furniture, unless there is a footman to do so. She does the same in the first floor public rooms—the drawing room and its like.

Then she prepares the dressingrooms so that her master and mistress may rise and find hot water and the like awaiting them, and after that she may finally go for her breakfast! Following her meal, the bedrooms will be waiting her attention. She opens the beds for airing, and while they do, she cleans the fireplaces, sweeps, dusts, rubs up the furniture and empties the slops. Then she puts on a clean apron and makes up the beds. And moves on to cleaning the passages, staircases, and landings—again brushing, sweeping and dusting.

“If the house maid rise in good time, and employ herself busily, she will get everything done above stairs in time to clean and make herself comfortable for dinner, about one o’clock,...”1

She then is permitted to sit down for a few hours while she does needlework, mending, hemming, all by hand and often in poor light no doubt. At four o’clock she lights fires and prepares dressingrooms for use. While the family is at dinner she cleans those same dressingrooms yet again, and turns down beds. Only then does she have her own supper, and if she can stay awake, enjoy a little free time.

For this she is paid twelve to sixteen guineas per year. If she is fortunate she has an under-housemaid to assist her.

The era of formal uniforms for housemaids was yet to come; in most cases maids wore print dresses and possessed several changes of aprons, as well as caps. Fabric for the frocks was usually supplied by the employer. In 1799 Susanna Whatman wrote from London to her steward: “I enclose a bit of callico. I should like to know the opinion the maids have of it. It is a finer one than I should have given them, but it is so pretty that if they fell in love with it as I did, I should be tempted to take it.”4 Some households were beginning to wear uniform garments. The photo is of a replica of a housemaid’s uniform of about 1820. This reproduction gown is modeled after an original garment in the collection of a British stately home, and is made by The Sutlers Stores in Poole, England and sold on their website.

As noted in my first column on Regency Domestics, household service was not for the faint-hearted. “The principal qualification in all servants (but especially in females) is a good disposition,...”2 Given the length of their days and the nature of their work, I can only imagine that a ‘good disposition’ must have been akin to sainthood.

“The household work of a family will be found to afford almost constant employment for the Housemaid;”3 This must be, I think, the understatement of the last two centuries. I can think of no one today who would be willing to work sixteen hours a day for the equivalent of perhaps fifty to one hundred dollars per year. Still, in the uncertain Regency world (with no safety nets), domestic service provided a home and a wage--not to be sneered at in any age.

Until next time,


1The Complete Servant: Regency Life Below Stairs by Samuel and Sarah Adams, Southover Press, 1989

2Modern Domestic Cookery by Elizabeth Hammond, 1819, Google Books

3The Servants’ Guide and Family Manual, 1831, Google Books

4 The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, Century Publishing, 1987

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