Saturday, March 17, 2012

Servants in Non-Aristocratic Households in the 18th Century

Main reference: Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century by Bridget Hill

Basically, this an article designed so I don’t forget everything I read in the above book, but also where I ramble and go off on tangents. The sections are loosely taken from the chapters in the book. Hopefully you will find some information in it that’s of interest to you! If you have any questions, feel free to ask, and I will do my best to answer, although I give no guarantees on my knowledge.

By “non-aristocratic”, I refer to households making at most maybe a couple thousand pounds a year, and generally much less. Most of the households in the book quite modest, employing only a few servants, making less than a couple hundred pounds a year. (Which was still a large amount, and firmly middle class. A nobleman and his family could live lavishly on £5000 a year mid-century. By the end of the century, this figure had risen, though I’m not sure of exact numbers. I believe the poverty level was somewhere around £20 a year, assuming the people had to pay for their own room and board. Of course, this, too, changed over the century, and was probably lower in the early 1700s.)

Take all numbers as merely guidelines, as they changed throughout the century, and the years I give are vague. If you want more detail on wages, I’d recommend taking a look at the above book (which gives a lot of specific household examples) or J. Jean Hecht’s The Domestic Servant in Eighteenth Century England.

Male and Female Servants

In small households, generally lower middle class, or even lower class, with only one servant, that servant was generally female. Cheaper wages (as low as £2 for a general maidservant) is one contribution to this. If another servant was employed, it would often be a child, whose wages would be minimal or even nonexistent.

Slightly larger households might have more even numbers of female and male servants. Perhaps they would have a maid or two (who might cook, clean, and do other duties, as well), a boy to do general errands (who may or may not be paid), and a manservant for various other work. Only in households with at least three or four servants were there likely to be menservants employed.

A modest household might have three male servants and two female- one manservant to be coachman and farm manager, one to be footman and gardener, a boy, and two maids, one of whom would presumably do the cooking.

Menservants tended to get higher wages than female, at least £5 or so. Boys (known as yard boys or livery boys), when they were paid at all, made no more than £1 or £2. Generally, however, they received no wage, and got only room and board, clothing, and maybe some pocket money. In the period from 1763 to 1785, the average male wage was £6. 5s. 0d., while the average female wage was only £2. 15s. 0d.

The labels given to the servants, especially in smaller households with only one or two servants, tended to be arbitrary, and they were expected to be generally useful, whatever their “official” job.

Increasingly in the century, menservants were viewed as a luxury, and Lord North placed a tax of one guinea per manservant in 1777. In 1785, Pitt increased the tax to £1. 5s. 0d. for a single manservant, with a sliding scale up to £3. He also placed a tax on maidservants at the same time, although it was much lower, at 2s. 6d. to 10s., again depending on the number. Bachelors paid double and families with children paid only part.

Male cooks were generally preferred to female, especially in wealthy households. Traditionally, cooks had always been male, and in fact, the best recommendation for a female cook was that she had served under a male cook in a previous job. French cooks, in particular, were greatly desired. French cooking was generally considered superior to English, and most households that could afford went for a Frenchman as cook. In 1825, a “French Man-Cook” in one household earned £80 a year, two or three times the wage of the most experienced female cooks. The next highest paid servant in the household was the butler, at £50 a year. Obviously, this led to a bit of resentment from English servants towards highly paid foreign ones, such as French cooks and ladies’ maids.

Menservants were now mostly taken from lower social classes. From medieval times up until the sixteenth century, upper servants would often be wellborn gentlemen with little money.

Servants, especially male ones, were a display status and wealth. Livery, in particular, showed that a family had money to spare.

As to rich aristocratic and gentry households, they tended to employ hordes of servants. They also tended to employ larger numbers of male servants, especially at the beginning of the century. (Traditionally, male servants had performed various chores, without the stigma of “women’s work” attached to it.) One visitor to England, Rochefoucald, in 1784 claimed certain noblemen had 30 or 40 menservants, with additional maidservants doing less visible work. (I assume this is at a country estate.)

For comparison, in 1753, the Duke of Bedford employed 40 servants at his London townhouse, and by 1771 that number had risen to 42. (And if you look at London townhouses, even the largest of them aren’t all that huge.)


Sexual Vulnerability and Sexuality of Female Servants

Masters sexually assaulting their maidservants was extremely common. Often, they viewed maids as people they had a right to, that they were entitled to the body of the maid as the one who paid wages (or something like that.) The maids would often put up with it because otherwise they might very well lose their job and be denied the all-important character (reference), without which their chances of another job were extremely low.

Furthermore, maids were vulnerable to advances from other servants. Masters often had rules against their servants courting or marrying, resulting in many servants being confined to the house unless they had a specific errand, and even then, if they dallied, they were liable to be punished for taking too long. This led to a whole lot of sexual repression, especially since most people went into service in the decade after hitting puberty. Naturally, lecherous masters and amorous footmen might seem as good for experimentation as any man.

Wives, obviously, did not approve. Pretty maids were less likely to be hired, with wives afraid their husbands or sons would be seduced. Maids could be turned off for lewd behavior. Pregnant maids were usually turned off immediately. If a maid was pregnant, she would often try to lie about it as long as she could, hoping to put off losing her job.

In Georgian England, people tended to marry late, with women marrying at around 24-25 and men at around 27. People, especially women, often went into service to try and save up a dowry to make them an attractive match. When in the country, there was a degree of sexual freedom before marriage (just look at courtship rituals such as bundling, where the couple would spend all night in the same bed, and hopefully not having sex), but when in service, that was generally not allowed.

Many maidservants probably resorted to prostitution between jobs, to tide them over, as wages were abysmal, and servants often spent months between jobs. If they lacked a good character (reference) from their previous employer, their chances for another job were pretty low.

Vails, Perquisites, and Allowances

Vails were a major source of income, especially among male servants. Vails were essentially tips, given to servants for doing a service. As the century progressed, however, they were increasingly denounced. Footmen, in a predictably 18th century move, rioted. But they failed, and various laws against vails were passed, and the custom was widely claimed to have been eliminated in Scotland and much of England by 1767, though this may have been largely wishful thinking, especially in southern England. Waiters and postilions and other inn servants often continued to receive them, and in many households vail giving persisted into the 19th century.

So, what were vails, exactly? They would be paid to servants after visiting someone’s house for a meal or party or whatever event. The servants would line up at the door, and if a person failed to give them their vails, they could be harassed. (One story goes that a person asked their friend why they hadn’t come to any of their meal invitations, to which the friend replied that they couldn’t afford it.) Vails were usually 1 s. or 2 s. per servant, though they could be more, depending on how the giver felt. For many servants, vails made up the bulk of their income, with one footman claiming he could make over £100 a year in vails alone. Another claimed that he made £59 in nine years under one master, and received a further £28 in vails and perquisites.

Some masters forbid their servants from taking vails on pain of losing their jobs. This would occasionally lead to mass exoduses, with servants leaving to look for a new place that did allow them. (In particular, that happened when Scotland outlawed vails on pain of being impressed into the Navy, so servants went to England to find new jobs. Nevertheless, many of them were still impressed into the Navy on arrival in London.) Occasionally this was accompanied by an increase in wages- in fact, the increase in wages was one way recommended to eliminate vails- but it is doubtful that too many employers actually raised wages, except for in the case of footmen, whose wages rose from £6-£8 in the 1750s to £14-£17 in 1771.

Now on to perquisites. Perquisites were things that servants received in addition to their wages, often in the form of clothing. Servants would receive the cast off clothing of their masters, which they could then either wear or sell for money. Sometimes this would even be written into their wages. When masters died, they would often leave all their clothing to servants.

Allowances were occasionally given for things such as washing or clothing. Servants could also be put on a board wage. That is, they were given money instead of being fed. This was often used when the master was to be away from home, or if they just didn’t want to be bothered with feeding the servants at their own expense. Board wages could range from 7 s. a week for an under servant to 10 s. 6d. for an upper servant.

Opportunity, Identity, and Servility

Kin as Servants

Family members were often used as servants. Spinster aunts and sisters often served as housekeepers, and destitute cousins would throw themselves upon more fortunate relatives’ mercy. Family could also be a convenient source of cheap labor, as there was the sense of obligation, leading to lowered wages (if paid at all.) If family members were hired as servants, then often they’d also be treated as a servant, not a family member. For example, they might have to dine with the other servants and not at the main table, and not be recognized as family in social situations.

Sometimes even siblings would be taken in as servants. Samuel Pepys wrote of taking in his sister, who he didn’t like, as his wife’s maid, on the condition that she would be treated as a servant, not family. The sister was of a generally disagreeable disposition, and despite the cheap labor, Pepys got rid of her eventually. Some time later, he apparently took her back, the temptation of cheap labor apparently too strong for him. The sister eventually got married, and I don’t believe Pepys was sorry to see her go, however cheap she was.

Pauper Servants

Throughout the eighteenth century, various charitable institutions sprang up for the training of pauper children into exemplary servants. These charities were quite popular among ladies of quality, and were considered acceptable for unmarried ladies to participate in (assuming they didn’t actually come into too much contact with the children.)

Paupers would often be taken in as children, in some cases as young as six, often supposedly to learn a trade, but in reality to do drudge work for their masters. As apprentices, a fee would be paid to their masters, which was often the incentive for taking them in and giving them food and board.

Literate and Literary Servants

Literacy was actually not uncommon among servants. The stereotypical servant was thought of as uneducated and coarse, but in reality, many had quite a bit of learning. Of course, illiteracy was widespread, but especially later in the century, reading and writing became skills that were considered good to have in a servant. Upper servants, in particular, were expected to be able to read and write.

Many were able to read and write, though the number with only reading probably considerably exceeded those who could do both. (For obvious reasons, trying to figure out how many servants could read, but couldn’t write, therefore leaving no record of themselves, is rather difficult.) Reading was taught first in schools, so many probably learned only that before leaving school to help their parents.

Literacy, however, is not all. Some servants were actually quite literary, reading in their spare time and even becoming writers. Some servants wrote poetry, and there are quite a few footman and maid poets out there. Poetry is perhaps more prevalent than other forms of writing since it was relatively easy to write down in spare moments, as compared to, say, a novel, which would take some dedicated scribbling. Masters, however, were not necessarily supportive of their servants’ literary aspirations. Writing was viewed with suspicion, and not unwarranted, either, considering the content of the servants’ poetry was often mocking their masters.