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The Duties of a Lady’s Maid


Miss O'Brien

Most ladies, who can really afford the luxury of a maid, keep one. Sometimes the parlourmaid acts in that capacity, or the head-nurse in smaller households, or the lady may share her maid with her daughter or daughters; and there are some, who, though well able to afford to keep a lady’s-maid, are too independent to accept the services of one, preferring to do everything for themselves. Ladies’-maids are of various kinds, some very clever and some the reverse. If ladies keep a maid at all, however, they may as well have a really good one, and she, to deserve her name, must be thoroughly competent to perform the duties of her place. She must understand hair-dressing, dressmaking, packing, arranging the toilets for dinner parties, balls, etc., etc., must be possessed of good taste, must understand the care of dresses, boots, shoes, gloves, hats, bonnets, and the thorough art of repairing all clothes. She must be honest, quick, willing, clean, tidy and methodical, patient, and contented. Now it’s all very well to say she must be this, that, and the other, but it is not so easy to find combined in one person all these desirable qualities.

In large establishments the maid is often a Frenchwoman or a German. A first-class maid, or one who considers herself as such, expects various perquisites: her mistress’s discarded dresses, bonnets, mantles, jackets, and so on, and does as little as possible of the more menial work of her situation, giving herself too often “airs,” as the saving is. Such a person is a nuisance in a house, and often ends, if kept, in being really almost mistress instead of the lady, counting on her cleverness in some particular branch of her duties to keeping her situation. Others, again, are faithful, obliging, rendering willing service, and ready to do anything, not only for the mistress, but also for her guests. Such are not very often met with, but when they are found, meet with well-deserved praise.

Foreign maids, excepting Swiss, are not generally useful in a small house: they are extravagant, and too grand to accommodate themselves to the ways of the household, if it is not what they term ” a good place.” With a very wealthy mistress, who considers style everything, and does not mind paying for it, they are in their element.

The lady’s-maid’s duties are much as follows; she rises in good time, brings her mistress her early morning cup of tea, and arranges her room, prepares her bath— the housemaid bringing the cans of water, hot or cold— and lays in readiness everything which will be required for dressing, then she retires until rung for; this time she will employ in brushing and looking over the things worn yesterday. Then she has her own breakfast in the “housekeeper’s room,” and is ready to attend to her mistress directly her bell summons her, when she dresses her hair, removes her dressing-gown, and puts on her dress, doing all the finishing touches to her toilet.

When her mistress has gone downstairs, she puts her room tidy, and frequently—always in small households—helps the housemaid in making the beds. She puts cut all the things in readiness which may be required for walking, riding, or driving throughout the day, assisting her mistress to dress on all occasions, also in taking off her things on her return home again. She lays out the dress and things required for the evening toilet, and is ready waiting for her mistress when she comes up to dinner, assists her to dress, and, when that business is over, puts the room in thorough order before she leaves it. If her mistress is out, she sits up for her, and assists her to undress, putting away, with care, the dress, ornaments, flowers, and all the rest of the wearing apparel worn.

She has to keep her mistress’s wardrobe in repair, mend gloves, sew buttons on boots directly she sees such work is required, and do all the dressmaking and millinery expected of her. She also washes the laces and very fine linen her mistress wears. If her mistress keep small pet dogs, it is her duty to wash them as often as she is ordered to do so, also to take them out to exercise, if the mistress does not. This part of a lady’s-maid’s duties she is often inclined to shirk; and when she is engaged, if she has to do this, it should be mentioned to her, because many lady’s-maids will not take a situation where the mistress keeps pet dogs.

In a small household there are many duties performed by the lady’s-maid which would not be expected in a large house. For example, if only one manservant was kept, and he, in the afternoon went out with the carriage, the lady’s-maid answers the front door bell while he is out. She would also assist in dusting the morning room used by her mistress, and very likely be required to help in cleaning valuable china and drawing-room, ornaments. But whatever extra duties are required of her, they should always be named to her when she is engaged, so that she can, if she likes, refuse to take the situation.

The lady’s-maid takes all her meals in the “housekeeper’s room,” unless in a small house where there is no such apartment, and she usually has the evening hours, from eight o’clock to whatever time her mistress retires to bed, for her own; being often allowed out for a walk in the afternoon, and naturally on Sundays to attend morning and afternoon, or morning and evening church, as may be most convenient.

Lady’s-maids are mostly allowed certain perquisites, those I mentioned before, but only in cases where the lady is very wealthy; the more expensive toilets, fur, satin, lace, and so on, are never given, but sometimes left, in cases of death. Some mistresses give extra wages, on the understanding that no perquisites of any sort are allowed.

In small households where upper-housemaids are not kept, the. lady’s-maid after dressing her mistress for dinner, would go to the room of the lady guests, and ask if she could render them any assistance.

~ Our Servants, their duties to us and ours to them (1883)

Upstairs Downstairs in Gilded Age America



Millionaires of the Gilded Age looked to Europeans–or more specifically, the British–for cues on how to recreate the leisured life in America, copying them from the construction of country estates, to golf clubs, to social seasons, all the way down to the bottom of this lifestyle: domestic servants. Yet, save indentured servitude and slavery, American culture was built on the premise that there was no servant class.

Perhaps one reason why Americans invented and/or took to labor-saving devices with alacrity can be traced to the difficulty of hiring and retaining large numbers of domestic servants. A banker’s wife in Chicago could not expect to find cheap and willing labor like a banker’s wife in London, and so electric lights, central heating, vacuum cleaners, and up-to-date bathrooms were a must. However, immigration from the Old World provided a steady, if not completely reliable stream of would-be servants, and as testament to America’s geographical individuality, servant culture was not uniform or standard across the nation.

The first note of Americanism into the equation was the near absence of the word “servant”. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, advice columns and etiquette books wrangled over how to address the people who helped with the smooth running of one’s household, from “help” or “hand” to “staff”, to referring to a lady’s maid as “semptress” and a footman as “waiter”. William Randolph Hearst preferred to call his own maids, butler, chauffeur, etc his “staff” or “employees,” but ironically, the word “servant” was reintroduced into the homes of the wealthiest Americans by both their aggressive aping of English habits and the immigrants they employed (who were accustomed to being referred to as servants). These people, considered the very social elite, with their mansions in New York, their cottages in Newport, their 200 ft yachts, their country estates on Long Island or along the Hudson River, their camps in the Adirondacks, and their winter homes at Tuxedo Park or in the Berkshires, took the staffing of their residences to another level.

To facilitate the nouveau riche into their new setting, Mary Elizabeth Carter, a former housekeeper to the elite, published Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy, where she stressed:

The loud and prolonged outcry against servants as a class unquestionably is due to inefficiency of the average mistress, past and present, quite as much as to servants’ lack of training. The latter is an outcome of the former, because the ranks of housekeepers are constantly being augmented by women and girls untaught and inexperienced in the management of well-ordered homes. They know neither how to do nor how to direct the work of their houses, and are, in consequence, ignorant of what should be required as a fair day’s service from each servant.

To tackle the thorny issue of the “Servant Question”, American housewives found two solutions: improve the conditions of their servants, and lighten the burden of work. Servants quarters in an American mansion were generous and attractive, and unlike in English households, were furnished with new furniture and linens (perhaps not the exquisite items owned by the lady of the house, but new and comfortable, nonetheless). New homes, such as Clarence Mackay’s Harbor Hill on Long Island, were planned with the housing of the staff in mind.

The Mackays employed twenty-five indoor staff, and many more outdoor staff, who were housed in their own wing of bedrooms. There were also upper servants’ and lower servants’ dining halls, a butler’s den, a housekeeper’s room, and a laundry room and sewing room set aside for their personal use. The construction of the American country house also lightened the workload for the staff, and the typical English country house feature of separate rooms for separate work and the long corridors separating the kitchen from the dining room (as the English abhorred the smell of cooking emanating from the kitchen), were abolished. This change–particularly the former–placed a greater emphasis on the kitchen that remains in American architecture to this day.

Truly easing the life of household and staff were electrical appliances. The English were slow to adopt labor-saving apparatuses until the servant shortages and high wages of post-WWI, but Americans were–the words of Clarence Cook–a nation “in love with machines and contrivance.” Gas ranges eliminated the arduous and dirty work of laying a fire in the old coal-burning ranges and the expense of coal, and they didn’t have to be lit all day. With electricity came the toaster, the vacuum cleaner, the coffee percolator, and the electric fan, all of which–including the telephone–were considered the “New Answer to the Servant Problem”.

The other issue plaguing upper class Americans was whom to hire. American racial prejudices and the differing waves of immigration played a part in just who you might find working in the kitchens of a city mansion or country estate. In the South, the long history of slavery held firm in the ethnic make-up of domestic staff, though the migration of Northerners to vacation spots in Florida or Georgia, or to Washington D.C., and the increasingly negative race relations of the 1900s, influenced the decline in African-American upper servants. Irish immigrants made up the majority of domestic staff in cities like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, but they were considered “dirty” and “lazy”, and many mistresses didn’t bother learning their names, instead calling all Irish housemaids “Bridgets” or “Biddys”.

German servants were common in Mid-West cities like Chicago and Denver, though an article in the New York Times characterized them as “admirable, clean, obliging, and wonderfully hard working, but they lack the finish of good English servants.” In the West, particularly in coastal cities like San Francisco, Sacramento, and Seattle, Chinese and Japanese servants were common, though their lives bore a similarity to African-American servants in the South. Other ethnic groups involved in domestic service were Norwegians, Poles, Italians, and Swedes, with the last being considered at the top of the totem pole, so to speak, due to the commonly held assumptions about their cleanliness, cheerfulness, and hardiness.

Despite the racial coding of domestic service, the downstairs segment of the household were better treated, better paid, and better housed than their British and European counterparts. The precepts of the “American Dream” urged the servants into greater mobility than just life in service, and the unique situation caused by immigration to the New World gave each ethnic group a sense of identity outside the bounds of class or occupation. The wealthy in America could imitate the Old World in leisure activities, society, fashion, and housing, but only up to a point, and after that point the notion that “all men are created equal” held fast.

Further Reading:
The American Country House by Clive Aslet
I Go to America: Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson by Joy K. Lintelman
Harbor Hill: Portrait of a House by Richard Guy Wilson
Biltmore Insider’s Tour
Servants in Gilded Age Newport
Chinese Servants in the North American West
Servants’ Room Virtual Tour – Flagler Museum
Hearst Castle
The Gilded Age Billionaires
Servants in Glessner House
Pittock Mansion
Nemours Mansion and Gardens