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)


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