How common is/was Alice?
May 29, 2010 12:13 AM   Subscribe

Do/did people have Alices? I'm referring to The Brady Bunch's Alice -- a combination maid/cook/nanny who lived on site and was treated as a much-loved member of the family (with no outside life of her own aside from a mostly chaste relationship with Sam the butcher) while doing almost all of the real work of maintaining the household. Does/did this kind of role really exist in real life?

I know people have maids. People have nannies. People have personal chefs. People have live-in maids, and live-in nannies, and maybe even live-in personal chefs. But how common is/was the "Alice" example (i.e. one person who fulfills almost every need the family has)?
posted by amyms to Society & Culture (52 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not common, it could be she acted as the voice of morality and asexuality in a unrelated fashion to prevent an event.
The butcher was the BF.
posted by Mblue at 12:29 AM on May 29, 2010


I've known or met several people who've been hired under the title of "nanny" who also cleaned and cooked. However, they absolutely have lives outside their work, and were treated as members of the family mostly by the kids. I'm sure live-in examples exist. I'd look for people hired under the title "au pair".

As I understand it, these sorts of childcare jobs almost always include the expectation of some light cleaning and meal prep. Not necessarily scrubbing the floors and cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But, at the absolute minimum, you're expected to clean up after the kids and feed them whatever meals are appropriate. I would expect that heavier responsibilities exist for many people.

Now that I think of it, my wife had a nanny for a while whom she considers a second mother. I know that she cooked, and at least cleaned up after the kids. She wasn't live-in, but must have spent a large amount of time with them, given how influential she was in my wife's childhood.
posted by Netzapper at 12:29 AM on May 29, 2010


I was of the same age group as the kids in the Brady Bunch. 3 kids from my family who were close with 5 kids from another family would all sit down and watch the weekly show together. The Brady house looked remarkably similar to the house in which we all viewed the show. But I never knew of a live-in housekeeper/cook like Alice among any of our friends and aquaintences. Or a butcher like Sam that everyone knew by name, for that matter. Alice was there to help explain why Florence Henderson wasn't always busy cooking and cleaning for a family of eight.
posted by telstar at 12:31 AM on May 29, 2010


was treated as a much-loved member of the family (with no outside life of her own aside from a mostly chaste relationship with Sam the butcher)

Or was this the part that you were actually interested in, and not the job description bit?

In my experience, nobody who hires a live-in servant views them as family.

[Although, you might hire your friend to come over and clean your house (if that's what he does).]
posted by Netzapper at 12:33 AM on May 29, 2010


It's quite common where I grew up (Malaysia) for families to have a live-in maid who also cooked and cleaned. Whether or not they're treated as a much-loved member of the family depends on the family, but that's quite common as well, especially if the nanny's been minding the kids since they were very little. I definitely consider the one my family had to be a honorary aunt.

So: yes, but probably not in the US.
posted by Xany at 12:38 AM on May 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Response by poster: I've known or met several people who've been hired under the title of "nanny" who also cleaned and cooked. However, they absolutely have lives outside their work...

Yeah, I'm mostly interested in knowing how common it is/was for a live-in helper (no matter what the official job title/duties) to be seemingly totally devoted to the family (and the work) with no real outside life of their own. This kind of job is commonly depicted in books/movies/television (The Brady Bunch was the one that came to mind that I figured most people would be able to recognize), but I'm wondering if it is/was a situation that actually exists/existed in real life.
posted by amyms at 12:42 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: Yes, people had/have Alices; we did. She arrived when I was 7 days old and stayed for more than 25 years. I don't know how common it was; I grew up in NYC and a lot of families had help in different assortments, but Nanny did everything for us. She cooked, she cleaned, she took us to and from school, she laundered, but mostly she loved us; she raised us.

She absolutely way one of our family. She was revered. My mother treated her with the most enormous respect, which tickled down; we kids were all always good for Nanny and somehow aware that our world only held together because she was there. She held the domestic front together while my mother worked and had to travel. The only really serious trouble I remember being in as a kid was because I sassed nanny. My mother banned me from the house for a week - I had to go stay with an uncle.

I don't know what else you want to know but I can talk about Nanny all day. She was wonderful. She retired when my youngest sister went to highschool, but my sister still saw her and would go out to see her for weekends, and Nanny would come out and visit my parents' house for a week or two every year.

She died five years ago, and we all miss her.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:42 AM on May 29, 2010 [22 favorites]


Response by poster: It's quite common where I grew up (Malaysia)... So: yes, but probably not in the US.


Yes, I'm interested in knowing whether the role/situation exists in cultures other than the U.S.
posted by amyms at 12:45 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: I've encountered many Alices doing all the domestic tasks in a household but not in the USA. The closest I've seen that here is among several of my friends and neighbors who have the Alice role filled by their widowed mothers/aunties who live with them.
posted by jamaro at 12:46 AM on May 29, 2010


Response by poster: DarlingBri's answer is exactly the kind of example I'm looking for. DarlingBri, did your Nanny have a life outside of your house (and by this I don't mean to disparage her role in your life, but I'm curious to know if she had a home of her own, a husband, her own children, etc.)?
posted by amyms at 12:50 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: This kind of role is fairly common in Pakistan, if you're upper middle class. One person who minds the kids, cooks, cleans, and lives with the family full-time. There may be other part-time help so that everything isn't being done by one person.

As far as being considered a member of the family goes, that varies from family to family, but is not uncommon. It would be extremely unusual for someone like this not to have any life of their own. Most of the cases I can think of are either husband-wife couples, where one works as driver or chef (or both) and the other the nanny-cum-housekeeper role, or single mothers whose kids would then also have the run of the house of employment.

In my experience in Pakistan, there is always a class line that remains drawn, no matter how close the relationship becomes. And to be fair to both employer and employee, that class line really means that they come from different worlds in a dramatic way, so it's pretty nigh impossible for it to go away.
posted by bardophile at 1:07 AM on May 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I'm curious to know if she had a home of her own, a husband, her own children, etc.)?

It was complicated. Nanny was Jamaican, married very young and had three children from her first marriage and two from her second. To make things better for their family, she and her husband wanted to immigrate to the US but it was easier to get a visa if you applied from the UK. (Jamaicans are British Nationals.)

So they immigrated to the UK, leaving the kids with her mother. The three oldest went to the UK one by one; two stayed in the UK when the family went to the US, and the youngest ones went directly from Jamaica to the US with Mama, Nanny's mother.

It was a pretty fragmented migration, but that was apparently not an unusual pattern.

So anyway: when she came to our house, she did have children but not at home and I think her husband was lagging in the UK as well. By the time I was 5, her husband was here (and also my favourite person in the universe - I adored that man) and the last two kids were in the US too. The kids were mostly looked after by Mama, but sometimes came to our house. I also remember that I spent many of my mom's trips staying at nanny's house, I assume because it was easier for her. We did see a lot of nanny's husband, though; he would sometimes have dinner with us the nights my mother was out.

Over the years, as Nanny's situation with her kids changed her arrangement with my mother changed as well. She had swapped to staying with us two nights a week when I was maybe 8; her youngest kids would have been 16 and 18 by then. I think the whole situation evolved as events unfolded; she was only originally hired for three months but she stayed for decades, and nobody planned for that.

But still, this is a far messier story than the perfect Alice/Brady Bunch situation. I'm not trying to gloss over the fact that this worked out much better for my mother's kids than for Nanny's, nor am I unaware that there are messy issues of race and power and money here. FWIW, my mother wouldn't gloss over any of that either.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:57 AM on May 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Best answer: My grandfather in Dayton Ohio had Mrs. Bosren, and she was exactly like that. When I saw the TV show, I thought it must be common somewhere.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:59 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Best answer: seemingly totally devoted to the family (and the work) with no real outside life of their own

That seems to describe something like a butler or servant of a royal household or an elite clan/dynasty (contemporary examples would be the Kennedy's, Hiltons, etc.)

Other than that, bardophile said what I was going to, only about Pakistan rather than India.

But yeah, pretty much the same situation across the LOC. Residual effects of the old class system combined with lax regulations, a huge number of people on the edge of poverty and far lower cost-of-life than developed nations means the barrier to having this kind of support is far lower than in the west. My grandparents and most relatives in their generation have a few maids around during the day to take care of chores whilst they perform arcane mysticisms to lobby the gods for better reincarnation benefits, etc.

My parents also had a few live-in maids (in succession, not at once) from when I was born up until about elementary school, when it was decided that TV was a good enough substitute to keep me out of trouble. Also my mother was pregnant with my brother and by then my father was making enough money that she could stay at home full time from then.

This was in Dubai in the early 90's. By North American standards we weren't rich at all (still ain't), but conditions and economic forces were right then so that we could afford to fly them over from the old country*, provide room and board as well as pay enough in wages to be sent back home. And as far as I remember, yes they did seem to have personal lives.


*don't trust dem foreigners
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 2:29 AM on May 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Yes, there were two 'Alices' in my father's family (provincial haute bourgeoisie in the British industrial Midlands). Mary went 'into service' in her teens (circa 1920), and took a job with my great-grandmother ('Old Granny' to the family) as a maid-of-all-work; after Old Granny's death she went to live with my great-aunt Peggie and stayed till Peggie died in 1990. Letty took a job with my grandmother Mollie as a nursemaid to the children (this must have been around 1926 when my father was born); she stayed with the family, later went to live with my aunt to help bring up her children, and went on living there until she moved into a nursing home (paid for by the family) in her nineties. She died only a few years ago.

In 1993 I wrote down some of Mary's memories of her life:

Her father worked as a foreman at the Lilleshall Company (iron and steel works) and they lived in factory housing (14 cottages and a tin church, all now demolished). Her mother died when she was eleven. When she went into service, all the advice her father gave her was, 'Get your feet under a good table, and let money be a secondary consideration.' She went to work on a farm near Hodnet, where she used to buy cheese for ninepence a pound and send it home to her family. She was offered a job in the dairy, but another girl had left because the work was too heavy, and her father said, 'If it was too heavy for her it'll be too heavy for you.' So she went to work for Old Granny, only for a month while Sarah (Old Granny's maid for forty years) was away, but at the end of the month she stayed on because nobody told her to leave. "After thirty years I said 'Well, shall I stay?' and Old Granny said 'Ask me in another thirty years'. After sixty years I said to Peggie 'Shall I stay?' and do you know what she said? She said 'Well, you'd be no good doing anything else'."

Mary and Letty gave practically their whole lives to my family; they never married, never had children, though Letty, who loved children, cared for three generations of my family as they grew up. I never remember either of them showing any signs of regret for the possible lives they might have led. When I was small I assumed that all families had live-in companions (I never thought of them as servants, they were just 'there'), and it came as a surprise to realise how unusual this was. Now, looking back, I wish I'd done more to show my gratitude. Thank you, Mary, thank you, Letty; I miss you both.
posted by verstegan at 2:29 AM on May 29, 2010 [20 favorites]


Best answer: Well then - my nanny was from the Philippines. I don't know the circumstances under which she first came to Malaysia, because prior to working/living with us she worked for my great-aunt as a shop assistant. Long story short, the shop burned down, and she would have been out of work - only my mom was looking for a nanny for my brother and I, and my great-aunt recommended her. I was about six.

So: growing up, she did everything. Cooked, cleaned, took care of us, told us stories, fetched us from school, the works. She knew everything from our favourite foods to our shoe size to where that Lego set had gone; she knows everyone in our extended family; she kept everything running smoothly, and we adored her. My brother and I have since left for college and beyond, so now she's more of a live-in housekeeper for my parents.

There wasn't as much closeness as in DarlingBri's story - my parents (and grandparents, and aunts and uncles - they all had nannies/maids) always held to the idea that a maid is first and foremost an employee. Bottom line, she was hired to mind us kids and keep house. In my family there was respect and a great deal of affection on all sides, but it was the respect of a good employer to a good employee, or (for us kids) the respect of a child to an elder. It was never that of a child to a parent, which is why I think of her as a honorary aunt and not a second mother...

Nowadays, I look back and I can see that there was a definite and clear power imbalance by Western standards, but the whole thing was frighteningly normal to us. It still is. In fact, I think by Malaysian standards, we had a hell of a lot more love and respect for her than most: she was paid well (relative to other maids) and my parents gave her loads of freedom and things. But member of the family ...? As much as possible given the cultural/practical limitations of the relationship, yes, but as I said: honorary aunt, not second mother.

I think she's happy, though. She never talked much about her family back home (not that we didn't ask - only, if one were to believe the stories she told when we were little, her parents were fishermen/ninjas/taxi drivers/jungle guides/clerks/guerillas/politicians) but I do know she has a husband in the Philippines and some extended family, because she still goes back once every one or two years to visit them. Her niece now works for my grandmother.
posted by Xany at 3:03 AM on May 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Best answer: My wife is a Red Cross volunteer here on the island. One of the old ladies she used to help died last week at the ripe old age of 88. She had come to the island from Andalucia when she was in her early twenties and went to work for a family who lived here and continued to do so all her working life. She helped bring up all the children (The surviving daughter is in her sixties) as well as helping cooking , cleaning etc. She lived in an apartment owned by the family and the surviving daughter visited with her every week. It seems the family adored her.
They paid for her brother to come to the island for her funeral.
In UK people of a certain class often had a live in "nanny cum helper". Frequently this person although a servant became a valued and respected household member especially by the children she helped bring up. I have heard many stories along the lines of " I asked nanny what she thought before I asked my parents" this was often for life changing decisions such as marriage or moving. Nanny became a confidant, and as such was greatly respected by her employers as well as the offspring.
posted by adamvasco at 3:47 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: Seconding TAYCSAGAA! and bardophile. The situation was very similar growing up. We were encouraged to call the live-in housekeeper (as well as other maids) _____ Akka (which means elder sister in Tamil). This strange honorific was indicative of their status -- not quite accorded the same authority as elders of the family but they were definitely older than a child and hence they needed to treated with some deference.
The two live-in housekeepers who I felt were the most Alice-like were both separated from their husbands (due to alcoholism/abuse) and had sons. The first one I called Tulsi Akka. She was a wonderful affectionate person, who had the memory of a sieve. She eventually decided to leave us and start her own catering business which flourished. I remember my mother giving her my bicycle because she had been using it much more than I had been and it would be useful for her business. Even then she lived quite near us and often visited us just to chat and pinch my cheeks (really hard!). Unfortunately her story had a tragic end. She managed to send her beloved son to a polytechnic, only to have him run away from home when he lost a (relatively) expensive calculator twice. He was never found :(
The second person -- Mallikka Akka -- is probably closest to the keep-everything-running-like-clockwork sort of housekeeper you read about it fiction. The two of us got on very well and I definitely miss her a lot. She was a tailor by training but came to work for us after her husband turned abusive and she needed to leave her native town in a hurry. She was a wonderful cook who basically taught me everything I know about cooking. She was also very very intelligent, and I think it's really sad that someone who had the ingenuity of an engineer should have had so few choices in life. She loved looking at photos on the internet and I would often spend a couple of hours just showing her cool things or explaining the English terms for things. Her son was initially sent to a residential school (that my mother pulled some strings to get him into) but he began to have mental problems (schizophrenia). Despite medication, he became more and more insistent on going home, so she left to live in her native town with him (in fact she left a couple days after I left to the US). Since then I think the situation has changed and she has been staying in my parents' house again and I got to chat with via Skype recently (yay!). An absolutely wonderful person.
posted by peacheater at 3:59 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: This is extremely common in Mexico. They are called maids, nannies, cooks, even servants.
They do a mix of all those roles: cooking, cleaning,looking up afther the kids, general household work. Some live in the house -most houses in Mexico a built with a maid's room-, or some
work for the day and live somewhere else.
Some are considered part of the family, some are not (they are treated as servants).
But it all depends on the family. If they find a good match with the family, they can become lifelong workers...and very loyal.
posted by theKik at 5:43 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: I had Alices pretty much since birth, starting with my Jamaican wet nurse until I was 2 or 3 and continuing with 2 nannies/cooks/housekeepers over the years until I was about 14. The first was with us for about 8 years, and we still keep in touch although she is back in Holland and now has kids of her own; the second passed away a few years ago, also back in Holland. Both the long-term ladies were live-in and very much part of the family.

This was in NYC in the 80s and early 90s.
posted by elizardbits at 5:52 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: I live in Korea. We have a live-in nanny with us now, and hired her in preparation just before my daughter was born. My son was only 15 months old at the time; it would have been very tough for my wife to take care of two babies at that time, especially right after her second c-section.

She cooks, cleans, does some grocery shopping, and takes care of the kids (mostly our daughter). While the language barrier effectively prevents me from having much interaction with her, she has a very close bond with our daughter, and I'm sure to my kids she's just like one of the family.

When I was little, we had a series of au pairs from around Europe , and my siblings and I certainly didn't view them as mere "help"; they were definitely more like family to us. Don't recall how my folks viewed them.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:54 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: This type of arrangement was common among wealthy families in the United States until the 1950s or so. My grandmother was raised on a large estate near Palo Alto, CA, and sometime soon after the First World War a young Irish woman came to stay and serve as nanny and sort of overseer of domestic activities (there was a separate cook, driver, gardener etc of course.) She became close to the family and stayed a close member of it long after she retired from work. When I was a kid and she was quite elderly she had a place of honor at family get-togethers and was perhaps everyone's favorite "relative."

The Saratoga News once ran a very nice article about her, which provides lots of information of how this long-gone world operated.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 6:07 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just because Alice's life wasn't a constant parade of drama over boys and school and whether Davy Jones would come to the dance doesn't mean she didn't have one. The nicest people you know would make for really boring television.

(Also, my ex and I had a nanny for our little girl, and Mandy became very much a part of the family.)
posted by Etrigan at 6:16 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: When living in Brazil, I had three host families:

The first one had servants -- there was a cook and a maid and a driver, and while they stayed on site some of the time, they all had homes and families to go away to, on their days off.

The second one had a housekeeper who was absolutely a member of the family, despite being staff. She had an upstairs bedroom, she was much beloved of everyone else in the house, and had to be treated with the proper respect. It wasn't that anyone would confuse her with an actual member of the family, you knew she was the housekeeper, especially when guests were there, but when it was just family, she ate at the dinner table with us and watched TV with us upstairs in the evenings and such. They also had staff -- a driver, a gardener, and a cook (who had a young daughter) who lived in the staff wing of the house, along with a laundry woman and a breadmaker who came in once a week. Those people were much more invisible, would never have sat down to dinner with us and were not, to my knowledge, ever upstairs in the time I lived there. It wasn't that anyone was mean to them or anything, but they were clearly doing a job and outside their working hours, they kept to themselves.

The third household had a housekeeper who actually was a member of the family -- she was a cousin on the 'poorer relatives' side of the family who lived with them and did the cooking and cleaning. I was never entirely sure if she was also paid for her work, or if being given a chance to live with the rich relatives was all she got out of that deal.

I think we're increasingly seeing live-in do-it-all type people in North America, not just taking care of children, but also taking care of the elderly. My landlady is old and infirm and she was a 'personal care worker', who lives in the house, along with her 2 year old son, and does all the doing that needs done. There's not really a family to be part of -- it's just my landlady and the two of them, but the relationship has a different vibe than just employer / employee, especially because of the boy.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:45 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: Yes, I think this was more common in the US and Canada before WWII ... another fictional example for you is Susan Baker from Anne's House of Dreams and Anne of Ingleside (and the two Rilla books) by Lucy M. Montgomery. Susan has something of an outside life -- takes vacation to visit family, is involved in various community efforts and church things -- but lives with the family as a third beloved adult, though one subordinate to the parents. Issues of class are at least lightly explored; older women in particular tend to think Anne gives Susan too much freedom in running the household and treats her too much as an equal. Anne's peers seem to be a little more egalitarian-minded. Both women engage in housework and there is enough of it to keep both women busy, but it's clear that more of the drudgery is expected of Susan. To a certain extent they move in the same social circles, particularly when dealing with church things or town doings, but Anne's social life is clearly much more expansive than Susan's.

I would also keep in mind that prior to WWII in the US and Canada, there simply wasn't as much education available for women and not a lot of jobs women could do. A woman today who's uninterested in marriage or hasn't found the right person has a universe of choices; a woman back then might keep house for relative (especially a bachelor relative or elderly parents), go to live with a sibling as a beloved aunt, live on her own if she was wealthy, or go into service. A live-in, long-term nanny-and-maid who was treated as a beloved member of the family was clearly a better option than "washerwoman" (the first job even poor women hired out if they could afford it).

It was fairly common in the US and Canada, though not universal, for these women to leave service if they themselves married.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:48 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: My father was in the oil business--oilfield chemical sales--and had a lot of friends who lived for extended periods overseas. Many of them, especially those who lived in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Indonesia), seem to have had servants of this type, especially if they had kids. Company-paid servants were a perk of those overseas jobs. When we lived in the UK in the early 1980s, we had a maid named Gloria Rose come in basically every day to help my mother, who spent much of her time entertaining visitors, who were mostly my father's clients and their wives. She had her own home and family, but she was in the house at least five days a week, and had I been very young instead of a teenager, my parents might well have looked for someone to live in. My mother still exchanges cards and Christmas gifts with Gloria Rose. She was not a family member, but definitely a good friend. She wasn't an authority figure to me but I'd already finished my freshman year in high school, so I didn't need much direction or after-school care.

I also have had, as an adult, an acquaintance of about my own age (early 40s, so raised in the 1970s) who had a real live "Mammy", a black woman who fits the "Alice" criteria, growing up. "Mammy" was her term and not mine. I've heard about similar arrangements as a historical matter from family members who grew up in rural Texas during the Jim Crow era, but it was shocking to me to realize that kind of relationship continued into the 70s.
posted by immlass at 7:18 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: I grew up in the southern US during the 60's and had a "mammy". My mother worked outside the home, which was somewhat unusual for the time. Caroline cooked, cleaned, took care of us five kids during the day (blended family), and was a huge influence on my life. She came every weekday, did not live in, but did occasionally stay over when parents traveled.
posted by raisingsand at 7:40 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: I had someone like this while growing up in Sri Lanka. She was quite young when we left, so she got married and had kids of her own, but she continued to mind house and look after the kids of another household. Last year she was a guest at my sister's wedding.

It was, and still is, extremely common for any household that's vaguely upper-middle class to have a live-in nanny-cum-housekeeper in Sri Lanka. Whether she becomes like family depends entirely on the personalities and time period involved. My family later lived in Indonesia and had maids there, too, but the cultural differences prevented any family-like bond from being formed.
posted by sid at 7:48 AM on May 29, 2010


elizardbits: really? A wet nurse?

Ten years ago in NYC a woman I knew had a live-in nanny (gone on weekends back to her own family) who also cooked and cleaned. I was at her apartment once when her young daughter had a nightmare during a nap. The girl ran right past her mother to the nanny for hugs and comfort.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:52 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: My grandmother's "Alice" was in her late teens when my grandmother was born, pretty much raised her (and cooked, and cleaned) and then came to live with my grandparents when my father was born, and raised him and his siblings (and cooked, and cleaned). She was one of my grandmother's best friends (though with all the class and race complications present in the South in the early- to mid-19th century).
posted by sallybrown at 7:57 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: My mom's family had a live-in housekeeper for quite a long time, a Japanese woman named Mako. I think she died right before I was born...so she definitely stayed working for my grandparents even when there were no kids in the house. She was absolutely part of the family - everyone talks really fondly about her, and I feel like I knew her even though I didn't. I don't know a ton about her personal life, but I don't believe that she had children or a husband.

My mom's sister and her husband had a live-in au pair, Rosana (pronounced Hosana, but we called her Zozazie) when my cousins were little. My Uncle was in biotech and my Aunt was doing some kind of marketing and travelled a lot. Zozazie was a Brazilian immigrant. She didn't really have much of her own life when she first started because she didn't know anyone. I'm pretty sure she was illegal at that point as well. My Aunt had ovarian cancer when my cousins were about 5 and 11, and Zozazie pretty much held the family together. In some ways she was more of a mom to my younger cousin than my Aunt was (but my Aunt is also kindof cold emotionally, and that is another story).

Zozazie probably stopped working for them 15 years ago, but I still consider her part of the family. For a while after she worked for a couple other families, and now she is a nurse. She still comes to a lot of family events, and I remember she came to my high school graduation. I saw her over Christmas as well.

I have a lot of issues with the idea of basically hiring someone to run your house and raise your kids, but in both cases the Nanny was very respected and considered a part of the family - not the stereotypical "mom doesn't really want to raise her own children" scenario that I picture really rich families having.
posted by radioamy at 8:09 AM on May 29, 2010


I was wondering the other day if this sort of arrangement might not become more common in the US as the economy worsens or stagnates. I'm imagining people, especially older women without professional skills, taking on roles as full-time live-in cooks and housekeepers in exchange for room, board and a small salary. It may raise issues of class that we're not comfortable thinking about, but from the point of view of the employees, I can definitely think of worse gigs.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:22 AM on May 29, 2010


really? A wet nurse?

Yep. I was adopted, and my mom was pretty insistent that breastmilk was superior to formula. IDK why she chose that over a milk bank, but then again I have no idea if they even existed in 1979.
posted by elizardbits at 9:01 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fascinating! I didn't know that wet nurses existed in the US that recently.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:45 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: This is fairly common in the Philippines. Usually families (obviously not the poorest families but middle class and up) will have live ins who may be poorer relatives or from outside the family. Depending on the family's wealth, they may have a staff with specific duties (cook, driver, ya ya (nanny), housekeeper, house boy) or they may have someone who is more all around that does the nanny/cook/housekeeper thing. Many live in, sometimes for their entire lives. Sometimes they remain single for life or sometimes they marry and have kids and the husband and kids work for the family as well.
p.s. There is a saying that you never want to hire staff that has worked for American families because they become spoiled and aren't "trained right" by class-blind Americans.
posted by MsKim at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: My dad grew up with something like this arrangement, in the 1940s outside Detroit. Their house, which was not palatial (3 bedrooms in the family part of the house), was built with separate servants' quarters (2 small bedrooms and a bathroom, with separate staircase to the kitchen) at the back. In their case, they were a white family with a black woman living in and doing childcare/cooking/cleaning duties. They were very fond of her and respectful, but I'm sure it's a class barrier of the sort being described above in Pakistan, where there's no question of her being on an equal footing with the rest of the family. I believe she moved out when she got married, but still worked for them daily.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:07 AM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: My husband's great aunt had an "Alice" for her fairly large brood in the U.S. in the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's in a similar way to how gabrielsamoza describes things in that family. "B" was Irish, never married, and definitely considered the kids her family, and they all looked on her as part of the family as well. The family spent summers in their house in Maine and the male handyman, caretaker, and general "go to" guy for the family in Maine was also incorporated into the family. He is now long retired, but is still invited to all the family get togethers and reunions in Maine and has his own house very close to the main house and is checked up on by the family as well as by his own son.

"B" in some ways seems to have never left the family, even after death. Her ghost has been seen by several people in her old bedroom in the Maine house (which is now owned by the grandchildren of the woman "B" worked for). "B" has been seen and described by people staying in the house who never knew her in life and did not even know she had existed.
posted by gudrun at 12:04 PM on May 29, 2010


Another related thing you might enjoy is the book Cheaper by the Dozen (which is short and terrific if you haven't read it), where they describe their two live-in domestic helpers, one male handyman and one female housekeeper/cook etc, who are like part of the family.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:08 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Prior to the invention of domestic machinery (washing machines etc) there was a lot more work in a house and it was common for middle class families to have servants. By economic necessity many of them would only have been able to afford one, particularly in the 20th century.

I recently read Gwen Raverat's Period Piece (a memoir of a Victorian childhood from Darwin's grand-daughter) and there is quite a bit in it about relations to, and the lives of, (female) servants. She describes exactly a case of a life long and unmarried servant in continual employment. It is worth pointing out two things: firstly there was distinction made between servants depending on the position they held in the household, between servants who had close relations with the family and those who did not (e.g. gardeners). By nature of their role some servants were quite intimately involved in the life of the families they served — dressing people, preparing their beds and waking them up etc — so there was a tendency, on the part of the employers, at least, to project certain qualities on to the relationship between them because of this. Secondly (and perhaps because of the perceived closeness) the lives of female domestic servants were tightly controlled. This was done partly through control of their time (they were given very little time to themselves) and partly through expectations of their behaviour. In particular Victorian class-based morality demanded chastity of its female servants* (and the Victorian era continued to provide the model for servant/employer relations into the 20th C.). Gwen Raverat describes an instance of dismissal of a maid for getting involved in a relationship with a man. In age of very limited employment opportunities for women, this was readily enforceable with the threat that, and sometimes the actuality, the only alternative was prostitution (see Richard J Evans: The German Underworld : Deviants And Outcasts In German history. for discussion of this in a German context).

One more thing. There was often an asymmetry in the (perception of ) relationships between employers and servants that does not just flow from top downwards. I am the son and grandson of domestic servants (my mother left school at 14 to become a maid and her parents worked their entire lives as gardener and housekeeper) and I was very much brought up with a sense of an 'Upstairs, Downstairs world where you behaved, and gave the appearance of being one way in one set of circumstances, but acting entirely another way when removed from it. In particular giving the appearance of loyalty and respectfulness when when you were with your employers but acting entirely differently when you weren't. Though suffused with contradiction, its not hard to see how this acted as a necessary defense mechanism, a way of reclaiming some power and autonomy in an otherwise wholly asymmetric relationship as well as revealing a knowledge of (the working of) that asymmetry that your employers might not hope you had. I have no difficulty imagining that Alice's view might be different from the Brady's. I'm a long way removed from that world but I'm still capable of surprising friends when they realize the extend to which I'm capable of <>Style Shifting
when with different people,something I would attribute to that inheritance.

*Driven also by a fear of class based miscegenation. On my fathers side of the family my Great-grandfather was a cause of great scandal when he not only got involved with a maid but also stood by her. He was disinherited and cut off from a family of, apparently, considerable wealth and they got married.
posted by tallus at 12:39 PM on May 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


They were somewhat common in Chile and probably still are in the affluent parts of the country.

If you can get hold of it, "La Nana" is a recent Chilean movie (nominated for the Golden Globe!) that shows the relationship between a maid and the family she has served for 23 years.
posted by Memo at 1:27 PM on May 29, 2010


Response by poster: Thank you for all the interesting answers!
posted by amyms at 1:28 PM on May 29, 2010


Response by poster: I'm having a hard time picking "best" answers, so I'm marking everyone who shared a personal experience and/or included the most detail.
posted by amyms at 1:34 PM on May 29, 2010


About 20 years ago, I used to spend quiet a bit of time in Miami. I knew 4 or 5 families who had a live-in person (usually from central america) who served in this role. The fascinating thing for me, was that the parents spoke either no or little Spanish and the kids were completely bi-lingual because of the interactions with the nanny.
posted by hworth at 2:18 PM on May 29, 2010


Best answer: My grandfather in Dayton Ohio had Mrs. Bosren, and she was exactly like that.

Just to expand a bit: he was a widower, that grandmother died before 30 years of age. Mrs. Bosren was widowed, and they were something like a chaste practical couple, I think she was installed for at least 30 years. He had a successful business and big house with oriental carpets, a Steinway grand, a huge collection of giant clocks.

Mrs. Bosren would cook all the daily meals, with no recipes or measuring devices, even for biscuits. She would help him with his entertaining which he did on grand scale in a formal dining room. The house had a nice little sun room off the landing on the master staircase that was given over to her as a sewing room, and where she had a large number of carefully tended house plants that were "hers." The house had back stairs and maids quarters, where she lived.

We lived in another city and visited only once or twice a year, so she didn't do much discipling or correction of us, but the local grandchildren were scolded and corrected.

She spoke with a brogue, and if you wanted pleasant conversation, she was always happy to talk about how much she loved Ireland.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:57 PM on May 29, 2010


This is quite common in Bermuda. A large majority of the expats with children have nannies. My wife and I employ a nanny from the Phillipines who essentially manages our household. She doesn't live with us but she cares for our daughter, cleans the house, washes our clothes, cooks us dinner, etc. etc. Friends of ours have the same situation except that the nanny is live-in. My wife grew up in Trinidad and it is very common to have a similar situation.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:09 PM on May 29, 2010


My dad was born in the early 50s and his family had a lady come in daily to clean, do laundry and watch my dad and aunt after school. She also cooked dinner every night before returning to her own home. My dad still talks fondly about the enchiladas she made.

I always found this interesting because my dad's family, while comfortable, was definitely not rich. My grandfather worked on oil rigs, but my grandmother always worked, too. For most of her adult life she was a receptionist at a Chrysler dealership.
posted by sugarfish at 9:19 PM on May 29, 2010


You may find the book Singled Out interesting. It discusses the social changes that resulted from women massively outnumbering men after WWI.

One chapter is devoted to women who found themselves without any marriage prospects, and so went into domestic service. It includes the stories of a couple of women who were definitely Alices- they spent 20+ years with the same families, and came to see their charges as surrogate children.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 9:37 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Short story about this exact sort of situation, though in this case the childrens mother had died, and the main character moved in the house and into the role you're describing. A great read, a favorite short story, "Edie: A Life" by Harriet Doerr". I first came across it in a collection of American short stories but it is also in a book of her collected stories "The Tiger in the Grass". A good read, an old fave. (On Amazon)
posted by dancestoblue at 12:31 AM on May 30, 2010


Side-question/derail: I'm curious about the incomes of the families who had "Alices" being mentioned in this thread. Was this something reserved for the ultra-wealthy?
posted by schmod at 9:07 AM on June 1, 2010


Best answer: Rural, small-town upstate NY, 1980s. We had an "Alice" for 15 years. Both my parents worked full time, but due to my dad's disastrous fecklessness my mother was effectively the sole breadwinner for most of their marriage and actually the sole breadwinner after their divorce. Which meant, basically, that my mom needed a wife. "Alice" lived in our house and did the things wives did in "normal" two-parent families: cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare, chauffeuring us kids around town, etc. This sounds affluent in retrospect, but my family were only comfortably middle-class, and all things considered it was probably about as financially sound a setup as any single-income, two-parent family.

Our "Alice" was an unmarried, childless older woman (in her 50s when she joined our family) who nominally owned her family home in a nearby town but rarely went back to it for more than a day or so. She had an active social life in our hometown, including a long-term boyfriend, and most of her activities were based out of our household.

"Alice" had a large bedroom with her own bathroom. She lived with us, ate with us and wore what she liked. We referred to her as our housekeeper. She was not treated as a servant -- my mother made it scrupulously clear that her status in the family was quasi-parental. Disciplinary decisions she made in my parents' absence were either upheld or circumvented with diplomacy. I made both her and my mother cards on Mother's Day. I certainly think of her more as a parental figure than as an employee of our family. Think "Susan" in the later Anne of Green Gables novels, but with more right-wing disapproval.
posted by stuck on an island at 6:25 PM on June 1, 2010


In the Philippines, I was pretty much raised by maids. For the most part, they were treated as employees, but they are considered as families. They would do everything; from cleaning the house, to taking care of me, to doing laundry. Some are treated poorly, but my maid, Mary was pretty much a part of the family. When I moved, we still try to catch up with one another through the postal service.

She had her own family, but they were far apart. Her husband and grandparents took care of the kids. Sometimes she would take a week off during her kids' break to spend some time with them.
posted by mrspeacock at 8:29 PM on June 3, 2010


Was this something reserved for the ultra-wealthy?

My dad's house growing up was probably built in the early 1920s in a nice neighborhood outside Detroit. It had 3 bedrooms for the family, and 2 for servants. It was not a mansion, it was probably upper middle class.

My great-grandmother's house in rural upstate New York also had servant's bedrooms with a separate staircase to the kitchen. They were dairy farmers, not rich; their house would maybe have been built in the late 1800s.

I know houses in New England which were probably built in the late 1800s or early 1900s which have this back-staircase, separate-servants-bedrooms arrangement, too. These are reasonably nice houses but not mansions; would have been middle or upper-middle class when built. 3 bedrooms in the family part of the house is common, and they're houses that are cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors.

Before the middle of the 20th century, this kind of arrangement was common enough that houses took it into account.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 PM on June 3, 2010


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