What happened to the servants?
July 18, 2012 8:35 PM   Subscribe

By the second half of the 20th century, Britain's servant class had all but disappeared. How was this phenomenon covered in contemporary news, commentary and literature?

From memory, some later Agatha Christie novels (once full of butlers and scullery maids) touched on the demise of domestic service. What other contemporary texts explored this major social transformation?
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Well, one place it turns up a lot is in the development of the phenomenon of so-named "cafe society." With social conditions no longer favoring personal servitude, and various wars depleting the coffers of th upper classes, they took to dining out in restaurants, drinking in bars, and socializing in cafes rather than at home - because though there was a premium for the food cost, it was much cheaper to entertain and socialize out than it was to maintain a household staff. So you can see a reflection of the decline of household servitude in the sharp public venues for dining and drinking throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Then there's the idiom "it's so hard to find good help these days" - in today's parlance, this is completely ironic or a double-entendre, but it was first quite literal, then became a bit of a mockable cliche. In the US at least, it was hard to find "good help" for personal servitude, especially as immigrants and blacks - who used to form such a large portion of the servant population - found new opportunities opening to them with World War I production, manufacturing industry development, the Great Migration, then World War II production, and so on. The autonomy involved in manufacturing and similar professions, even if they were less cushy, was highly valued as a marker of individual success. Even the Depression of the 30s didn't seem to have returned many of those people to working as house servants, most likely because anyone who still had money was also trying to economize and running households on austerity plans. I just poked around Google Books and found most mentions of the phrase "good help" in the context of household (or sometimes shop) staff date from the 1940s. I don't know enough about the English context, but at least as regards war production and the shift from an agriculture to a manufacturing economy, things both countries share, I suspect it's not that different a story.

The other reason people had fewer servants is that they had more machines. I don't have a maid, but I don't need one - I have a dishwasher, running hot water, a vacuum, a washing machine, a dryer, etc., all performing functions that used to take much more time and personnel to accomplish. So there is plenty of writing and advertising and so on that heralds the advances in technology that certainly signalled a reduction in the need for household staff, even if they don't directly mention it.

My sense is that people viewed the decline in servitude in the same ways they viewed the larger causes - the shift to Modernism, a recognition that the old world has passed away, things are changing, everything is faster now, and the affluent just don't need to and can't afford to live like they used to. There's a lot of literature that carps about the diminished circumstances of great families, yadda yadda - Edith Wharton, for instance - and that reflects real families, most of whom might have remained really wealthy but ran their homes on a totally different model postwar. People were acutely sensitive to economic downturns that demanded responses, as are we.
posted by Miko at 8:59 PM on July 18, 2012 [19 favorites]

Obviously Downton Abbey isn't a historical source, but the first season (and probably the second, haven't seen it yet) has a few undercurrents about this, mainly from the servants' point of view. By the early decades of the twentieth century, there was no real need for your average person to go into domestic service. There were plenty of jobs in manufacturing, secretarial work, and other fields. So you see certain characters regretting making domestic service their careers, others striving to find something more fulfilling, etc.

I'm curious what happens in the second season to the characters who are more strongly invested in their work as servants. Especially considering that this season covers the WWI years.
posted by Sara C. at 9:06 PM on July 18, 2012

It happened during the war. There was such a need for labor in the military and labor in factories to support the war that everyone who could do such a job, did so. For rich people, keeping servants when there was a labor shortage and an existential threat to the country was unpatriotic.

For the British, the war ran 7 years, and by the end of it those rich people had gotten used to not having servants any longer. And the former servants had gotten used to working in other kinds of jobs.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:08 PM on July 18, 2012

And so, getting back to your question, I'm not sure it really was anything that was considered noteworthy. There were a hell of a lot of changes during the war; that was one of the less important ones.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:09 PM on July 18, 2012

If I can also talk about the U.S. -- I'm sort-of excited about the question because I did a little local history research project for a local group, on women's lives in the late 30s and then during WWII, in the U.S. midwest. Most of these women were wealthy enough to have servants, and, when the war started, such servants simply totally disappeared. I researched a lot of personal letters and other personal writings by these wealthy women, a great many of them about entertaining one another, so there was a lot about servants.

Anyway, before WWII even a casual afternoon tea with one's intimate friends required a servant; by 1942 there were simply no servants to be had. (And yes, in 1940-1941 there are women bemoaning to each other that good help is SO hard to find!) But very quickly the narrative is all about "making do" for the war effort and clearly, from their letters, it is churlish to complain that one hasn't a maid when one's maid has gone to the munitions factory! In private letters to close friends, the women often lamented the loss of a maid but then joked about learning to scrub their own floors between selling war bonds or whatever. Most of them seem to have taken to it with a fairly good will, and after the war, the only women who hired maids back were elderly; middle-aged and younger women simply did without, with the benefit of modern conveniences.

I believe "Below Stairs" covers part of that transition.

I also always noticed it as a child in Noel Streatfeild's "Shoes" books ... in the early ones (like Ballet Shoes, set before World War II) the families live in genteel three-servant poverty. The slightly later ones, the families live in one-servant poverty. And the latest ones, there are no servants whatsoever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:30 PM on July 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

Christie actually discusses the decline of service in her autobiography.

Then there's the idiom "it's so hard to find good help these days"

The generic term, used at the time, is 'The Servant Problem', and it emerges as a concept at least as far back as as the late 19th century, although you can bracket it more tightly between the two world wars, for a variety of very tightly intermingled economic and social reasons. Women went into factories during wartime; the suffrage movement made its first advances; the Labour movement gained in political strength; technology provided more affluent families with alternatives to servants; the asset-rich and cash-poor were demolishing their country piles and moving to more modest homes. (A decent historical overview.)

I'll toss out one literary example: Mary Poppins. It was published in 1934, and it's really not an overreach to see some social commentary, whether intentional or not, on that particular strand of domestic service. Katie Nanna leaves without giving notice; Mr Banks decides to advertise for 'the best possible Nannie at the lowest possible wage', and then the wind blows in a magic nanny who refuses to give references ('very old-fashioned') and who only promises to stay until the wind changes.

(I don't normally have much time for Caitlin Flanagan's work, but I'd recommend her New Yorker piece on Poppins, focusing on how Disney rewrote the stories for a American -- and global -- film audience in the early 1960s.)
posted by holgate at 9:45 PM on July 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

There's some discussion of this in The Long Week-End, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:19 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The novel Remains of the Day is written from a servant's perspective at this time.

The book is great, and the movie adaptation is also very good.
posted by emmykm at 11:25 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of it in literature: certainly relating to WWI, but also relating to the amount of people who /died/ in that war - there was less surplus labor and so fewer people available to provide them. Also possibly due to the rise in birth control - with fewer people forced to have large families, there would be fewer people forced out young in order to save money on grocery bills and overcrowding.

Weirdly, Dorothy Sayers documents a bit of this in her novels- servants are present, but less and less, and the good ones stay out of personal loyalty rather than necessity so much.

I would actually argue it had less to do with machines than with the labor trends - for example, we may have machines to wash our clothes, but no machine can do our hair, dress our clothes, do our makeup, and tidy our bedrooms. Live-in nannies also began being vanishingly scarce.
posted by corb at 11:38 PM on July 18, 2012

Best answer: If memory serves me correctly this is touched upon in Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. It's also worth noting that this was something of a gradual phenomenon : servants were common place among the middle classes in Victorian times, but it came more possible, and desirable, to manage a middle class household without them during the twentieth century so they were restricted to narrower and narrower social circles, though they never went away entirely (my mother left school at 14 to work as a maid, in the early 1960's, and her parents lived out a semi-retirement as domestics (gardener and housekeeper) in tied accommodation until sometime close to the beginning of this century).
posted by tallus at 12:04 AM on July 19, 2012

Best answer: There's a new book about this, Lucy Delap's Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (2011; review here, PDF extract linked from here, Google Books preview here).

Delap presents several compelling arguments. First, she shows that the decline of domestic service was a massive social and cultural shift. (Chocolate Pickle's remark above, 'I'm not sure it really was anything that was considered noteworthy', could hardly be more wrong.) Secondly, she shows that there was a strong middle-class nostalgia for the days of domestic service, which can be seen in the way that labour-saving appliances were marketed as servant-substitutes. (Miko's suggestion that 'people had fewer servants because they had more machines' gets it the wrong way round; people had more machines because they had fewer servants.) Thirdly, she suggests, provocatively, that the decline of domestic service was a big factor in the rise of feminism:
The necessity of “doing for oneself” had far-reaching social consequences that were reflected in the marketing of domestic gadgets and revised social conventions to disguise the lack of help, new models of child raising, new styles of cooking – the simple recipes The Times still referred to as ‘servantless dishes’ in 1970. And this also went with an intensifying frustration among middle class women, who rarely identified wholeheartedly with the housewife identity, and began to demand changes in the behaviour of their husbands.

Many women were not easily persuaded that housework was ‘scientific’ and satisfying. One mother of a large family, employing a ‘daily girl’ commented in the 1950s: “My own life at the moment seems a dull waste, a vale of (unshed) tears, an empty vessel, a froth of frustration… I am bored, bored, BORED.” It was partly this frustration that led to the rise of feminism in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the feminist movement rarely produced much fresh thinking on alternatives to domestic service. One servant wrote furiously to an Edwardian feminist advocate of cooperative living that “Methinks that this common ownership of domestic drudges would not be quite so satisfactory from the domestic drudge’s point of view.” Late in the 20th century, Germaine Greer famously advocated in the Female Eunuch that feminists should live collectively in an Italian farmhouse, assisted by a live-in “local family”.
Another book to read, if you're interested in this, is Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants, which explores Virginia Woolf's fraught relationship with her servants. VW's position as a prominent writer and feminist makes her something of a special case (and made her relationship with her servants especially complex and problematic), but the changes in the Woolf household mirror the changes in domestic service more generally. By 1940 the Woolves had dispensed with live-in servants and installed electricity and a fridge. In her final bout of mental illness, Leonard encouraged Virginia to give Louie Everest, the daily help, a hand with the housework, hoping it would be therapeutic. Louie was surprised: 'I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.’ 'Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put the duster down and went to drown herself.'

(On a personal note: I wrote several years ago, in answer to another AskMeFi question, about my family and their servants. I guess it illustrates Delap's point that the interwar middle classes clung onto their servants as a precious marker of gentility.)
posted by verstegan at 1:04 AM on July 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

It happened during the war. There was such a need for labor in the military and labor in factories to support the war that everyone who could do such a job, did so. For rich people, keeping servants when there was a labor shortage and an existential threat to the country was unpatriotic.

For the British, the war ran 7 years, and by the end of it those rich people had gotten used to not having servants any longer. And the former servants had gotten used to working in other kinds of jobs.

And of course all those servants who changed profession to that of dead soldier. Britain and her Commonwealth suffered 1,2m dead in the First World War. An entire generation of young men of all classes, but overwhelmingly working class . Moreover, the way that these men died - ordered en masse by the upper class officer corps out of the trenches into enemy machine-gun fire - also helped to break down the social order in Britain where the peasants placed trust in the sons of Eton. Britain lost 19,000 soldiers - killed dead - on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In one day. Just before this battle took place, Douglas Haig the "1st Earl Haig" had written that “the nation must be taught to bear losses”.

Contempt for the working class is one thing, sending them to their deaths in large numbers all at once is another and the upper class bore a huge responsibility for these losses.

After the war it was no longer hip to flaunt upper class privileges.
posted by three blind mice at 1:41 AM on July 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Servant is a 1963 UK film which explores the changing social order through the story of a servant realising his increasing power over his masters within a contemporary household. It may be of interest.
posted by biffa at 2:30 AM on July 19, 2012

Upstairs Downstairs was another series that dealt with servants and masters - it was recently remade, around the time of Downton Abbey debuting. The original series was made in the 1970s but is set in the 30s.

Upper-class houses today still have domestic staff, but they come under different names - the cleaner, the housekeeper, the gardener, the nanny, the personal trainer. But middle-class families employ these too - cleaning ladies particularly.
posted by mippy at 4:11 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe that there's a passing mention of this in Wodehouse's Jeeves stories. I remember one where Bertie is practicing darning and Jeeves looks in on him to see how he's doing without domestic help. This had to do with WWII and the fact that Jeeves had other, more important service to perform for the war effort.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:23 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

More Work for Mother mainly focusses on the technological change but it also discusses the need for an underclass that is has no other options for work which disappeared due to changes in society.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:55 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

> For the British, the war ran 7 years, and by the end of it those rich people had gotten used to not having servants any longer.

Huh? WWI lasted four years and a few months for the British just like for everyone else. If you're talking about WWII, 1) it lasted six years, and 2) you're way wrong—as everyone else says, this had been happening for a long time by then.

Many thanks to verstegan; that's a terrific and well-referenced answer.
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on July 19, 2012

More Work for Mother mainly focusses on the technological change but it also discusses the need for an underclass that is has no other options for work which disappeared due to changes in society.

That book was on my mind when I mentioned technological change. I don't think you can really aver that shifts in domestic technology were a direct response to or a direct result of the availability of fewer servants - along with the mechanization of all human activity, it was fairly inevitable. The same was seen in farm labor, in maritime labor, etc. In fact, it's kind of a snake swallowing its tail: the reductions in available, willing domestic labor were in large part due to new employment opportunities in the manufacturing and retail industries, which were engaged in creating and selling the continually changing mechanical technologies.
posted by Miko at 9:45 AM on July 19, 2012

Besides the better paying jobs available during and after the war (so servants were no longer cheap), there were also continuing high taxes (so it was harder to pay for those that could be found). Thus the big deal about JFK's cutting taxes, and the Beatles' recording Taxman.

To illustrate Miko's point: My pre-war (middle class) grandparents had Lizzie the Washerwoman come by once a week (Pittsburgh steel making made for constant dirt) to put the clothing and linens through their paces. Backbreaking work, but when labor is dirt cheap, where's the incentive to automate?

(On the other hand, when the guy who worked for GE got the first Birdcage Top Refrigerator, it became "necessary" for the rest of the neighborhood to dump the ice box and follow suit.

Then there's this guy who says that "by 1940, 60% of the 25,000,000 wired homes in the United States had an electric washing machine", operative word being, I suppose, "wired". My mother has a memory of her (post-war) concern about the electric parts being so close to the water parts. But by then, the Lizzie the Washerwoman was long gone, the pre-war live-in maid had left the Defence Plant, married her boyfriend, and produced twins. Life rolls on. I'm sorry, what was the question?)
posted by BWA at 12:03 PM on July 19, 2012

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