Why were female servants not allowed to serve food?
February 27, 2016 11:11 AM   Subscribe

I've been watching Downton Abbey. The butler is aghast at the idea of female servants serving food in the family dining room even though there's a shortage of young male servants during the war, but plenty of female staff. Was this historically accurate? What was the reasoning behind it?

(Interestingly, in India, waitstaff at restaurants across the spectrum tend to be exclusively male, quite in contrast with the US and many countries. I used to assume it was because of lower female participation in the workforce and safety concerns, but perhaps it's also a colonial relic?)
posted by redlines to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My guess is that it having footmen serve meals would have been seen as simply "how things are done properly" and boiled down to a matter of status. Footmen were paid better than maids, which meant that only the wealthy had both footmen and maids. People of more modest means had only maids, who would have routinely served the meals in their employers' dining rooms. Therefore it would have been a declassé move for the Crawleys to have maids serving in the dining room, and an outrage to Carson, who was very much about preserving the status and the honour of the House of Grantham.
posted by orange swan at 11:33 AM on February 27, 2016 [13 favorites]

It's absolutely accurate. Food in the home is served by footmen. This is, as the name suggests, an entirely gender segregated job. If you're asking why that is, Wikipedia has an okay précis on this.

The modern waitstaff at high-end restaurants is still seen all over the Western world, and is as you suspect a relic of this very, very long tradition.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:52 AM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yes, as orange swan says, it was a status thing. A very wealthy and high rank family like the Crawleys would be expected to do things in a first rate manner, including employing footmen and male servants where appropriate rather than maids. The lower down the social scale you went, the more likely you were to find female servants. You might notice that when Matthew Crawley and his mother first arrive on the estate they bring a maid, who probably served their meals to them in their old home. They are upper middle class, but not really wealthy or aristocratic like the Earl and his family, so it's more economical for them to hire a woman. So basically, if an Earl had female servants waiting at his table, it would have been seen by many of that time period as a) in poor taste, b) a sign that they were not doing well financially, and/or c) a dishonorable and miserly attempt to save money, at the expense of the honor of their family name and legacy and the honor of their guests. (Aristocratic guests also largely expected to be waited on by men).
posted by katyggls at 1:48 PM on February 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

a dishonorable and miserly attempt to save money

This was a serious thing. Being frugal wasn't just unattractive, but was seen as actually a betrayal - a house like Downton should ideally be employing as many people as they can reasonably afford to, in as many positions as they can manage. It's about supporting the community, and part of that is providing jobs. Maids serving would mean they've pared down on staff, which would mean they are not doing their job.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 5:24 PM on February 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree with those above. In general, female staff aren't supposed to be visible at all to male household members and guests. Notice how maids apologize if someone is in a room they've come to clean, and how Daisy gets yelled at whenever she's upstairs after the sun rises. Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Pattmore similarly avoid the public rooms, to the point that people are like "what the heck are you doing here" when Mrs. Hughes enters the library when the family is all out of the county. You also never see the gardeners and stable boys upstairs: they don't have the training, uniform, or status necessary to be seen, basically. "Keeping up standards" is an incredible social imperative for people at this level of society.

There's a special exemption for governesses and nannies, also. That's because they, like tutors, tend to come from the higher ranks of society themselves. And they have the uniform and the training to function appropriately, and they're required to have an intimate role because of their duties (like the ladies' maids, valets, footmen, and butlers.)

It's worth noting that you're also supposed to more or less max out your spending on this sort of thing; if you can possibly have a butler then you must have a butler and he must perform all the standard butler duties. It's one reason for people being terribly put off by Matthew not wanting a valet: it's like an urban lawyer in America doing without electricity, in terms of how confusing he's being. It's also why when a household becomes unsustainable financially, people go from an estate with 120 employees (plus a townhouse) to just the townhouse with three employees to renting a room at a social club and having no employees - in the space of half a decade.

It was also incredibly not OK to work for a living, above a certain social level. And having your wife work (when not absolutely life-or-death necessary) was similarly intolerable. Like "we can't visit their house because they have the dreaded pox" social death stuff. Matthew's lawyer job goes from being a signal that he's a poor relative to being a "thing we pretend we can't see because he needs to get over it and we can't force it yet" for the family. Meanwhile none of the Crawley women work for money until Sybil works as a nurse whilst living in Ireland with her mechanic husband, which is about when the stress gets so high that people finally stop freaking out about Matthew's job (which he thankfully isn't doing because war and paralysis and so on.)

And mainly it was the war that forced nearly every change on them, particularly with regard to footmen and the women working.
posted by SMPA at 9:38 PM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

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