Tag Archives: the servant problem

Always Done, Never Doing: 1878

The Science of Housekeeping—How to Simplify and Lighten Household Labor

Probably any convention of American housekeepers assembled haphazard from over the land would concur in pronouncing servants to be the greatest plague of their lives. Wasteful, destructive, and inefficient, the voice of their employers is everywhere lifted against them. They come and go, one after another, until the mistress in despair, endures Bridget because she fears Chloe may be worse—or puts up with Chloe because she dares not change, lest to engage Bridget would be only to leap from the frying pan into the fire. And when a girl comes who knows how her work should be done and can do it—a cook whose dinners are irreproachable, a laundress whose ruffles and shirt bosoms bespeak her an artist, a nurse or seamstress, who needs not every day to be re-told her duties—very possibly she rules the household. Her mistress cannot do without her, and so the servant presumes on her value to exact all sorts of privileges, until she holds her employer in veritable bondage. Especially is this apt to be the case with the cook. In fact it has come to be an accepted thing that all good cooks must have bad tempers, and that skill in the culinary art is to cover a multitude of faults. Now, very much of this trouble arises from the ignorance of the housekeeper. The woman who can, if need be, do her own work, who is able to cook dinner, or at least how to instruct any bright girl how to do it, need never be the slave of an ill-tempered, unprincipled servant. Nor will she be haunted by the consciousness of leaks in the kitchen which she is unable to stop. She will know how far groceries and provisions should go; how long the supplies which she purchases could last even hearty appetites, and though she may allow a wide margin, her servants will be forced to keep within fixed limits. Undoubtedly it would be better for most American women in all respects if they kept fewer servants and did more of their own housework. When there is only one woman in the family and there are small children, this is frequently impossible, but when the daughters are of larger growth it is mistaken kindness to let them sit with folded hands while servants do all the work of the house. Human nature—the pack-horse on which are laid so many failings—is more or less lazy, and there are few people who like work for its own sake. Yet bed-making, dusting, and sweeping are excellent gymnastic exercises, and few girls would be the worse for an hour or two of them every day. In most families of moderate means it would pay to discharge the second girl and divide her weekly wages among the daughters of the house, letting them do the chamber work, while the cost of her keep would pay for the washerwoman at least one day in the week.

Unfortunately the idea is abroad in the land that housework is degrading, and that the number of servants kept in a family is a measure of gentility. Mrs. B., who keeps one girl, envies her neighbor across the way who has six servants, including coachman and waiter, while that neighbor, counting the cost of the provisions consumed down stairs, or just having received warning from the four girls who have quarreled with the coachman, thinks wearily that happiness means a small house and one servant. The thought is a passing one; she would not change if she could, but at all events for the moment she thinks so, and her life is not one of unmixed care. It is often objected to the principle which call for the instruction of our girls in domestic matters that they themselves are too busy with their books on the one hand, while on the other the multifarious duties of their mother leave her no time to instruct them. In the first place, as we have already said, chamber work will answer as calisthenics, and in the second the mother can safely turn her twelve and ten-year-old daughters into the dining room or kitchen on Saturday with cookery book and groceries and let them experiment for themselves. There are few girls who do not enjoy playing at cooking, and the gift of a miniature cooking stove for the nursery, after the children are old enough to be trusted with it, is an excellent text-book for such lessons. The little girls will need but a small amount of teaching, and what they may spoil will be paid for both in pleasure and profit. The day has gone by in which Martha Washington and Dolly Madison washed their own breakfast dishes; when this was held to be one of the first duties of housekeeping. Fragile china and dainty silver was not trusted to servants then, and it was used without misgivings. Now it is knocked about by careless Irish girls, and housekeepers mourn that it is useless to buy handsome china—it is sure to be broken. To one old custom, however, many families hold, and the care of the parlor devolves on the young ladies of the house. And the wealthier the family the more need of this; costly bric-a-brac cannot be left to the cruel tender mercies of servants.


The practical working of the plan we advocate is illustrated in one of the comfortable houses we know of, where only one servant is kept, and the young ladies of the house divide the work. Each one has her own duties—there is no clashing—the work is always done, never doing, and early in the forenoon, when the average young lady is dawdling over a late breakfast they are free for social or other duties and amusement. On Mondays one of them relieves the girl in the kitchen, and the wash is all done and put away before night. There is never any trouble with servants in that household, and when one gives warning, the domestic machine does not break down; the young ladies are equal to the emergency.

Unfortunately among too many people there is an impression that to sit in idleness and hold one’s hands is the height of gentility. Men may work, but women must, in theory at least, be shielded from everything like labor. The sooner the nation is disabused of this idea, the better it will be. Parents can leave their children no better legacy than the habit of self-helpfulness. The man who, with only a college education as a basis, should seek the position of foreman in a printing office, he would be laughed at for his pains; he who, with no practical knowledge of bookkeeping, wanted to fill the position of bookkeeper in a commercial or banking house would be considered idiotic, and so on through all business for men; yet day after day girls without the least knowledge of housekeeping take upon themselves the direction of some man’s home, with only the vaguest idea of the accruing responsibilities. English people traveling in this country, and American women in England, give it as their opinion that English girls of the higher classes are far better trained as housekeepers and nurses than are American girls of much more moderate means. Victoria herself places high value on all housewifely accomplishments, and one of the favorite toys of the royal children at Balmoral is said to have been a tiny cottage fitted up with every convenience for the housekeeping, in which the little princesses swept and dusted, baked and broiled, and entertained their royal parents at lunches of their own preparing.

State Register 24 February 1878: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Yet bed-making, dusting, and sweeping are excellent gymnastic exercises.” Mrs Daffodil can attest to the superb muscle tone of most of the chambermaids of her acquaintance.  Yet, somehow, they are usually ungrateful to their mistresses for the opportunity to develop a physique such as those ladies pay “personal trainers” to attain.

The author speaks lightly of discharging the “second girl” and giving her wages to the daughters of the household, yet does not consider how many discharged “second girls,” will not find another situation and will fall into a life of Shame and Vice.  It is this plague of Thoughtless Mistresses who bear a part of the blame for the Servant Question.

Mrs Daffodil has written before about the pressures of domestic efficiency in How She Found the Time.


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


Mr Greenleaf’s New Cook: 1859


The Betty

Pattie Parsley

Allow me to introduce to you Mr. John Greenleaf, “a man, sir,” he will tell you, “who has made his own money, and doesn’t care who knows it—none of your heirs to property; no, sir! A self-made man.” There he stands by the fireplace, looking as pompous as if all mankind were his glares, and he was monarch of the universe. He is very rich, worth, they will tell you on ‘Change, any amount of money. He has a fine house, as the peep we are taking into the parlor will convince you. You can see that all the furniture is rich, tho paintings rare, the carpets velvet, and the lights brilliant. He has three children. The little, pale-looking girl at the piano is his daughter. He has determined to give her a splendid education, “the best, sir, that money can buy.” Never mind if they are cramming her young brain beyond its capabilities, making her pale, puny, and old, she must study, practise, and be worthy to take her place in society as the daughter of John Greenleaf. The two little boys crouched down by the window, playing chess, though older than their sister, are as pale, weak, and overtasked. Who is the lady by the piano, guiding the little girl’s fingers? Bless your innocence! that’s nobody! That is only Mr. Greenleaf’s wife, “a person,” he will tell you, with a shrug, “of amiable disposition, but no strength of character.”

“My dear,” said Mr. Greenleaf, in a voice as if he were calling his wife from the garret, although she really stands within arm’s length.

“Yes, John.”

“My dear, I have given the cook warning. Last week, the beef was twice overdone.”

“Well, John,” said Mrs. Greenleaf, with a sigh, “this is the sixth cook we have had within a month.”

“If she did not suit me, she should go, even if she were the sixtieth. She goes to-night; and the new one comes to-morrow.”

Now let me introduce you to Mr. Greenleaf’s kitchen. All is in order; every new invention for facilitating the servant’s work stands on the shelves; but did you ever see such discontented faces? Miss Fannie’s nurse stands by the table, looking at the new cook with a cross expression; while the waiter scours the knives in a spiteful, vigorous manner; and the chambermaid sets down her bucket with a bang, and looks too at the cook.

“You won’t stay here long,” says Maria, the nurse.

“No, that you won’t !” echoes Lizzie, the waiter.

“You’ll be a simpleton if you do,” chimes in Sallie, the chambermaid.

“Why, what’s the matter? Mrs. Greenleaf cross?”

“No, indeed,” cries Maria, screwing up her lips. “Mrs. Greenleaf’s a martyred angel; that’s what she is. It’s Mr. Greenleaf. Oh! Won’t you have to dance to the music? He’s hard on us all; but he’s hardest of all on the cooks.”

“Mr. Greenleaf ! what! what’s he got to do with me? I won’t have no men fooling round in my kitchen.”

“Oh! won’t you?”

“Well,” cried a loud, harsh voice at the door, “is there no work to do? What are you all idling here in the kitchen for at this time in the morning?”

Before he had finished speaking, cook stood alone in the kitchen.

“Humph !” said Mr. Greenleaf, setting down his basket; “so you’ve come. What’s your name?”


“Well, Jane, here’s the dinner. Now, I want you to listen particularly to my directions. I want that piece of beef roasted. Don’t let it stay in the fire more than half an hour. I hate meat overdone”

“It won’t be fit to eat in half an hour.”

“Obey my directions, if you please. The chickens I want boiled; and there will be some oysters here soon for sauce. Don’t put any butter or salt in the oyster-sauce.” And so he went on until each article had been condemned to utter ruin, and then left the kitchen.

“I’ll serve him up a dinner,” muttered the cook.

“Jane,” said a sweet, low voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Jane, what has come for dinner?” Jane named the articles.

“Mr. Greenleaf has given you his directions, I presume?”

“Yes, ma’am. Everything in that ‘ere basket will be sp’iled complete.”

“Well, Jane, you must make everything as nice as you can; but don’t contradict Mr. Greenleaf, if he thinks you followed his directions.”

“Well, ma’am,” said the cook, rather discontentedly.

Dinner-time came, and with it Mr. Greenleaf. “Ah!” said he, throwing himself back in his chair, after finishing a hearty meal, “now, this is a dinner! everything cooked precisely after my directions. The new cook is a jewel. All the others have contradicted me; and the consequence was we have not had a dinner fit to eat for months. This beef is done to a charm; and that oyster-sauce is magnificent. I hate butter in oysters, spoiling the children’s complexions.”

Mrs. Greenleaf said nothing, though inwardly smiling at the success of her new stratagem.

Washing-day came. There, beside the tubs, stood Mr. Greenleaf, criticizing the proceedings. Jane had a large basket of clothes ready to put on the line; but, as she was leaving the kitchen, Mr. Greenleaf stood before her. “Do you call this white?”  he asked, fishing up a towel with the end of his cane, “or this, or this? Faugh! they are as dirty as when they came down stairs ! Here!” And, taking the basket from Jane, he launched the contents into Maria’s tub.

“Oh, Mr. Greenleaf ! these are colored clothes!” cried Maria.

“Well, they want washing, don’t they?”

“Yes, sir; but you’ve pitched all them white ones a top o’ them! Oh, he! he!  he!” And Maria fled into the yard, and burst out a laughing.

Mr. Greenleaf looked at her with magnificent astonishment. Jane had contrived to pin a half-dried towel to his coat; and her sudden view of it had caused Maria’s laughter.

“Giddy-headed goose!” cried Mr. Greenleaf. “I declare I believe I could wash myself better than the whole of you put together!”

“Suppose you try,” suggested Jane, accidentally flirting a quantity of soapsuds upon his black clothes. “Oh, sir, I beg your pardon; I did not see you.”

“Um! Um! these clothes in the boiler are only half washed. ‘Pon my word, servants, now-a-days, are enough to wear one’s life out. Here! take these things out and give them another rub.”

“Certainly, sir,” cried the obliging Jane; and before Mr. Greenleaf knew what was coming, a long stick was thrust into the boiler and a pile of clothes fished out. The hot steam rushed into his face, and the boiling water spattered over his hands, and, as he was springing aside to avoid them, down went the stick, full of hot clothes, upon his foot. “Oh, my gracious!” cried Jane. “Oh, sir, I did not mean to! Oh, you did give me sich a turn, sir, jumping round so, that the stick fell! Oh, I hope it don’t burn, sir.”

Mr. Greenleaf was obliged to make a very undignified exit, hopping on one foot, with the white towel dangling from his coat, and his vest and pants covered with soapsuds.

“I’ll teach him to come into my kitchen, washing-days,” cried Jane, as soon as he was out of hearing. “Now, I’ll go and see what his lordship wants for dinner.”

Jane found the unfortunate victim of her spite sitting in his wife’s room, holding the scalded foot in his hand, and the wet slipper and stocking lying beside him. Her face assumed an expression of profound sympathy, as she suggested a remedy for the burn. Then the subject of dinner was discussed. Among the marketing articles was a steak, and Jane, in her innocence, suggested onions.

“Onions!” cried Mr. Greenleaf. “Onions! I’d as leave eat arsenic. Onions! I detest onions! the flavor is the most horrible in the world. Remember, Jane, I will never have an onion on my table, or its flavor in anything I eat.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jane, mentally adding, “won’t you, though?”

The next morning, Jane left the house early and secretly, and returned with a number of large onions, which she carefully concealed. She and the waiter had a long private conversation soon after.

“Jane!” cried Mr. Greenleaf, at dinner-time, in a voice of thunder.

“Yes, sir,” said Jane, coming up hastily from the kitchen.

“Jane, did I not tell you never to put onion on the table?”

“There ain’t none, sir.”

“There is; the whole dinner tastes of onion. There is that detestable flavor in every dish on the table. You taste it, my dear.”

“I can’t taste it,” said Mrs. Greenleaf.

“Nor I, nor I,” cried the children.

The governess could not taste it, nor the friend who was dining with them. Mr. Greenleaf, in a towering passion, limped into the kitchen, and put his nose into every pot on the range. Everything was free from the fearful smell, yet his whole dinner tasted of it. Day after day, it was the same thing; breakfast, dinner, and supper tasted of onions. Even his tea and coffee had the flavor: and Mrs. Greenleaf began to think her husband was insane on the subject of onions. Jane and the waiter alone could have explained the mystery. Every day, before each meal, Jane took Mr. Greenleafs cup, saucer, and plate, and rubbed them with raw onion, then, standing them on the stove until the moisture dried on the china, she sent them up-stairs thoroughly impregnated with onion.

Mr. Greenleaf would have parted with Jane after his foot was scalded, but, acting on Mrs. Greenleaf’s hints, she served up the most splendidly-cooked meals, persuading him, by her submissive air and attention to his directions, that she was following all his absurd whims.

“Jane,” said Mr. Greenleaf, coming into the kitchen, one morning, “I have had a present of a pair of prairie hens, and I want them fricasseed. Now, I am not going out to-day, and I will show you exactly how to do them.”

“Yea, sir,” said Jane.

“Well, we will begin now.”

“Why, lors, sir, they will be all cold, if you cook them now.”

“Not at all; they need a good deal of cooking. First, cut them up.”

“Hadn’t I better clean them, sir?”

“Yes, of course; I meant clean them. Now, cut them up.”

“But they ought to be parboiled whole.”

“No, they are not to be parboiled; it makes them tough. They will cook enough in the gravy.”

Determined to let him see what a fine mess he was making, Jane followed his directions implicitly. The result was, a mess that would have disgusted a starving savage. Dinner-time came, and Mr. Greenleaf stood rubbing his hands, over his dish; it remained on every plate untouched. He put one mouthful into his own mouth, and then called Jane, in a tone that threatened to take the roof off the house. “What is that?” he asked, pointing to the dish before him.

“Them’s the prairie hens, sir.”

“What have you been putting in them?”

“Nothing but what you seed yourself, sir.”

Mr. Greenleaf looked at the dish, then at the cook; there was no appearance of deceit in her face. “Here!” he cried, “bring me a clean plate, and take this down stairs; throw it into the swill-pail, or give it to any beggar that will eat it.”

“I guess he won’t come down to get dinner himself again, in my kitchen,” muttered the triumphant cook, as she threw away the offending dish.

Godey’s Lady’s Book March 1859:  : pp.   249-251

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil has been fortunate that she has never had a master so overweening as Mr Greenleaf, but she will mentally file away that masterful trick with the onions.

See also, “Twelve Golden Rules for Women Cooks.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Twelve Golden Rules for Women Cooks: 1838

the cook hints to servants 1843

The Cook, from Hints to Servants, 1843


[Extracted from that excellent work, “Essays on Good-Living.”]

Never get drunk—until the last dish be served up.

Never be saucy—unless you happen to be in your airs and can’t help it; but then, take care to have the last word.

Never be sulky—unless you have a great dinner to dress; your mistress will then be sure to coax you.

Never spoil a joint—unless you have been unjustly found fault with, (which must be the fact if you have been accused at all); in which case, if complaint be made of its having been under-done, you may, next time, roast it to a cinder; and, if that should not give satisfaction, you may, the following day, send it up raw.

Never get dinner ready at the time it is ordered—unless you know that the family are not ready for it; in which case, send it up to a moment; if it be cold and spoiled, that, you know, will not be your fault.

Never admit that you are in the wrong—unless the devil will have it so that you cannot help it. If you should transgress your orders, stand stoutly to it, that they were such as you have followed; and, if you have not brass enough for that, say, you thought they were.

Never take snuff –unless when you are mixing a stew, or stirring the soup. Nor never examine the latter without holding a lighted tallow candle obliquely over the pot; if it should not enable you to see quite to the bottom, what drops from it will at least enrich the contents; and when you taste it, be sure to throw back what remains in your spoon.

 Never wash your hands—until you have made the pies; you must do it then, and to do it sooner is only wasting time and soap.

Never give warning to quit your place—until you are quite sure that it will put the family to the greatest inconvenience, and then, be off at a moment; say, “your father’s dead, or your mother’s dying, and you cannot stay if it was ever so.” If warning be given to you, from that moment you may spoil every thing that comes under your hands.

Never tell tales of the family you are with—unless they should be to their disadvantage; nor never speak well of your last mistress, unless it be to contrast her with the present.

Never cheat—unless you can do it without being discovered; but, if you don’t yourself cheat, never prevent others—“Your master can afford it;”— “Service is no inheritance;”—and “poor servants and tradesfolk must live.”

Never tell a lie —when you can get as much by telling the truth; nor ever tell the truth, when you can get more by telling a lie.

Never support a sweetheart out of the house—unless you can’t get one in.

The London Jester; Or, Museum of Mirth, Wit, and Humour, 1838: pp. 100-101

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Of all the domestic plagues, the Cook was believed to be the worst. Complaints were heard on all sides about cooks who were ill-tempered, dishonest, dirty, and intemperate. A truly good cook knew that her value was above rubies and a potential employer would have a job to impress her. Cook’s whims and fancies were Law. And when a gem of a cook was found, other ladies conspired to lure her away.  This rarely ended well:


Red Bank, N.J.  Because Mrs. C. B. West stole her “jewel of a cook,” Mrs. G.E. Poulson built a “spite fence” and threatened to horsewhip. West had her arrested. The Evening Sun [Baltimore MD] 9 May 1913: p. 1


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.