Tag Archives: the servant question

The Brute Asked Her to Black His Boots: 1890


A Case of Mistaken Identity.

A young lady of this city who is engaged to a well-known young society gentleman recently made an experiment to try the temper and habits of her fiancé which nearly resulted in disastrous consequences. Reading her morning paper she saw an advertisement for a domestic. The number of the house was that of her lover’s, where he kept a sort of bachelor’s hall with his father, who was a widower. It occurred then and there to Miss H– to supply the demand. Not in person, but by proxy. She knew of a tidy little German who was bright and engaging, and who wanted a place. She sent for her and gave instructions as to what she was to see and hear, and particularly charged her to observe how Mr. F– conducted himself, what he ate, and if he was good-tempered and easy to please. Christine promised to watch everything and report at the end of the week.

But before the week was up the girl reported with all her belongings and her eyes overflowing with tears. She had been asked to black Mr. F’s. boots, he had ordered her about as if she were a dog, and he wouldn’t eat anything but gruel, and toast, and he swore at her because she forgot to wash off the front steps. Then Miss H. sat down and wrote to her lover:

“You are a brute. No man who was not a brute would ask a woman to black his boots and swear at her for a moment’s forgetfulness. I consider that I have had a narrow escape.”

There was a frantic man went tearing up the avenue that evening and rushed into the presence of Miss H.—but it was some time before he could make her understand the truth of the matter or that he was not that manner of man. The girl had not seen him at all, but had been employed by his dyspeptic old father–whom she knew solely as Mr. F. It was simply a case of mistaken identity.

Daily Independent [Elko NV] 21 February 1890: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is pursing her lips dubiously. It is axiomatic that the apple does not fall far from the tree. It is entirely possible that the young society gentleman will become just like his father as he ages. Should Miss H. risk marrying him, it might be well to insist on competent medical advice and to pour out gold without stinting to keep any cook who understands his digestive system. Personally Mrs Daffodil would not risk linking her lot in life with one brought up by a brute, but she can recommend a daily splash of cider vinegar in water for his collywobbles.



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 anecdote

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.

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.

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.

Girl Wanted: 1874

Lady: “But I very much dislike dogs in the kitchen!”
Cook: “Then it would be no use my engaging of myself, Ma’am—for my object is to get a comfortable home for Tiny and myself!”
Punch 10 April 1875: p. 159


Yes, I want another—”A tidy girl to do house-work in a small family—good wages and a good home.” That’s the way my advertisement always reads, and as soon as the paper is out the girls commence coming. Tidy girls from ten to sixty-five years old come pulling the bell, and when told that they won’t suit they put on such a look of contempt for the door, the door-plate, the front gate and the entire institution, that the world seems three degrees hotter than before.

I always engage the girl. This is because of an idea of mine that I can read human nature, and because I do not fear to tell them in plain English what is expected of them. After the door-bell has been pulled about five times, the right-looking sort of a girl makes her appearance. She says she saw the advertisement, and is invited in. She says she can do any kind of cooking; loves to wash; is fond of children; can never sleep after five o’clock in the morning; never goes out evenings; does not know a young man in Detroit, and she’d be willing to work for low wages for the sake of getting a good home.

She is told to drop her bundle, lay off her things and go to work, and a great burden rolls off my mind as I congratulate myself that the prize-medal girl has arrived at last. She’s all right up to about seven in the evening, when she is suddenly missed, and returns about ten o’clock to say that she “just dropped out” to get a postage-stamp. The next day she begins to scatter the tea-spoons in the back-yard, stops her ironing to read a dime novel, and at supper-time wants to know if I can’t send the children off to live with their grandfather, get a cook stove with silver-plated knobs and have an addition built to the kitchen. That evening a big red-headed butcher walks in, crosses his legs over the kitchen table, and proceeds to court Sarah. She doesn’t last but a day or two longer, and then we secure another.

This one is right from New Hampshire, and doesn’t know a soul in Michigan, and yet she hasn’t finished the dinner dishes before a cross-eyed young man rings the bell and says he’d like to see Hannah for a moment. After seeing him, Hannah concludes not to stay, as we are so far from St. John’s church, and as we don’t appear to be religious people.

The next one especially recommends herself as being “just like their own mother” to the children, and isn’t in the house half a day before she draws Small Pica over her knee and gives him a regular old Canadian waltz.

The next one has five recommendations as a neat and tidy girl, and yet it isn’t three days before she bakes the shoe brush with the beef, washes her hands in a soup tureen, or drops hairpins into the pudding.

I growl about these things after a while, but I am met with the statement that they had worked five years for Governor this, or Lord that, and that in all that time no one had so much as looked cross-eyed at them. I am called mean, ill-tempered, particular, fault-finding, and all that, and the girl goes away wondering why the Lord has spared me as long as He has.

We’ve been wanting “a good, tidy girl” for these last twelve years, and I suppose that we may go another dozen and still be wanting.

“Quad’s Odds” M. Quad, 1874: p. 173

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Domestics come and domestics go, but The Servant Question is eternal….

Mrs Daffodil has been fortunate in her selection and retention of staff, but the many jokes on saucy servants and demanding domestics hide the pain of those in suburban villas and New York brownstones longing for a Girl.

Mrs. Hiram Daly — “And so you’ve got your old cook back! I thought you told me she was married about three months ago, and had gone to housekeeping.”

Mrs. Riverside Rives — “She has given up housekeeping and has come back to me.”

Mrs. Hiram Daly — “What was the matter?”

Mrs. Riverside Rives — “She couldn’t get a girl.” — Puck, 1893

Mistress (severely) — “If such a thing occurs again, Norah, I shall have to get another servant.”

Norah — “I wish yer would; there’s easily enough work fer two of us.” — Tit-Bits. 1901

Binks: Oh, yes, she carries herself like an empress, and bosses me around all she likes now; but wait until we are married, and then see how she’ll fawn and cringe.

Winks: To you?

Binks: No, to the servant girl.

The Philipsburg [MT] Mail 15 August 1895: p. 7

Mrs. A: “I see you have got a new servant girl.”

Ms. B. “Yes, I make it a point to get a new one every month.”

Mrs. A: “But that must be very inconvenient.”

Mrs. B: “Yes, but there’s nothing going on in this town that I don’t know all about it.”

Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 28 August 1887: p. 2

First suburban — ” Hello, Smith! You are got up regardless. Going to a wedding?”

Second suburban— “No. I’m going in town to try to engage a cook, and I wish to create a good impression.” — Bazar, 1892

Mistress (trying to be agreeable) “What are your favorite dishes, Bridget?”

The new cook: “To ate or to break, mum?” 

Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield IL] 2 April 1907: p. 10


Mrs Daffodil has previously written on How to Spoil Servants

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.


How to Spoil Servants: 1884

The Servant Question

The Servant Question

When two lady-housekeepers meet it rarely happens that conversation does not drift in the direction of servants and the trouble they occasion in the household. A good servant, one who is faithful to duty and who identifies herself with the interests of the family, is the exception, and the indifferent, wasteful, and slovenly the rule. A much better state of things would doubtless prevail if more care were given to the orderly arrangement of servants’ work and duties as well as to their personal needs and comfort. Too often they are treated as mere working machines, and not as human beings with human needs, weaknesses, inherited peculiarities, and defective training. Nothing is done to lift them into self-respect or into a grateful sense of kindness and consideration. Until there is a great change in the way the average mistress treats the average servant, she will not get a better service than that of which she now so loudly complains.

The following, the source of which we do not know, is so excellent an example of the way in which to make good servant that we give it a place in our magazine. It will bear careful reading and cannot fail to lead some, who have not been as thoughtful as they might have been, to change their manner of treating domestic dependents:

“I never shall forget the servants’ sleeping-rooms in a very simple household I once was in. Everything was fresh and clean and wholesome-looking. The two iron bedsteads comfortably made, the window-curtains spotless, the two bureaus neatly arranged, the floor nicely matted, and with a strip of carpet before each bed, and on the wall some pretty colored pictures. The mistress of this genial, simple house told me that she labored for a year before she could induce her two maids to see the beauty and comfort of such order, but that now they felt it keenly, and it had affected their work and spirits very visibly. Near their kitchen was a small room, which Mrs. had fitted up snugly for a sitting-room and a place to take their meals in. There was a chest of drawers, in which were their napkins and tablecloths and their own bed-linen, and a nice glass-doored case showed their china. My friend told me that for some time her maids actually preferred to use the kitchen, but she finally won them over to a great pride in their neat little room, and she said the effect upon their characters and work was speedily visible. Occasionally she would bring in some flowers or pretty, inexpensive ornament for them; she took a good, illustrated weekly paper entirely for their use, requiring them to file it, and before long a genuine taste for refinement of surroundings and manner had developed. These two servants had come to her very uncouth and untutored, but certainly when I saw them, after three years’ residence with Mrs.___, they were by far the most refined, respectful, and well-mannered servants I have ever seen in America. Of course, some people would-aver this sort of consideration would ‘spoil’ a servant, but it seems to me that the very first means of teaching the servant to-day what she ought to do is to make her feel that her mistress’ house is her home, the place in which she is to live, not the place she is to work in as little as possible and escape from during every possible hour. A servant should be taught to respect the Lares and Penates about her as if they were her very own.”

Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 52, 1884


Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  How very fortunate Mrs. ___ was, in having refined, respectful, and well-mannered servants! Mrs Daffodil wishes that she could say the same for the staff in the many various households in which she has served. There was Nancy, the still-room maid, decapitated in a romp with the young master. And Robert, a handsome footman, who became emeshed with Her Grace, the spoilt young American-born Duchess of Spofford and was fished out of the Thames, in a singularly less handsome state. To speak frankly, in the complex rush of life between master and staff, the staff seems doomed to end up dead or dismissed without a character.

One of the greatest evils of the Great War was that it demonstrated to many otherwise useful parlour-maids that there were occupations offering far more scope for pleasure than a life in service.

However, our plucky American cousins rose to the occasion. Here is the “servant co-operative,” which they developed:

The vexatious servant-girl question has at last been solved, at least to the satisfaction of fifteen Binghampton [New York, one presumes] women. They are the wives of clerks and small merchants who, owing to the hard times are not able to keep a corps of servants ; neither are they able to do their own house-work. They have organized what is called the “Housewife’s Circuit.” each member contributing two dollars a week. This furnishes them with a chamber-maid, who comes in every morning and does the house-work, and a cook, who calls and prepares the meals ready for placing over the fire, making the cooking process an ordinary and simple matter for the housewife. The sum thus realized allows the payment of eight dollars a week to the chamber-maid, twelve dollars a week to the cook, and five dollars a week to a woman who superintends affairs, sees that the customers are properly served, and makes collections. The plan has worked so well that it will doubtless be widely imitated. The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 2 May 1898

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