Adams, Samuel & Sarah. The Complete Servant.

London: Knight & Lacey, 1825 (reprinted, 1989).

A number of books were published in the first half of the 19th century in Britain on how to deal with servants. The burgeoning middle class was becoming wealthier and an important part of the servant-employing population, but most of them hadn’t grown up with servants in the house — no more than a generalized maid-of-all-work and perhaps a cook — and they needed guidance.

The Adamses, a married couple, had been in service for a combined eighty-plus years, having worked their way up from hall boy to butler and from the scullery to housekeeper, and both of them in large, noble households. In 1825, they published this detailed volume both for employers and for the servants themselves, detailing the duties expected to be performed by everyone from the steward and estate manager of a grand property down to the laundry maid and the under-gardeners. It was the first book of its kind, really, and it was very influential in the new Victorian era.

They were aware, of course, that most families had only one or two servants, mostly women, and mostly from the working class, but their book is unusual in that more than half the positions described were ordinarily occupied by men. Which meant an upper-class readership, which probably didn’t need their advice, but the authors give it anyway, inveighing against dishonesty among stewards and butlers and the dangers of allowing maids to have “followers” (i.e., boyfriends). They felt that any servant ought to be grateful for the job they held — presuming reasonable behavior by the family upstairs, which they also carefully promoted — and in this they were actually more or less correct. At least in a large establishment.

The lists of daily duties described here, which for maids and footmen began before daylight and ended after dark, are exhausting to read. But this was a time before labor-saving machinery, before the Industrial Revolution had really seeped down into the lower levels of society, and that same housework was what middle-class and working-class men and (mostly) women were doing for themselves in any case.

The Adamses were also somewhat ahead of their time in insisting on cleanliness and hygiene, especially in the kitchen, and in promoting humane treatment of animals destined for the dining room. They also include detailed recipes for the basic cooked dishes and breads — and also lotions and cleaning products — with which every house servant was expected to be familiar. (No running down to the shop for furniture polish, remember.) Frankly, I scanned rapidly over most of those.

There’s also an excellent Introduction to this new edition by Pamela Horn, arguably the leading living expert on the whole “upstairs/downstairs” phenomenon in Western European and American history. There are lots of secondary works on the subject (including Horn’s own dozen books), but as a primary source, this volume is a must-read.

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Published in: on 24 March 2016 at 7:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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