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Upstairs/Downstairs: The Victorian Maid

upstairs downstairsThis is a series of short blogs on the differences between the classes. From maids to the ladies they served, from merchant gentlemen to their valets. Yes, there are a lot of little positions, but I’ll generally cover them over the next few months.

The housemaid rises between 5 and 6:30 a.m. and accomplished many of her chores before the rest of the family rose. It was an offense to those gently born to hear or see the maid.scrubbing_floors

The under house maid opened shutters in downstairs rooms, shook the hearth rug, covered the furniture and piano (if there was one) with sheets, then strew moist tea leaves over the carpet and sweep with the carpet broom—gently—toward the door or fireplace. Gather the dust and remove it at once!

 To clean out the fireplace: black lead, brushes, leathers and clothes, brick dust and emery paper, and the cinder pale. Ashes were tossed but the cinders were kept for the fire or kitchen stove. She’d then lay the wood and cinders for that evening’s fire. In the summer months, arrangements of paper or ornaments were placed in the grate. Once the dust settled, she’d dust the room, polished until they shone.

Everything was done. I need someone like that in my house!

Before the family came down for breakfast, and after she ate, the front stairs and passages needed to be done—wood oiled, marble cleaned, brass polished, etc., etc., etc. My house sorely lacks.  Meanwhile, the ladies maid if there was one, or the downstairs or upstairs maid if there wasn’t, laid out the lady’s toilet, morning clothes, swept and dusted the dressing room and lit the fire. THEN she Ladys_Maidwoke the lady of the house.  In the bedroom, she needed to search and exterminate ‘unwelcomed inhabitants’ in the bed. Yeah. All of that. Shudder.

Wood floors weren’t to be scrubbed on wet or foggy days—took longer for it to dry. In winter, fires were lit so the rooms were dry by nightfall. Servants rooms were cleaned and scrubbed 2-3 times a week.

A maid of all work! She did it all, got paid very little, and only if she was very lucky advanced in position. I’ll file this under jobs I don’t want to do.

Source: Victorian Household Hints by Elizabeth Drury

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10 Comments

  1. Wow and I thought that I was overworked as a mom, LOL.

    Great post–I’m definitely bookmarking this one for future reference.

  2. Denise Eagan says:

    Was this in America as well as England, Isabel?

    I think I need this book!

  3. Isabel Roman says:

    Dee, I think it was England, but I’m sure we Americans took a lot from them so I’d say most probably here as well. It’s a pretty cool book, and I highly recommend it.

  4. Great info, Isabel! Sounds like the only people who had leisure time were the upper and middle class people who made enough money to hire domestics.

    And what a lot of hard, grueling work!

  5. I always wondered how it was that this maid got up at 5:00 in the morning. When were alarm clocks invented? Weren’t they Grandfather clocks, originally? Because I can’t see the rest of the servants–who could sleep until 6:30 or 7:00–being overly thrilled to have one of those big suckers go off at such an untimely hour, up (or down) in the servants quarters.

    Not to mention, Grandfather clocks weren’t cheap–at least not downstairs maid kind of cheap–so, what, did the household budget spring for a grandfather clock in the servant’s hall?

    As you can see, I get fixated on tiny things. But really, how did she wake up?

  6. Can I have a maid? I cannot believe how strict the code was and what on earth did those people who hired maids do with their time all day??? Interesting report!

  7. Denise Eagan says:

    You know, Jenn, I’ve always wondered that too. Maybe they had wind up alarm clocks?

  8. Isabel Roman says:

    I wonder if they had a special servant for waking the other servants? Hmm, I’ll have to see if i can find anything.

  9. Entspinster says:

    The maid of all work– the term “general servant” was for some reason considered more genteel– was also called a “slavey”, and did live like a slave. She was often a beginner at her first job, was aged perhaps twelve to fourteen, and had no other servants for company or to learn from. If she came froma really poor family she might never have seen a cookstove, let alone an ironing board. A good, caring mistress might teach her general servant how to do her work, and a bad one might leave the girl to struggle without much of an idea what she should be doing, let alone how. The other kind of bad mistress hovered over her servant obsessively– and took all the credit for anything the servant actually accomplished.

    The poor girl might have no set mealtimes (eating scraps as she went along, and woe to her if she ate more than the mistress considered right), nowhere to “sit” but in the kitchen, even nowhere to sleep but on a floor pad in the kitchen, which of course got put away the instant she got up, and didn’t come out again until all the family were tucked into their own beds. Sleeping arrangements were so uncomfortable that getting up early may not have been all that hard.

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