Facebook.com / Downton Abbey
Facebook.com / Downton Abbey

How to be a Servant Worthy of Downton Abbey

Facebook.com / Downton Abbey
Facebook.com / Downton Abbey

In ITV's hit show Downton Abbey, the Crawley family struggles to maintain 19th-century standards and traditions even as the 20th century rips them away. One of the traditions they value is having an enormous stable of servants to care for them, their home, and their estate.

In the 19th century, to be "in service" was a completely respectable—even fortunate—position for a woman. The work was grueling, time off was limited in some cases to a single half-day every month, and you were literally a second-class citizen. But you had food in your belly, a roof over your head, and chances to advance.

In Downton terms, that means Daisy, the lowest servant we get to meet, could one day become Mrs. Patmore. As cook, Mrs. Patmore has one of the highest female ranks in the house. She never goes above stairs in fine clothes, but she rules the heart of the house and answers to no one but the Lord and Lady.

For a Daisy-type figure to achieve that in the 19th century, she would have to spend decades in close-mouthed, back-breaking service. She would need to obey a system of rules meant to press out her individuality and replace it with the mindset of a servant.

These rules are carefully outlined in books like 1826's The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams. Fans of Downton can see how the show makes an honest effort to represent the vestiges of the world these books described. But what fans don't really see in Downton is just how miserable that world could be.

The life of a lower servant like Daisy involved more work than we, as Westerners in the cozy confines of the 21st century, can really wrap our heads around. The simple act of getting a cup of milk involved at least a dozen more physical tasks than it would today. Here is a description of a kitchen maid's morning:

The kitchen-maid must always rise betimes, light the kitchen fire, and set on water to be heated for all the purposes of the family, the first thing she does. She next scours the dressers and shelves, and the kitchen tables, with soap and sand, and hot water; and cleans up the kitchen: She then clears out and cleans the housekeeper's room, the hall and passages, the front door, and area steps, the larder, and the butler's pantry. She then prepares the breakfasts in the housekeeper's room, and the servants hall. These things, if she be active, she will have accomplished before the cook begins to require her attention and attendance in the larder, in the furtherance of the culinary preparations; to which, however, she must have an eye, even from her earliest rising.

In less wealthy houses she would also have to act as scullery maid, adding the following to her duties:

...to light the fires in the kitchen range, and under the copper or boilers, and stew-holes — to wash up all the plates and dishes — scour and clean all the sauce-pans, stew-pans, kettles, pots, and all other kitchen utensils; and to take care that all the latter are always kept clean, dry, and fit for use. She is to assist in picking, trimming, washing, and boiling the vegetables, cleaning the kitchen and offices, the servants'-hall, housekeeper's room, and steward's room; and to clean the steps of the front door and the area. She makes the beds for the stable men — and generally fetches, carries, and clears away for the cook and otherwise assists in all the laborious parts of the kitchen business.

Getty Images

Even more important than making sure a girl understands that her foreseeable future will be spent in endless, grimy toil, is making her realize how lucky she is to have that future.

When young persons first enter upon service, they should be thankful to God if they have obtained a situation where they may be instructed in those domestic duties which are to be the business of their lives. They ought also to be very thankful, and very submissive, to those who will take the trouble to teach them. Such cannot shew their gratitude in a better way than by continuing, as long as possible, in their first service.

So how much money does a girl make for all this? Well, mostly you're getting paid in how great it feels to not be homeless. But in actual money, a kitchen maid in a "Household Establishment of a respectable Country Gentleman, with a young family, whose Net Income is from 16,000 pounds to 18,000 pounds a Year," write the Adamses, would make about £14 a year.

Converting that to today's money is tricky, because the basket of goods index isn't static (we actually buy meat at a cheaper price today than 100 years ago because of factory farming, etc.). But most calculations support that in the year 2012, £14 pounds was equal to £1,270.00 ($2,095).

That's right: A kitchen maid who spent her 18-hour days elbow-deep in grease and soot, scrubbing every surface in sight on her hands and knees, and obeying the demands of every other servant in the house, made about $2000 a year. Granted she did not pay room and board. Her male counterpart, the under footman, made a whopping £20.

And yes, the pay gap between male and female employees was quite enormous. Carson the butler would have earned £50 a year (although in his case he would have been worth every shilling), and Mrs. Hughes, his counterpart, £24 (the highest female wage in the house). Mrs. Patmore likely would have earned the same for the multi-course culinary perfection she sent upstairs three times a day. And how it would have upset her to learn that had she been a "French man-cook," her salary would have been a jaw-dropping £80.

Getty Images

Perhaps wary of that measly £14, the Adamses go out of their way to remind would-be servant girls that the world is one big savage death pit.

Young Persons, Female Servants, and others of a similar rank in life, we more especially address ourselves to you! You think with horror of murder, and of prostitution; but you perhaps little reflect, that idleness and self-will, — that the love of dress, and of indulgence, — that petty acts of dishonesty, — that misbehaviour in a place — that refusing to submit to reproof, — that rashly throwing yourselves out of a situation in a regular family, — that wasting your money, and thus leaving yourselves unprovided for when out of employment, — that breaking the Sabbath, and particularly rambling about in idle company on the evenings of the Sabbath-day — you perhaps little reflect that these, or any of these evil practices, or habits, may lead you, and that by no very long or winding path, to the atrocious crimes which I have mentioned.

Meaning: "We don't want you to be alarmed, ladies, but if you buy that dress with the frivolous lace, you will be stabbed to death by one of your johns. It is simple cause and effect."

Dress as becomes your station, if you desire to please your employers,—to avoid personal harm, and to diminish the number and power of your temptations. The happiness of society arises from each of us keeping in our station, and being contented with it.

Once a girl is properly attired, she can turn her attention to the myriad other things that could turn her life into a misery. Like friendships.

A female servant should never make friendships with, or take the advice of, milk people, butchers' or bakers' servants, keepers of chandlers' shops, green-stalls, charwomen, &c.; for mostly they seek only their own interest and profit in every thing.

Besides, a good servant girl's life offers something much better than friendships. Attentive silence!

The virtue of Silence is highly commendable, and will contribute greatly to your ease and prosperity. Never talk of yourself, — but when others speak of themselves, listen to them; — such attention will please them, and probably profit yourself, as it is a chance but something escapes them that may afford a clue to their whole character.

Getty Images

Besides, making friends could lead to other indiscretions.

Be very careful of your reputation for virtue and discretion in regard of the other sex; for it is the foundation of your happiness in this world; and the loss of it will bring you to misery. Avoid as much as possible going out in the evening, especially on frivolous errands. Be cautious as to whom you give your company. "Evil communications corrupt good manners." Never go to fairs, dances, nor to the theaters. Ask yourself, before you engage in any pleasuring scheme — what may be the probable end of it?

You know, even the ever proper Mrs. Hughes went to the fair in Downton. Mrs. Patmore, too. And I just dare you to question Mrs. Patmore's virtue to her face.

And the real misery of it all is that even if you are a good girl who devotes her life to the pleasing of her Mistress and Jesus (in that order), you still can end up a prostitute's corpse!

It is a fact well ascertained, that many females, totally unconscious of their danger, have been hired from such offices, as servants, by keepers of infamous houses, for no other actual purpose than that of seduction, or prostitution! Many, decent looking, but wicked women, are employed, even in the streets, to find out, and strongly recommend, young girls to places as servants. By this horrible deceit, many artless females are unawares drawn into disgrace, disease, and hasty death!

The Adamses knew that servant life was horrendously difficult, even miserable. The fact that so many people flocked to service speaks of how tough the alternatives were. In Downton's era, it was possible to break out: To take a correspondence course to train for one of the new jobs that came with the advent of the 20th century, like Gwen Dawson did.

But for most of the 19th century, a working-class girl could no more become a secretary than she could become King of Narnia. It was marriage, the scullery, or fatal poverty.

More from The Week...

Everything You Wanted to Know about Polyamory 

*

18 Books to Read in 2014

*

9 Vodka Drinks to Make for the Sochi Olympics 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios