Artifact Corner: Episode 30 – Servant’s Bell

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. March is Women’s History month, and to commemorate that, we will be spending this entire month focused on the stories of women. Today we will be looking at an industry that employed more than half of working women in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the domestic service industry. Our artifact for this week is a brass Victorian table top service bell. There is a floral motif on the base of the service bell, and there is a push lever with a spring wrapped hinge that allows the bell to ring. This bell would have been rung to summon a servant or caretaker. Let’s take a look at what life was like for women in the service industry in the 19th and very early 20th Centuries.

Throughout history, women have tended to the needs of homes and families. Today’s arrangement of women holding down full time jobs, raising a family, and tending to the home are an absolute historical anomaly. Even the impoverished characters in historical literature had their domestic help, and would not have been expected to clean their own homes. People with even small means would have domestic servants. This was made possible by the abundant number of unskilled laborers in the US during this time. Even someone with little to no education, such as women and children, could become a domestic servant. For the people joining this workforce, there were no guidelines or protections for employees. In 1912 a domestic servant with decades of experience in the industry anonymously published an account of life as “hired help.” She writes;

“There is often no Sunday out until after four and no evening out until after eight. Foreign girls do not go into housework for this reason. They prefer the fixed hours of factory and shop work. Ladies are sometimes not honest in money matters concerning the girls they employ. I have known many nice girls to work for little money—two dollars and a half or three dollars a week—and one week out of every five or six the lady would forget, or pretend to forget, to pay for. If the girl has given no written receipt for her wages, she sometimes has no proof of what is due her.”

To put this into context, that meant working seven days a week for a wage of $2.50. In todays money, that would mean that you were working seven days a week for $68.84. And even then, according to the author, you might not even be paid fairly every week.

House work in the 19th Century was very labor intensive. The people doing the work of maintaining the home had none of the modern convinces that we have today. No vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, modern cooking appliances, washing machines, or even hot water on demand. If you could afford to hire help, you would. A family with modest means would hire a “maid of all work.” This single woman was responsible for all of the cooking, cleaning, and creature comforts of the family she was caring for. A woman named Hanna Cullwick kept a journal of her life in domestic service from 1853 to 1893. In one entry, she describes her average day;

“Opened the shutters & lighted the kitchen fire. Shook my sooty thing in the dusthole & emptied the soot there. Swept & dusted the rooms & hall. Laid the hearth and got breakfast up. Clean’d 2 pairs of boots. Made the beds & emptied the slops. Clean’d and washed the breakfast things up. Clean’d the plate, clean’d the knives & got dinner up. Clean’d away. Clean’d the kitchen up; unpack’d a hamper. Took two chickens to Mrs Brewer’s & brought the message back. Made a tart & pick’d and gutted two ducks & roasted them. Clean’d the steps & flags on my knees. Blackheaded the scraper in front of the house; clean’d the street flags too on my knees. Wash’d up in the scullery. Clean’d the pantry on my knees and scour’d the tables. Scrubbed the flags around the house & clean’d the window sills. Got tea for the Master and Mrs. Warwick…Clean’d the privy & Passage & scullery floor on my knees. Wash’s the dog & cleaned the sinks down. Put the supper ready for Ann to take up, for I was too dirty & tired to go upstairs. Wash’d in a bath & to bed.”

From Hanna’s own words we can see that she did all of this in a day, and she was not the only servant in the home, because she says that Ann took the supper up, because she was too dirty. It’s clear that life for the average woman in the service industry was very long, very hard, and not financially rewarding.

Maids were meant to do all of their work quietly and out of site, and because of this, their contributions to our society have been overlooked. We owe a debt of gratitude to these women for keeping our world running. Our service bell is a small reminder of the hard work and dedication of so many women. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,