Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Friday, 4 September 2015


The 'servant problem' was an ever present preoccupation with the middle-classes throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. From about the 1850s to the 1880s, the problem was the quality of servants, or the perceived lack of it. The subject was covered in minute detail in the correspondence columns of national and local newspapers with mistresses criticising their maids for all manner of ills.

Few things incensed employers more than their servants appearing to have ideas above their station. Bear in mind that many lower middle-class mistresses were not too far removed in social class from their servants; they had often been in domestic service themselves and were starting to work their way up the ladder of society. Their objections were consequently a bit rich to say the least. Nevertheless, servants were criticised for attempting to dress or act like their masters in their off-duty hours. This might include buying fine quality dresses or crinolines, wearing their hair in the latest fashion or spending their money on 'fripperies' such as decorations for their hats.

From Punch, 1850s
Female servants were expected to dress modestly, even when off duty. A guide for servants published in 1873 was very clear about this. If their savings were spent on 'fine dress', this would 'provoke a feeling of ill-will or contempt towards the wearers, for a foolish desire to appear fine beyond their proper position in society'.

From Punch, 1850s

In the 1850s, the wonderful Punch magazine coined a phrase for servants trying to act or dress like their masters. They called it 'Servantgalism' and they published a series of satirical sketches to illustrate the phenomenon. Many of these sketches were drawn by John Leech and you can see a whole series of them on the excellent John Leech Archive website. Here's just one for starters:

From John Leech Archive (www.john-leech-archive.org.uk)
In this sketch, the prospective servant asks, "Where do you go to the sea-side in the summer? Because I couldn't stop at a dull place and where the hair wasn't very bracing!"

The Punch sketches of 'Servantgalism' offer an exaggerated view of servants trying to act and dress above their station. However, employers continued to insist on regulating their maids' clothing, even off duty; this was just one of the negative aspects of domestic service felt by servants which would eventually lead to their scarcity by the 1890s.

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