All the servants of a rich Gilded Age household

Whether you were an old money matron like Mrs. Astor or one of the “new rich” (hello, social climbing Alva Vanderbilt), all super wealthy New Yorkers during the city’s Gilded Age had one thing in common: a large staff of household servants.

While the man of the house tended to business concerns on Wall Street and enjoyed the company of other well-off men at private clubs, the woman of the house was tasked with overseeing multiple maids, butlers, and cooks, as well as nursemaids, coaches, and groomsmen, among others.

Depending on the family bank account and how large their mansion was, a newly minted millionaire household could employ 20 or so servants, who generally lived in the home on a floor devoted to servant rooms.

These rooms were typically near the roof, which was sooty and either too hot or cold, so not a choice place in the home for a family member.

During the Gilded Age, with fortunes being made and immigration high, a reported 16% of the population of New York City worked as a servant. They came from all ethnic groups, but many were Irish, German, or Scandinavian.

The “servant girl question” was often debated in the society pages of newspapers. Where do you find good help? How can you communicate a servant’s duties better? What should you pay them? (These concerns sound snooty, but they’re still being asked today when it come to domestic workers.)

Luckily, some informative writers put out books on the topic, including Mary Elizabeth Carter, who in 1903 published Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy.

Here, Carter laid out all the rules, particularly all the servants a rich family should employ (though that varied depending on a family’s needs), and what to pay them.

At the top of the hierarchy is the Superintending Housekeeper. Typically a woman, she oversees the rest of the household staff: she checks with the cook about the day’s menu, inspects all rooms for cleanliness, and she can take the place of the mistress of the household by hiring and firing other servants. Her monthly pay: $50-$150.

Next up is the Lady’s Maid, who worked hard for her $25-$40 a month. This servant handled her mistress’s toiletry needs, her clothes, and various tasks associated with her social engagements.

“However luxurious the surroundings, that is not an ideal life where one must constantly at the beck and call, or subject to the caprice, of another during all the 24 hours, day in and day out,” warns Carter.

The next level of maid is the house maid, or chambermaid. This servant would be assigned to a specific room or suite of rooms, responsible for dusting, bed-making (plus airing out bed linens), cleaning, and sweeping embers from the fireplace. Her salary is $18-$25 per month.

The Parlor Maid and Dining Hall Maid round out the maid list.

The parlor maid kept the parlor and family rooms in tip-top shape, while the Dining Hall Maid assisted in the servant dining room; she might be the only servant who served other servants. For their labor, they made $20-$30 monthly.

No functioning mansion could do without laundry workers, who washed not just clothes but rugs and bedcovers via boiling them and then laying everything out to dry (or pinning them up). A head laundress could expect $30 per month, while assistants might score $18 monthly.

On the male servant side, the Butler was of primo importance. “In every household of any pretension to fashion, the butler looms up an imposing figure,” notes Carter. “His dignity must never be impeached.”

The butler needed managing skills (for his staff of up to four assistants), good handwriting, and the ability to do basic bookkeeping. Carter leaves out his ideal monthly salary, but it must be comparable to the Superindending Housekeeper’s, I imagine.)

The “Useful Man” is a curious servant who functioned as a jack at all trades who brought wood for the fireplace, fixed things, and handled the hard labor of turning the wet laundry in the laundry room, among other duties. His monthly salary: $30-$40.

The Chef is the “gastronomical director” of the house, Carter writes, and his take-home would be $100. He might be French, as French food was quite faddish at the time. The chef could also be a female cook, as this illustration from Puck shows.

It was the chef’s job to go to markets and purchase the raw materials for the dishes he or she would whip up for the family—or for special dinners or social events that may require he bring in assistants to help.

Last but not least is the Valet. The valet’s counterpart is the lady’s maid; he’s a kind of personal assistant to the wealthy man of the household, pressing his clothes and preparing his bath. He will go everywhere with his master, even on trips. Carter leaves out his monthly salary, but it’s probably in the range of the lady’s maid.

There were other servants, of course: coachmen for the carriage, footmen, and grooms (who typically lived upstairs in the family stable). If children were in the household, a nursemaid would devote herself to their care. Scullery maids did the dirty work in the kitchen.

After the Gilded Age, the need for such an enormous servant staff wasn’t as great. Many of the early apartment buildings had staff servants of their own, and appliances took the place of a laundress, for example.

Though plenty of households employ “help” today, the line between servant and those being served is much blurrier than it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These days, you often hear a person boast that their nanny or live-in housekeeper is “part of the family.” The nanny or housekeeper, however, might feel differently.

[Top photo: MCNY, 93.1.1.20444; second and third images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette by Emily Holt; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY. 45.335.21; sixth and seventh images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette; eighth image: Puck; ninth image: unknown; tenth image: New York Herald, 1870s]

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20 Responses to “All the servants of a rich Gilded Age household”

  1. Joseph Ditta Says:

    Great piece, as always! I’ve always wanted to ask: Is there some reason you don’t include captions directly with the images and instead list them together at the bottom of your posts? When a particular image catches my eye, I find it’s hard to keep track of which is which, especially when there are a bunch of them and they’re not numbered.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks! I group the photo credits at the bottom because I find it easier to read that way, and usually, I don’t have so many photos. But going forward with longer posts, I can try to include captions within the post.

      • Joseph Ditta Says:

        I didn’t mean to make extra work for you! LOL I guess on the New-York Historical Society’s library blog (blog.nyhistory.org) we’re always thinking that someone might want to track down an image we’ve posted, so we make sure the citation goes in a caption to make our lives easier.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        No extra work at all! I always appreciate questions and suggestions that might make reading these posts more engaging or interactive.

  2. Tom Dulski Says:

    A well researched article. Great work as always.

  3. beth Says:

    how interesting, i’d love to read these books

  4. Shayne Davidson Says:

    We need an updated version of the book for the billionaire class!

  5. Rob Says:

    16%!

  6. deborah shaver Says:

    The divide between the Rich & the Poor was very evident in the Gilded Age. TY for your wonderful Site, I really enjoy reading & looking at the pictures that accompany it. Stay safe.

  7. countrypaul Says:

    Thank you for remembering the “forgotten people” who made the gilded age possible. I wonder who will write about today’s forgotten people….

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks! I do think the “forgotten people” of our era will be remembered and their stories told, hopefully by reflective and thoughtful writers.

  8. Ruth Rogers Says:

    I would think that where the men’s salaries weren’t listed, they would make more than their female counterparts. Like today..

  9. Marco Romano Says:

    Are these the some of the same people who fled Manhattan in March?

  10. sue Says:

    in the first photo, it looks as though there are bulbs sitting inside the light fixtures. Can you explain more about this technology they were using?

  11. ironrailsironweights Says:

    In Victorian Britain footmen were vital for any proper household. They’d ride on the back of carriages but in most cases wouldn’t actually do anything, it was all for show. What was most desireable of all was a matched pair, in other words footmen of approximately the same age, height and weight.

    Peter

  12. Sid Says:

    You mention in passing “Many of the early apartment buildings had staff servants of their own” — this is something about which I wish to learn more. I keep hearing offhand mentions of this sort of thing, and it intrigues me. Do you have any sources you can point me at, that discuss what sorts of domestic services were available in early apartment buildings, how common they were, how expensive, what sort of people rented there, etc?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Sid, I wish I had more solid information for you. I’d suggest any book by architectural historian Andrew Alpern, such as Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan or The Dakota; these probably touch on how early apartment buildings, designed to appeal to the rich, had staff servants. I’d also suggest King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892. It’s available online and may also have some information on the French Flats newly built in the city and the amenities they provided.

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