An Irish servant girl’s passionate reply to her Gilded Age wealthy employers

Think about the army of servants a wealthy New York City household would typically have in the Gilded Age. Cooks, coachmen, valets, butlers, grooms, laundresses, and others cleaned parlors and bedrooms, prepared meals, drove the carriage, laid out clothes, polished the silverware, watched the children, and took care of almost every household need.

Servants taking out ads for employment at the New York Herald office, 1874

Sure it made life for the rich family easier, and it offered a relatively decent source of income to poor newcomers. (Room, board, and a half-day Sunday helped sweeten the deal.) Also, employing numerous servants was a status symbol in an era when appearances of wealth meant everything.

Yet along with a house full of servants came servant problems. In the Gilded Age, these problems coalesced under one hotly debated topic: “The Servant Question.”

Trade card for the Lustro company on Duane Street during the Gilded Age

The Servant Question—sometimes called “The Servant Girl Question”—was the subject of endless newspaper and magazine articles in the late 19th century.

The question was really a mix of questions of concern to well-off women, who were typically tasked with managing their family’s servant staff: Why is it so hard to find competent servants? Should you be kind or strict? Is the servant the problem—or is it the mistress of the house to blame because of her poor management skills?

On January 20, 1895, the New York Times launched an article series, “Competent Domestics,” exploring the issue. Twelve society women—including Mrs. Russell Sage (wife of the financier) and Mrs. Charles Parkhurst (wife of the well-known social reformer and pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church) weighed in.

“I never allow my servants an afternoon off during the week,” said Mrs. Walter Lester Carr, wife of a prominent doctor. “Why should I lose so much time and put myself to a great deal of inconvenience in doing the work myself?”

Mrs. Robert McArthur, wife of the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church on 57th Street, put the blame elsewhere. “I think if people would treat servants less like animals or a part of their household furniture they would get along better with them. I know people who say, ‘keep servants down as much as you can, and you will get more out of them.'”

The one thing glaringly missing from the article was the voice of an actual servant. Soon one sent in a letter to the editor, which the Times printed on February 17.

“What an Irish Girl Thinks” was the headline. Written without details about where she worked or who she worked for, this Irish servant—one of thousands of Irish girls and women (often derided as “Bridgets”) who served in a domestic capacity because other positions tended to be shut off to them in the 19th century—gave a passionate reply.

“So much has been said lately through your paper on the servant question that I venture to ask you to be kind enough to listen to a servant’s view of the case,” the girl wrote. “That our faults have been told and retold is certainly a fact. Some of those faults I am willing to admit; others I deny.”

The servant girl stated that there are good and bad mistresses: “good, kind, conscientious mistresses, whom every word and action command respect from their servants and who never have and never will have any trouble in getting good servants.”

“But there is another class who look upon their servants as a lot of inferior beings, put into this world for the sole purpose of drudging for them from morning till night, and who are afraid that if they treat their servants with anything like respect it will lower them one step on the social ladder, which they found so very difficult to climb.”

“If such people would only remember that we are human beings, flesh and blood, just as they are, but lacking all their advantages, educations, etc., which go a great way to help people overcome their faults, they would have better servants.”

“Tradesmen, laborers, in fact everybody who work for a living, look forward to the end of their day’s work; but the New York servant—’No.’ She can sit inside her prison bars (basement gates), and dare not go out and get a breath of God’s fresh air, which might help her temper, and benefit her mistress for the next day’s work. I call that a mild form of slavery and those people came into this world a century too late.”

The end of the Irish girl’s letter offers a hint of modesty—and an acknowledgement of her lowly status in the Gilded Age city.

Servants at the New York Herald office looking for “situations”

“I will apologize for the length of my letter, and hope you will give it a place in your valuable journal. But for all the errors, grammatical or otherwise, which it contains, the fact that I’m a servant, and nothing better of my class is expected is the only apology I will offer.”

We know what happened to the servant question: it resolved itself as the practice of employing 8, 10, 15 or more servants per household ended. After the turn of the century, rich New Yorkers began moving into luxury apartments and didn’t need an enormous staff to manage. Immigration quotas also likely played a role in reducing household staff, since the ready supply of cheap labor was scaled back.

Servants at the Salvation Army Home on Gramercy Park, undated

But what happened to this Irish servant who wrote the letter? Like so many other Irish immigrant girls and women in the city at the time, perhaps she lived out her life as a chambermaid, laundress, or cook—socializing at a nearby parish, sending money to family back home, and hopefully finding a family that appreciated her.

[Top image: LOC; second image: MCNY, MN137316; third image: MCNY 1900, MNY204627; fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh images: NYT; eighth image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper via Clarkart.edu; ninth image: New-York Historical Society, undated]

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19 Responses to “An Irish servant girl’s passionate reply to her Gilded Age wealthy employers”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Very poignant; thank you. Well beyond live-in servants, I am amazed at the attitudes I see in some people today who treat those in positions of service as part of the scenery – if they even see them at all. I have consciously taken to thank people randomly but hopefully appropriately, like a bathroom attendant in a public facility: “Thanks for keeping the place up.” Most are surprised for a moment, then appreciative that they were actually noticed. Really, courtesy counts, and it costs nothing. Others may differ, but I can’t conceive of consciously engineering a hostile relationship with someone who lived in my house and on whose services I depended.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I totally agree; it would be very uncomfortable to employ people in my own home and not be kind and appreciative toward them. But I tend to think a lot of these “mistresses” simply had no management skills. Some were probably terrible people, but others maybe just had no idea how to be a good boss.

  2. beth Says:

    i love the fact that the ‘irish girl’ wrote her piece and that it was published. i’m sure the treatment of the servants varied with the mistresses in charge and they really had no choice but to go along with it. awful for some

  3. Ann Haddad Says:

    Thank you for this excellent piece on Gilded Age servitude, Esther! Let’s not forget the other oft-discussed issue surrounding these Irish women who came to America to send relief to their families back home, the “Servant Problem.” This refers to the penchant for the servants to get up and go when something about their situation displeased them; the turnover was huge. These young women really learned to work the system; they knew they were in great demand, and could have the upper hand over their mistress by threatening to walk. Based on contemporary diaries I I’ve read, it was a constant problem for the lady of the house. They couldn’t live with their domestic help, but they couldn’t live without them!!!

    • Shayne Davidson Says:

      You would think that would cause the employers to be kinder and more generous to these employees. Yet that does not seem to have been the case in general.

    • Rob Says:

      Work the system?
      You mean leave a place where you are treated as a slave and go to a place that treats you well?

      • Ann Haddad Says:

        No, not at all. It was a chance they took, knowing that they were always in demand and would have little difficulty acquiring a new position. A domestic’s degree of satisfaction with her position was dependent on the generosity and benevolence of her employer, and based on my research, that was as varied as you would expect in a society that had the lowest view of the Irish and sought to keep them “in their place.”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Ann for sharing your research on Irish servants!

  4. Mike Burke Says:

    Thanks for writing about this fascinating topic. I think because of Downton Abbey, we get some skewed views of servant life among the wealthy. I had a great aunt who grew up in the servants’ part of an Astor mansion. She used to talk about how exciting it was, but her parents left servant life when she was relatively young for factory work in upstate New York. I have often wondered how many other folks made similar decisions.

  5. Will Says:

    while things in general have changed for the better, there are still many many situations were hired maids that clean peoples homes barely still make much above minimum wage. check out the netflix tv show Maid. it’s based on a non-fiction book by a woman that struggled to be a single mom.

  6. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I wonder if the letter was written by a servant. Seems more likely to have come from a journalist or an advocate for social change. But it’s interesting that the NYT didn’t include a servant’s point of view in the original article. Things have certainly changed since those days! Nice post!

  7. Shayne Davidson Says:

    One other issue your post brings to mind is the fact that younger female servants were sometimes viewed as sexual playthings for the men of the household. The servant women had no power and few places to turn to if a male employer (or the son of one) “took liberties.” The whole situation was ripe for exploitation of the women.

  8. VirginiaLB Says:

    Thank you for another interesting post with great illustrations. I have spent many years researching the 19th century Irish in Manhattan & Brooklyn. The many Irish girls and women who worked as servants usually did so only during the years before marriage. A fairly small percentage did it for a lifetime. Many worked in middle and upper middle class homes, in addition to those of the very rich. They sent an amazing amount of money back to Ireland for tickets for relatives and to support those who remained, elderly parents and so on. They were well known for their independence and tart speech. Consuelo Vanderbilt tells how her baby brother’s Irish nanny said to her mother, “You have so many houses on earth. Don’t you think you should be thinking about your home in heaven?” Mrs. V took it with good grace. (From ‘The Glitter and the Gold)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks VirginiaLB for your insight and that wonderful Consuelo V. anecdote. The story of the Irish servants could be fodder for several more posts. More Irish women immigrated to America than Irish men, and that played a role in the imbalance of eligible men to marry. Irish servants also donated pennies from their pay to help build St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

  9. countrypaul Says:

    “Irish servants also donated pennies from their pay to help build St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” We could dedicate a whole other very long discussion about these palaces built on the backs of the working poor, but not being Catholic, it’s not my place to start it beyond what I just said.

  10. VirginiaLB Says:

    No disrespect intended but St Patrick’s Cathedral was not built on the backs of the poor but by the poor and for the poor and everyone else. Every Catholic who enters is at home. Many others find it and other churches as places of prayer and meditation and are welcome. Art, architecture, music are among God’s gifts to humanity and in a church these gifts can be shared by all. To the 19th century Irish, whose homeland forbade their religion until 1829, even after that date had to call their churches chapels and were forbidden to erect steeples or hang bells, Many worshipped in mud-walled, thatch-roofed structures. New York’s beautiful churches were a miracle they helped bring about. Imagine how they felt! My great-great grandparents lived on West 49th St between Sixth and Seventh Avenues when St Patrick’s was being built. When finally open, it became their parish church. They were working-class Irish immigrants, just getting by, but their daughters were married at St Patrick’s Cathedral by the rector. This was their church home and their pennies were an integral part of its creation.

  11. MizScarlettNY Says:

    Great piece! We rarely hear references to Irish immigrants to NYC any more, especially females. It seems an American tradition that the most recent arrivals still tend children, homes, gardens, etc

    Let’s not forget that the original, St. Patrick’s “Old” Cathedral (now Basilica) was built in 1809 on Mulberry Street long before the major influx of “famine Irish.”
    [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Patrick%27s_Old_Cathedral#/media/File:Saint_Pats_Old_Cathedral_Manh_jeh.JPG] It is still an active parish, and where my great grandparents married in 1890. It was not also not a wealthy parish proven by the fact it has statues of only 10 apostles as funding ran out.

    The Irish Mission For Immigrant Girls at Watson House was begun
    in 1883 to protect, temporarily house, and find employment, particularly in Manhattan homes. This was done through 1954. For more information, and a searchable database, go here>>
    http://omeka.archnyarchives.org/exhibits/show/missiongirls/intro

  12. Doris McGreary Says:

    Hello Esther,
    I have found your blog when researching my family history and have found this post very interesting. My Great-Aunt Sarah emigrated to the USA from County Derry in Ireland in the early 1900s and I am writing a fictionalised version of her story. I have found a record of her arrival in New York. She was from a Presbyterian background. I wondered if there is any way I could find out more about the Presbyterians who came to New York? I think it likely that she worked as a servant before she got married although in my story she has ambitions of becoming a teacher. I love this Irish servant’s letter letter and plan to use it as inspiration for a similar letter from Sarah in my story. I do think the letter is from a genuine servant rather than a social reformer – my great-aunt and her siblings had had a good education. She is described as a scholar aged 17 in the 1911 census of Ireland. Thank you for your fascinating blog.

  13. What a Gilded Age servant girl had to say about Coney Island | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] as she put it: she became one of thousands of young women, often new immigrants, who worked as live-in servant girls for the upper middle class and rich in the Gilded […]

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