Finding the servant call buttons in New York City’s Gilded Age mansions

Next time you’re in one of the city’s former Gilded Age mansions—reborn as a museum, perhaps, or a cultural center, store, or some other public building—be on the lookout for tiny buttons.

Sure you’ll want to gaze in amazement at the mansion’s elaborate interiors, with their lovely detailing, mahogany wood staircases, and splendorous ceiling murals.

But while you marvel at the beauty of it all, you might notice one of the purely functional servant call buttons that discreetly summoned the hired household help who allowed wealthy families to live so well.

The servant call buttons above come from the Gothic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. Once known as the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, it’s now home to the Ukrainian Institute. Several servant buttons can be found around the interior, sometimes chipped or partly painted over.

Frick mansion, 1919

This servant buttons below were found at the Frick Collection, now a magnificent art museum but once steel magnate Henry Clay Frick’s palazzo-like mansion at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. The Frick family had 27 servants living on the third floor of his mansion, according to the Frick Collection website, and I imagine these buttons were pressed often.

Butler, pantry, housekeeper—I can’t quite make out the rest. The buttons came from the museum’s West Gallery. And no, none of the buttons meant to summon servants worked!

[Third image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

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12 Responses to “Finding the servant call buttons in New York City’s Gilded Age mansions”

  1. Peter Delaunay Says:

    Housekeeper, Valet, Secretary, Pantry, Butler ???

  2. Joel Crisalli Says:

    Peter is spot on.

  3. Michael Leddy Says:

    SEC’Y is one. I’ll guess VALET for the other.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Those both seem to be correct. But what if you wanted to summon the cook or coachman? Maybe the butler did that for you.

  4. Carla Golden Says:

    I agree: Housekeeper, Valet, Secretary, Pantry, and Butler. The image expanded tremendously when I clicked on it and the buttons became easy to read.

  5. Robert Parker Says:

    I need to install some of these, even if they’ll never be hooked up. Page, footman, scullery, YRW (Yeoman of the Removing Wardrobe), etc.

  6. velovixen Says:

    Name me one hotel where you can get that kind of service!

  7. petlover1948 Says:

    my daughter’s Victorian house in Richmond Hill has these buttons; even on the stairs! Of course they no longer work. The house in not large at all

  8. Chris Says:

    Butler. Pantry. Secretary. Valet. Housekeeper.

  9. ironrailsironweights Says:

    All I can think of is Lurch saying “Youuu ranggg?”

  10. None Says:

    Housekeeper, valet and secretary.

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