The 1820s organization formed to improve the character of New York servants

Working as a domestic servant in 19th century New York City had plenty of challenges.

Sure, servants received room and board in addition to their wages, and they usually had at least Sunday afternoon off. But living in another family’s home was isolating and lonely—particularly if you didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to urban life.

The work could be physically difficult, too. Climbing up and down staircases carrying wood or coal for fireplaces, airing out heavy bed linens every morning, wringing wet laundry, and scrubbing pots and pans…day after day, this was true labor.

So it’s hardly surprising that the families who hired servants often had a hard time keeping them. In the late 19th century, the problem of finding and maintaining hard-working, loyal servants was summed up as “the servant question,” or more appropriately, “the servant girl question,” since most maids, cooks, and other servants were overwhelmingly young and female.

Wealthy Gilded Age wives often discussed the servant girl question among themselves. But employers in the early 19th century turned to another resource: a newly formed organization that tried to guide servants to have better character and morals, and to not change families so often.

Called the Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants, this wonderfully named organization officially formed in New York City in 1826. The Society took its inspiration from a similar group in London, known as “The Society for Improving the Character and Usefulness of Domestic Servants,” according to the group’s first annual report.

The name of the London group better sums up much of what the New York chapter was all about. “No one can be ignorant, at least no house-keeper needs to be told, that we are very dependent upon our Domestic Servants for a large share of our daily comforts,” the report began.

“Indeed, it may be safely asserted, that if all the other arrangements and connexions of a family are as happy as fall generally to the lot of humanity, bad Servants are alone sufficient, if not to destroy, at least to mar, much of the calm happiness of domestic life.”

The report called out the tendency of servants to have a “love of incessant change,” in other words, moving on to another servant job or different type of work. “This restlessness of mind, and love of change, is especially true of the young and unwary female servant,” the report stated.

By changing employment, they “become impatient of control, or of advice, negligent of their duty, and, after wandering from place to place, deteriorating at every change, they not infrequently end their days in the miserable haunts of vice.”

The group advised employers how to manage their servants, and they also acted as an employment agency, matching qualified servants to households that needed them. This appears to be a crucial part of the group’s mission, as the “rapid growth of our city” has made it difficult to find enough people willing to do servant work.

[Fourth floor maids’ room at the Merchant House Museum]

They also awarded bonus money to faithful servants—from $3 to $10, depending on how long the servant stayed with their employer. (After one year of faithful service, servants were awarded a bible.)

For such a mission-oriented group, the Society didn’t last very long. By 1830, the organization dissolved, according to Leslie Harris’ In the Shadow of Slavery—noting that the group’s founding in 1826 coincided with the end of slavery in New York in 1827 as well as the first great wave of Irish immigrants, who typically took positions in domestic service.

What took the place of the Society when it came to guide servants and their employers? No one specific organization, it seems. No wonder servant issues escalated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

[Top image: MCNY, 1847: 56.300.1320; second image: Google; third image: MCNY, 1890: 45.335.21]

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11 Responses to “The 1820s organization formed to improve the character of New York servants”

  1. beth Says:

    it must have been a very hard life, and totally understandable why they would leave their employers in hopes of better situations. interesting how they posed the reason as the lack of character in the servants.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, though in that annual report they did make light of how it might be the employer’s fault, they definitely came down hard on the servants themselves. It was a job for people, mostly women, who had few options in the early 19th century.

  2. Ann Haddad Says:

    One of the founders (and its Vice President) of the Society was John Pintard, whose letters to his daughter recount his frequent travails with domestic help in his own household. The letters are available on Internet Archive and HathiTrust and are worth reading, not only for the domestic issues, but because they paint such a vivid picture of the exciting events in growing NYC during the New Republic. Pintard, by the way, coined the oft-quoted description of NYC after the Erie Canal opened, “We are rapidly becoming the London of the New World.”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I found them on Internet Archive and am pouring through the letters now. Thanks so much Ann for referencing them. I love his details about day to day life in a booming NYC, and he has a way with words: he described the streets as “floating with mud” after a rainy day. I can picture that well!

    • mikea0831 Says:

      Thank you Ann

  3. Rob Says:

    That sounds like a tough world to live in.

  4. Karen Bakos Says:

    Can you change my ema

  5. Bill Wolfe Says:

    The servants’ quarters must have been miserable almost all the time: too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Surrounded as they were by the luxuries possessed by their masters, I’m surprised it wasn’t commonplace for servants to steal an expensive item or two, stop at a pawn shop, and then head West for a better life.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Theft was always a risk. But remember, many of these servants were teenage girls who came to the US to send money back to their impoverished families in the Old World. With few other work opportunities for women at the time, I suspect many felt duty-bound to stay in the service, as they called it.

  6. mikea0831 Says:

    Great article. It must have been a lonely life so far from home. The race issues probably heightened that sense of estrangement. Thx

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