Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age New York City’

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

January 23, 2022

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]