Thursday, August 13, 2015

Finally A Guide to Becoming a Perfect Maid!

As I've stated before, I am a big fan of Victorian-era etiquette and household management manuals. There are many such books that can be found online and some of them allow us to understand better what life was really like for a servant back in the day. And I am not even talking about the many daunting duties performed without the help of modern appliances such as a vacuum cleaner or a diswasher. There existed a great divide between a mistress and her maid - in manners, in speech, in dress, in life aspirations - and these guidebooks often played an important role in securing these divisions by making sure that each side was fully aware of their different stations in life and acted accordingly.

There is no shortage of books addressed to the lady or the housekeeper, but a book whose primary reader is supposed to be a maid is hard to find. It was therefore with great pleasure that I discovered this 1859 gem titled "The servant's behaviour book or hints on manners and dress for maid servants in small households". The author, "Mrs. Motherly", refers to her readers throughout as "my dear girls", leaving little doubt that the book is addressed to a young woman aspiring to become a good maidservant. Upon reading the book and remembering its many lessons a girl will emerge as a "well-behaved and agreeable servant'', making it far more likely for her to secure a better position as her domestic career advances. Who knows, may be with time she will even become a lady's maid at one of London's aristocratic mansions! Oh, the excitement!

This short book contains a traditional list of behavior tips that can be found in many such books. They can be summarized as follows:

- never let your voice be heard unless absolutely necessary
- never be the first to address your mistress unless to deliver a message
- never talk to another servant or to a child in the presence of your mistress
- never talk to another servant or a person of your rank "in a passage or hall, a staircase of any such place", never talk to friends or tradesmen at street doors
- never call from one room to another
- always answer when given an order with an acknowledgement
- never speak to your betters without saying "sir", "miss" or "ma'am", even when talking to children (assuming they are old and well-behaved enough); the elder baby is "master" or "miss" when spoken about
- always move gently, never run up and down stairs
- always stand still and keep your hands before you or at your sides when spoken to
- always stand up when a lady or a gentleman enter  room where you are
- when walking with a lady or a genteman always keep a few paces behind
- in opening the door always make sure you are neat
- if you meet your master's family on the street do nothing unless you meet the eye - you should then make a bow or a small curtsey - never smile or nod
- never sing at work
- never take a small thing in your hand to a room - always use a small tray

One segment in the book that I found most interesting is where the author explains why a mistress and maid will have very little in common by comparing servant classes to children:

Ladies have been educated in a very different manner to you. They have read many books, have travelled and seen many sights, talked with educated people, and know a great number of things about which you know nothing. It is not likely that you can have anything to say that will amuse or interest a lady. When she talks to you, it is in kindness, and all the pleasure of the talk is on your side. She talks down to your understanding and knowledge, as you do to the understanding and knowledge of a young child, who does not know a hundredth part of what you know. Were you to listen to the conversation of your mistress with her friends, it would often be very dull to you, because the talk would be of books, people, and events of which you have never heard, and would consist of many words you would not understand. Just as their conversation would be dull to you from its cleverness, so is yours dull to your mistress from its simplicity.

There is sometimes a mistress rich but ill educated. Such a mistress is almost sure to make companions of her servants, because her knowledge and ideas are nearer on a level with theirs. But a sensible girl will with just cause respect most, and like best to serve, the lady whose superior knowledge puts a natural barrier between them. In any case, a servant must rank below her mistress. How much more pleasant it is to give place to one who is really, and at all times, your superior, than to a natural equal, raised by the accident of possessing more money! It then follows, that the lady who always feels and observes a difference between herself and her servants, puts more dignity on them than the mistress who will allow full familiarity, except in the presence of strangers.

And last, but not least, no working girl should ever try to dress above her station:

A gaudily-dressed servant looks, at best, like a coarse and vulgar lady; for with all the fine ribbons and gay colours that London can produce, a girl cannot whiten or soften the skin of her hands, or make her movements as graceful as those of a finished lady. Her fine and unsuitable dress only causes people to notice these deficiencies, because it is unusual to see fine dress, and coarse hands; flounces and bows, with an awkward walk.

But a neatly dressed girl, with clear-starched sleeves and glossy hair, though a hundred times more attractive than the gaudy one, does not draw attention to the natural distinctions between a hard-working woman and a lady, because there is nothing in her appearance to make us forget her station, and expect the qualities that do not belong to it. A servant girl need never be ashamed of her good useful hands, made red by honest labour, unless she has so clothed her arms, that they seem to deny her position, and contradict the notion of her having hard work to do.

With such attitudes among the upper classes it is no wonder it wasn't long before it became really, really hard to find good help!


  1. Lets hope Mrs Motherly becomes the subject of one of your swaps.

    1. Yes, arrogant upper class ladies make excellent maids!