Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In Cap and Apron: A Real Story of Going Undercover as a Victorian Maid

It is no secret that Victorians were fascinated by domestic servants. It was a forbidden, yet incredibly appealing world that was studied and observed by the upper classes much like the ethnographers in the period were studying native tribes in Africa or the Americas. And just like the best way to understand a foreign culture was working in the field, often for an extended period of time and, not infriquently, completely going native and embracing that culture as your own, the best way to undersand what it meant to be a servant was becoming one, joining the working classes.

One such student of the working classes was Elizabeth L. Banks, an American journalist, who spent most of her adult life in England. She wrote extensively on lives of poor women - maids, washerwomen, street sweeps, flower girls - and built her career as a critic of Victorian-era British class society. Her method was going undercover among the low classes to investigate their living conditions, habits and opinions, creating a sensation in 1890s London as one of the pioneers of stunt journalism. Her adventures in disguise often led to hilarious, clash-of-cultures results, but also offered a unique look into the lives of the late Victorian working classes. Banks first published her detailed accout of life as a domestic servant, appropriately called In Cap and Apron, in the Weekly Sun in 1893. It was republished in full the following year as part of her collection titled  Campaigns of curiosity, which also included her impersonating an American heiress seeking to marry an English lord and a Covent Garden flower girl.

I strongly recommend In Cap and Apron to anyone interested in lady-to-maid transformation stories. It is, for the most part, light-hearted and occasionally pretty funny, but I couldn't  help but think there was a strong fetishistic streak in Ms. Banks if she decided to don a maid's uniform so willlingly. Or maybe it's my own fetishistic mind playing games with me. You can read the full thing in various formats here, but I've copied some of the scenes and descriptions I found most enjoyable below.

I began to wonder if there really could be anything terrible connected with domestic service which should make these poor girls so shrink from it. For myself, I knew little or nothing about housework, but the belief that there was nothing incompatible  between gentility and domestic work had always been a hobby of mine. Why could not a refined English girl wash dishes, make beds, and roast a leg of mutton just as well as a member of the lower classes? Wherein would she demean herself by doing this work and receiving wages for the same?

But there were the caps and aprons. Could an educated girl wear them without diminishing her self-respect? Why was not a housemaid's cap just as respectable as that worn by a "lady nurse"? For my own part, I had always insisted that no Paris milliner could manufacture any headgear more becoming to the majority of women than the white ruffled cap of the domestic servant employed by members of the upper classes. A pretty maid, to my mind, was much prettier with a cap than without one, while the face of an ugly girl was also improved by it.But these "slavery badges," I was told, were not the only bugbears of the servant-girl.


On the morning of Friday, September 1, I started out in answer to some of the appointments made for that day. My first call was on a Miss Martin, who was at the head of what she described as a "high-class private hotel " in Mayfair. The man-servant who admitted me, asked me into the drawing-room, but, realising that henceforth I could no longer lay claim to the title of "young lady," but must consider myself only in the light of a "young person," I thought perhaps it would be better for me to remain in the hall, so I sat down on the hat-rack in orthodox servant-girl fashion, and tried to compose myself for the interview.


From Mayfair I went to Grosvenor Square, and met a most formidable-looking lady of the house. She did not ask me to sit down, but commenced at once to read me off a list of the duties to be performed by the parlourmaid, when, suddenly giving me a very scrutinising look, she advanced towards me, and lifting her hand warningly, ejaculated, " No fringe allowed !"
I sprang back, and instinctively put my hand to my forehead as a protection, fearing she might brandish a pair of scissors before me and barber me then and there. I had entirely overlooked the fact that many servants were not allowed to wear a fringe.


I was to rise at six in the morning, and my' first duty was to shake and brush Mr. Allison's trousers, which I would find hanging on the doorknob outside his room. I was about to inform Mrs. Allison that I did not engage as a valet, arid was not up in the art of brushing trousers, when I suddenly remembered that I was not a " young lady "now, but a "young person," expected to do with her might whatever her hands found to do. Did not the motto in my bedroom so inform me ? I made no remarks, and listened for the second duty, which was to brush Mrs. Allison's dress and carry all the boots to the kitchen for Annie to polish. I was glad of the latter clause, for, had I been told to shine the boots; I think I should have despaired. Afterwards I would sweep and dust four flights of stairs and five halls, clean up and dust the study and drawing-rooms, and carry a can of hot water to each person, knocking on the door to wake him or her up. I concluded that when I had accomplished all these things, I should have done a good day's work ; but were my ears deceiving me ? What was Mrs. Allison saying?

"Then you may eat your breakfast! "

So I was to achieve all those Herculean feats on an empty stomach! Well, if that was the case, I certainly
ought to be able to perform wonders after I had breakfasted.

Mrs. Allison continued with her list, never noting  my perturbed countenance.

"After you have breakfasted, Lizzie, you must help Annie with the dishes, then make the beds, clean up the washstands, fill the water-jugs, sweep and dust the bedrooms, attend to the candlesticks, and put everything in perfect order in the sitting-rooms. You will get this done by eleven o'clock." (On that point I was tempted to contradict her flatly, but I knew discretion was the better part of valour, and preserved silence.) "From eleven till three," went on my mistress, "you will turn out one or two of the rooms and eat your dinner in the meantime. At four o'clock I want you to be dressed with clean cap and apron. Then you will get the servants' afternoon tea and clear it away, and you can fill up the time until supper with needlework."

After supper I was to make the round of the rooms again and sew until a quarter-past ten. Then I might go to bed, a consummation devoutly to be wished for!

After hearing the "list," I bowed politely to Mrs.Allison, said, "Very well, ma'am," and joined Annie
in the kitchen. She greeted me with a fiendish grin, and said, "Did she say anything about the scrubbing?"
"Scrubbing! Must I scrub?" I almost shrieked.

"You'll think so, when you get at it! Why, you have to scrub a bedroom all over every day, and sometimes two ! You see, you must turn out a room each day, and there's no carpet on the bedrooms; only a narrow rug before the bed. On turning out day, you must shake the rug and scrub up the floor and the paint. It do make your hands and arms ache, I tell you. It's too bad you took such a hard place for your first time in service!"

She said this rather pityingly. No wonder ! I pitied myself. It was ten o'clock.

"Come," said I, "let us go to bed. I'm so tired!"

Annie laughed.
"Well, you're a greeny, sure enough! When you're in service, you can't go to bed when you like. Master Tom is out, and hasn't a key. We'll have to let him in. You might do some needlework while we're waiting."


  1. An appreciative readerSeptember 27, 2016 at 6:20 PM

    Wow that was an interesting read and a great source of research! Truth not that far from some of the fiction on this site, although unlike our noble heroines, I am guessing Elizabeth Banks escaped this world. From what I read from the attached Wikipedia link I like this woman.

    Thanks for the post, I and I am sure many others would be fascinated to read more :)

    1. Thank you very much, I am glad you liked it. There is actually a whole subgenre of Victorian ladies "going undercover" to tell the real story of how the working classes live, often with a reformist agenda. I'll probably devote another post to other prominent examples if there is indeed interest in it.

    2. Heh, and naturally, a reform-minded young, er, person might find herself found out and in short order be blackmailed into remaining in service, never to return to her former life and her abandoned crusade....

  2. Indeed. Going undercover and then stuck there is one of my most favorite plots. Possibilities are endless.

  3. Firstly thank you for the link to this book, after a few difficulties I managed to transfer it to my Kindle. Although I have only just "dipped" into it I found it interesting that Banks wrote that even the face of an ugly girl was improved with a cap. Also that the Housemaids cap was not as respectable as one worn by a "lady nurse" says a lot about the regard for the poor maid.

    1. You are very welcome, I hope you like it. There is something about wearing caps in particular that women of the period found degrading. Other than maids or nurses only little girls or old ladies wore something approximating a cap so it must have been associated with being either dependant or competely unfashionable. Miss Million's Maid (1915), a classic lady-to-maid/maid-to-lady novel, devotes some time to this as well as former maid, now a lady, talks to her former mistress, about to become her maid:

      "We'll do a little shopping for me, now," I decided, when we left that hat-shop divinity with three new creations to pack up for Miss Million at the Cecil. I said: "I'm tired of people not knowing exactly what I am. I'm going to choose a really 'finished' kit for a superior lady's-maid, so that everybody shall recognise my 'walk in life' at the first glance!"

      "Miss! Oh, Miss Beatrice, you can't," protested Million, in shocked tones. "You're never going to wear—livery, like?"

      "I am," I declared. "A plain black gown, very perfectly cut, an exquisite muslin apron with a little bib, and a cap like——"

      "Miss! You can't wear a cap," declared little Million, standing stock still at the top of Bond Street and gazing at me as if I had planned the subversion of all law and order and fitness. "All very well for you to come and help me, as you might say, just to oblige, and to be a sort of companion to me and to call yourself my maid. But I never, never bargained for you, Miss Beatrice, to go about wearing no caps! Why, there's plenty of young girls in my own walk of life—I mean in what used to be my own walk! Plenty of young girls who wouldn't dream of being found drowned in such a thing as a cap! Looks so menial, they said. Several of the girls at the Orphanage said they'd never put such a thing on their heads once they got away. And a lady's-maid, well, 'tisn't even the same as a parlour-maid! And you with such a nice head of hair of your own, Miss Beatrice!" Million expostulated with almost tearful incoherence. "A reel lady's-maid isn't required to wear a cap, even if she does slip on an apron!"

      "You shut up," I gaily commanded the employer upon whom I now depend for my daily bread. "I am going to wear a cap. And to look rather sweet in it."

    2. I just found "Miss Million's Maid" on the Gutenberg Project which was free so another book to read. Regarding the caps my wife did some research into wearing nurses caps and the general feeling was that they helped to perpetuate the "handmaiden" status which was instrumental in staff not wearing them. Personally I like the addition of the cap as it does add something extra to the wearer's face

    3. I've just finished "Miss Million's Maid" so much better that "Caps and Apron" I liked that it was bout the role reversal rather than humiliation, the part that was perhaps quite sad was that because of the date, early 1914 you knew that the crazy lifestyle would soon come crashing down and I couldn't help feeling sorry for the characters. It's certainly worth reading just for a glimps not the period.

    4. Yes, I love that novel. I think it did miss a few perfect opportunities to go deeper into the whole lady/maid swap storyline, but overall it's a unique document of a life long gone, as you've mentioned. Even the old-fashioned racism/jingoism about unstrustworthy and cunning Jews and Germans don't ruin that.

    5. The comments about Rattenheimer did make me smile but as you say when seen within the context of the time it didn't spole the story. I went to a production of "The Orchid" a George Edwardes Edwardian musical comedy and there was some discussion about "cleaning it up" to prevent offence but thankfully the view was that it reflected the era so shouldn't be altered.

  4. I've just finished "Caps and Aprons" which I enjoyed, but, there's usually a but, although it was well written and her conclusions sound she lost some credibility by only working as a maid for two weeks, I'm not convinced that anyone could grasp the roll and shear hard work in such a short time. It was interesting that young women would rather have their freedom and work harder for less money than accept the uniform and become a maid. That said it was worth reading if only for the American perspective.

    1. Yes, I agree. As an American, Ms.Banks was clearly fascinated with the social structure of Victorian England. Obviously 2 weeks is hardly enough to get real taste of life as a domestic servant and, most likely, much of her exploits are either fabrications or exaggerations, but I still think this book is a very interesting glimpse into the world long gone.

    2. It has been interesting so far and I will certainly finish the rest. She did say that she interviewed several people so perhaps she "added" to her experience through them.