Edwardian Servants

My summer beach read was Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Allison Maloney, and it is a glimpse into a different world.

I brought this book, a gift from a family member, on my California beach vacation.  By coincidence, my hotel room offered these TV shows for a fee, listed like this:

  • Children’s shows
  • Recently broadcast shows
  • Downton Abbey

That was all.  Really, what’s better than Downton Abbey?

I watched Lady Edith’s wedding again, the servants smiling from the pews as she walked down the aisle. According to Life Below Stairs, servants going to church seated themselves in order of their status.  A class society, Edwardian England had large homes with a strict pecking order downstairs – and peck they did.

What about those spiffy uniforms the maids wore?  Their handsome dark dresses, ruffled white aprons and little caps?  I’d assumed that employers supplied them, and I had wondered whether the cost of the uniforms was taken from the wages of these women and girls.  Answer:  neither.  Desperately poor families and their daughters worked and saved to buy these, so the girl could become a maid and earn a tiny salary and three hearty meals a day.  This last is key.

Before the invention of our modern labor-saving appliances, ordinary housewives needed help, and many kept a servant or two.

English Cottage
image credit: 123RF.com, #18928567

Large houses required a few dozen servants or more, including the outdoor staff, and so servants had companions in each other.

Chatsworth House © David Hughes/123RF.com

With so many people under the same roof, I think there would be more drama than in our homes, even though the servants tried to be unobtrusive and give their employers as calm a home as possible.  That’s something to think about as we wash our own dishes – at least we have peace.

Life Below Stairs:  True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Allison Maloney (St. Martin’s Press) is an interesting, entertaining book detailing a lost world.

Check back next Monday for a very different home — photos of a Wyoming log cabin and what it tells us about life back then.


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