It All Comes Out in the Wash

My maternal great-grandmother, Mary, never learned to read, write, or speak English. According to U.S. census records (which I looked at using the library’s subscription to Ancestry), she did laundry for a living after coming to America from Serbia; I’m guessing her teenage son, my great-uncle Steven (whose English was just fine), helped her out a great deal. Great-grandma passed away when I was nine or ten, and my grandmother has since passed on, too, so hopefully my mom will be able to help me fill in some of my knowledge gaps on this point.

Over on my father’s side of the family, my great-grandfather William’s household included a servant (again, according to the census), a seventeen-year-old girl named Ellen*. Given that William’s occupation was listed as “farmer” in the 1880 census, I was a little surprised to find that, by 1900, he’d moved into the city and acquired household help. What was up with that, I wonder? A mystery to solve! And another great reason to call home and talk to dad.

I have Marilyn Cocchiola Holt to thank for starting me down the genealogy road. I haven’t made much more progress with my family tree, though, because after learning about my relatives’ personal history with service and servants, I’m kind of fixated on the topic, which has influenced my reading choices lately. Two of the books I checked out recently made for an interesting fact/fiction pairing.

servantsLucy Lethbridge  delivers an extensive look at the people most of us think of when the topic of service comes up: the British. Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times delivers just that: a meticulous look at what life was really like for the men and women who washed, cooked, scrubbed, and served the landed gentry and, later, their less formal descendants. Quoting extensively from former servants and documents written by those in service, she paints a picture of a highly contradictory life. While going into service could save you from abject poverty in a large family, it also meant giving up a lot of your personal freedom, with no guarantee that you’d be taken care of when you were sick or old, as the respect and benefits employers showed their staff varied widely from household to household.

The effects of two world wars, labor-saving technologies, and the availability of other work took their toll on service as a profession, and Lethbridge’s detailed description of how those social factors played out makes for fascinating reading. Every few paragraphs or so I would make some kind of surprised noise, because there were just so much going on that we Americans just didn’t know about… though many servants were happy to work for American employers post-WWII (apparently we paid better) in spite of our horrid manners. And Lethbridge probably could have written two separate books on the influx of Jewish refugees pre-WWII, on domestic labor visas, or the increased use of foreign household laborers.

While I was reading Servants, Jo Baker’s novel,  Longbourn, popped up on my pick-up shelf. I put everything else aside and dived longbournright in, based solely on the premise: while the Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice were upstairs trying to get married, the staff of their father’s estate had problems and concerns of their own. From the perspective of Sarah, the housemaid, Baker spins a tale of hard knocks and straight-jacketed circumstances, to say nothing of backbreaking work. Laundry, in particular, is Sarah’s bugbear, as it leads to cracked hands and resentment.  The story touches lightly on the main plot points of Austen’s original novel–Jane’s love for Bingley, Lydia’s flight with Wickham, etc.–while illuminating Sarah’s longing for a better life than she has, and the love triangle options that may–or may not–allow that to happen. Baker also takes some liberties with Austen’s established characters to make commentary on some of the nineteenth-century’s more unsavory characteristics (the horrors of war, to name just one). On the whole,  Longbourn does for Austen what Wide Sargasso Sea did for Bronte: highlights the unpleasant truth that upper-class women’s narratives are frequently supported by silent, invisible narratives of women with few resources, and virtually no voice.

Other books from our collection that explore the lives–fictional and factual–of servants include:

Serving Women: Household Servants in Nineteenth Century America

Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap

The Remains of the Day

The Book of Salt

A Life Less Ordinary

Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England From Victorian Times

From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature

I’ll never look at Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey quite the same way ever again**, that’s for sure. Are you an amateur, armchair, or hard-core genealogist? Have you learned anything interesting in your research that sent you off onto another topic entirely?

–Leigh Anne

who definitely counts her washer and dryer amongst her blessings

*Possibly “Ella.” Whoever scanned in the record gave both options, as the handwriting was somewhat unclear. Her birth date was given as 1882, but she was listed in the 1900 census as being 47 years old, which is impossible, unless her birth year was recorded incorrectly as well. I’m researching both options.

**Obviously England and America’s experiences of servitude were very different, and the unpleasant question of slavery makes for a whole separate post. Still, representation-wise, the most visible face of the servant is still white and British, which in and of itself begs for more reading and research as to why.


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7 responses to “It All Comes Out in the Wash

  1. I have gained so much knowledge of history form my genealogy endeavors. To answer your question, yes I have been side tracked many times, but as a result learning so much more than just names and dates.

  2. Thanks for those book recommendations on servants in the past, I have been curious about that subject since I had looked at the city census and discovered 4 Irish servants lived in this 3rd floor at the turn of the century. Such a different world back then.

  3. Interesting post, Leigh Anne. Thanks for sharing your fun journey!

  4. Sarah Louise

    Well, I *understood* Longbourn, unlike Wide Sargasso Sea.

    I would add “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett to your book list. As someone who had live-in help as a child, books about servants always interest me, and “The Help” does a good job of looking at both sides, the side of the employers *and* the employed. The relationships are always complex, and if you are lucky, there’s always a little bit of love.


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