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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Servants of the Great House

I love history. Not the history of when this war was fought or why that date is important, but rather, the history of the common person. After all, very few of us will ever have our names on marques but that doesn’t mean that each and every one of us isn’t important. My interest in history has always been from the perspective of, “what would my life been like if I lived back in (fill in the blank)?

Recently I’ve become enamored with the lives of servants from the last century. While many people may love shows such as “Downton Abbey” or “The Buccaneers” , the fact is that very few of us would have ever lived that lives. Most of us take for granted that three times a day we’ll have a meal and at the end of the day we’ll return home. This was not a certainty for many of our predecessors. A good many in the English society of the 19th century were desperately poor and while a life in service was backbreaking work, it was work and one that offered three meals in one’s belly and a roof over one’s head. So, the poor would cart their daughters and sometimes their sons to the homes of the wealthy or sometimes the middle class to ensure a better life that what they could provide.

“In 1891 there was nearly one and a half million men and women, boys and girls, employed in private households”, cites Frank Dawes in his book, “Not in Front of the Servants” but “by 1921 the number was down to 1,232,046 a decrease of 82,000 people”. The First World War and a better education which provided the poor a means to more media access widened the job market for women especially. By the Second World War the economic landscape had leveled out and few desired to return to the world of being a servant.

PBS’ manor house ( brought modern day people into the realm of this era… some as “The Family” and the majority as the servants, both the “Upper Ten” and the “Lower Ten”. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it. You’ll learn things you never thought about. Remember when Cinderella’s sisters call her “a scullery from the kitchen” in Disney’s rendition? Did you have any idea what that was or why that may have been demeaning? The scullery was the person that washed ALL the dishes from the house, and at that point, there was no concern about her “dishpan hands”. Also, it brings you to a different perspective. While there are rich and poor in America to be certain, few of us ever consider that another person is better than us just because they have more money (It could be argued that today’s currency is “Fame”. Our society being the “Cult of Personality”).  But a hundred years ago there was no thought about this in England. It was just taken for granted that your employers were your betters. The rising middle class were the worst in this snobbery trying to emulate established wealthy families.

So if you were a one of the “Lower Ten” or a “Maid of All Work (see Channel 4’s “1900 House” what would your day have been like?

According to Dawes’ research, you would have awoken in an unheated attic around 4:45am. Depending upon your job, you may have to lay fires for the home, prep the cook’s table (Margaret Powell states she started this way in “Life Below Stairs) and then scrub the uneven floor of the kitchen with very caustic soap on your hands and knees. Then maybe clean the knob of the front door, wash the outside stairs and be back in the kitchen to serve the servant’s breakfast, cleaning up afterward. Then more work and lunch and supper to prep for. Your day started this early and may not end until after midnight. For all this work, you may receive 9 pounds or about 18 dollars (US) a YEAR.

Even with this hard work Dawes received hundreds of letters from former servants back in 1972 in which they were very nostalgic for their past lives.

To honor those sometimes nameless, hardworking people I attempted a furniture cream recipe I found. In using this I found it  better to clean the furniture than polish per se.  Dawes relates that the staff general had to make their own cleaning agents as employers rarely provided them.

    “.. servants had to make their own cleaning materials- silver sand and vinegar for scouring copper pots, melted beeswax and turpentine for polishing the floors, furniture polish from linseed oil, methylated spirits, turpentine and white wax…”

Furniture Polish           

4 oz beeswax                          
16 fl oz turpentine
2 ½ cups herbal tea, strained
1 oz soap flakes (I grated a bar of Fels Napa available where the laundry detergent is found in the grocery store).
1 tsp your favorite essential oil (I used Lavender although Sandalwood would have been wonderful).

Now I’m going to suggest a change of procedure from the recipe due to my concern with heating a solvent which clearly states that is flammable. I did this originally and as I did this, realized that this could be very dangerous. While nothing did happen, learn from my mistake.

Melt the wax in a candle melting pot until liquid. Add to this carefully to your turpentine (in another container) and your essential oils. In another pot, place your tea and soap flakes and heat until soap is dissolved. Remove from heat and add your wax/turpentine mixture  to the soap mixture and then stir to combine.Stir to a thickened consistency like mayonnaise. Pour into jars and leave until cool. Cover it and wait about one week.To use, rub the cream into the furniture with one rag and buff off with another.
For a bit of fun see who you may have been living or working in a “Great House”.


1 comment:

  1. I love making my own cleaners! Love this:) One question though...where do you buy turpentine? Thanks for sharing this with us at the Teach Me Tuesday Linky Party! I love it when others "Teach Me" new things!