Footmen: Opening Doors in the 1700 and 1800s

During the Georgian era many aristocrats had at least one footman. This included such aristocrats as Madame Récamier, the Duchess of Devonshire, Eliza de Feuillide‘s godfather Warren Hastings, the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, and the 7th Earl of Elgin who brought the Elgin Marbles back to England. One job of a footman was to open the door and announce names, and this task began when someone knocked at the door. If for some reason a footman was unavailable to answer the door, he was to arrange with a fellow servant to perform the task because it was considered improper and unpleasant to keep someone waiting. Footmen were therefore advised:

“A little time is of great consequence to some persons, and particularly to tradespeople who may have another appointment to attend to; consider also that whenever you delay unnecessarily going to the door, or answering the bell, you are off your duty and culpable for being so.”[1]


Footman. Author’s collection.

If a double knock occurred at the street door, the footman was to inquiry as to who was on the other side of the door. However, before doing so, the footman was to have already inquired within the family whether they were willing to see anyone. If they were willing to see someone, there was to be no confusion when the footman asked the question as to who was at the door. When opening the street door to a visitor, the door was to be thrown wide open but not so wide or hard as to damage the door handle or the wall. The footman was then to stand with the door open at the sill of the door and receive the visitor or answer any message delivered.

If a visitor was allowed entrance, the visitor was to be shown to the proper room. During the winter, footmen were advised to ensure visitors were placed near the fireplace so that they could warm themselves. If the family was not present in the room, the footman was to immediately notify the family. If visitors were seen in the parlor, the street door was not shut until all visitors were introduced to the family, then the footman went back and shut the door. If there were two male servants, one servant opened the door and the other servant announced each visitor’s name and conducted the visitor to a chair.

When announcing visitor’s names, it was to be done in an audible voice. Proper pronunciation was also important. Footmen were told that “if you do not rightly understand it [the name], ask a second time rather than make a blunder in giving … a wrong one.”[2]


Footman. Public domain.

When the master or mistress rang the bell to escort a visitor out, the footman was to let the visitor out by opening the street door wide. The footman was not to shut the door until the visitor had completely withdrawn from the door because to “shut the door whilst they are still in the front of it, is disrespectful and a breach of good manners.”[3]

If a double knock occurred at night and the family was not expecting company, the footman was never to open the door wide. Rather he was advised to use the safety chain and open the door only wide enough to see who was knocking. This was because thieves, known as rushers, sometimes knocked on the doors of London’s great houses when families were out of town, and when the door was opened by the staff, rushers rushed in and robbed the house and its occupants by force. However, if company was expected, whether it was day or night, the door was to be opened as wide as possible so that visitors had plenty of room to enter without being hindered.

Footmen were also advised to always have paper and pencil or pen on hand in case a visitor wanted to leave a written message. Moreover, footmen were warned:

“[N]ever suffer any lady or gentleman (who may come with a double knock), if you do not know them, to be left alone, or to go into any of the rooms under any pretence whatever, unless you stop the whole time with them.”[4]

Another warning given footmen involved visitors who gave a double knock and pretended to know the family or a single lady. This was because single ladies, and even families, were sometimes robbed or ill-treated by people pretending to know them. Such a situation sometimes occurred when a single lady’s relatives were abroad, and someone learned of their absence and pretended to know the family’s situation. The warning given was this:

“If it is a person you do not know, and your lady is at home, you can do no less than show him into the room where she sees her company: if she is in the room when you announce his name, you can judge whether she knows him or not, by her manner of receiving him; if you cannot, wait at the outside of the door till you hear whether they begin to converse together as if they were acquainted; if they do, of course you will go away directly; but if not, wait at the door till the stranger departs. You can let your lady know that you are near the door by coughing, if she has not given you directions how to act on such occasions.”[5]


Satirical print titled “Directions to Footman.” Published in 1807. Courtesy of British Museum.

When a special event or party was planned, the rules for receiving guests was a little different. It was beneficial for footmen to have a list of all the names of the guests beforehand. This way they could review the list and read each name to ensure proper pronunciation would occur as guests were announced. There might also be several servants ready to receive guests. For instance, if six servants were available for a party or special occasion, two took up refreshments and the other four performed in the following way:

“[L]et one person be at the drawing-room door to announce the names to the lady or gentleman who stands there to receive them; let another stand at the bottom of the staircase to announce them to the one who stands at the drawing-room door, and the one who opens the street-door must announce them to the one who stands at the bottom of the staircase; let the other one stand in the hall, but not attempt to announce, for it too often happens, the more persons are in the hall to receive the company, the great the confusion is, for they perplex each other.”[6]

If ten servants were available to receive company, then three announced the names and the remaining servants stood in the hall for show. In addition, servants waiting in the hall were not to make any noise or remark on the company entering and leaving. It was forbidden, and if a servant would not desist, the servant was to be “turned out.” Servants in the hall were also not to obstruct company from entering or leaving a room, and they were to conduct themselves properly. If seats were available, particularly if the weather was bad or the event long lasting, it was proper to allow servants to be seated as this would help keep them quiet.

Attending a party. Author’s collection.

When a party occurred, confusion could sometimes occur if a guest was announced and the person then went into a room to take off his or her cloak or adjust a piece of clothing. If that happened, the servant tasked to stand at the bottom of the staircase was to be on the lookout and not give up the person’s name until he or she exited the room. Furthermore, at the end of a party, the same rules applied for the exiting of guests as when the guests entered the house.

“The person who stands at the drawing-room door must announce the names as they come down, to the person who stands at the bottom of the staircase, for him to call the servant who is waiting, that he may have the carriage … ready; if he is not in the hall, let the person who stands to open the street-door call aloud for the servant, but he ought not to go further, as every one should be at his post when the company are going out, and the servants who come for their families ought to be within call.”[7]


  • [1] Cosnett, Thomas, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Rememberancer; or, The Advice of Onesimus to His Young Friends, 1825, p. 173.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 175.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 174.

  • [4] Ibid. p. 175.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 126.
  • [7] Ibid. p. 128.

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