Cheating Valets and Tricks of the Trade

Among the household domestics who employers claimed tricked and gouged them were valets. Cheating valets accomplished such tricks due to an unspoken rule that household domestics could supplement their incomes indirectly from their employers. This was also reflected in what writers claimed about servants in general in the 1800s. For instance, one writer noted in the early 1830s that the moral character of household servants had declined, a nineteenth-century nobleman decried that “there is not such an animal in nature as an honest servant.”[1], and an article on household servants maintained that the “whole life of a servant in great families is spent in chicanery, hypocrisy, and trickery.”[2]

French Valet and English Lackey by Thomas Rowlandson, cheating valets

French valet and English lackey by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

All sorts of people had valets because they were deemed valuable by many gentlemen. Napoleon Bonaparte‘s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, was appointed in 1814 after the Emperor’s other valet, Louis Constant Wairy, deserted him. Marchand could not have been a more dedicated, loyal servant because even when Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, Marchand went with and remained there until the Emperor died.


Louis-Joseph Marchand by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One reasons people like Napoleon had a valet was because of the duties such servants performed. Valets were always in attendance for their masters and regularly provided for their needs and comfort. They were also in charge of their master’s wardrobe, attended him while he dressed and undressed, and prepared and selected clothing for journeys. Supposedly therefore:

“The whimsicalities and extravagances of many masters in high life, together with the total absences of thoughtfulness in some young men of fortune, [throws] wide a door … for the exercise of the tricks and impositions of this species of servant [the valet].”[3]

Because of a valet’s tasks, if he wanted to cheat his master there were several tricks he could employ. One was to complain to those they patronized — tailors, bootmakers, milliners, laundresses, and so forth — about the exorbitant amounts they charged for their services. At the same time valets would get their masters to pay as much as possible, which then allowed valets to cheat and pocket the difference. Another trick used by valets who wanted to cheat was to convince those they patronized of their importance. Valets accomplished this by claiming that their masters were fanatical and impossible to please. They also claimed that because of their (the valet’s) influence, they were able to keep patronizing the less than perfect shop owner, and therefore shop owners hearing such claims granted them discounts, concessions, or allowances that financially benefited the cheating valet.

Masters who were careless about their wardrobes were also taken advantage of by cheating valets. For instance, if a master ripped a shirt or somehow damaged their trousers, valets might tell them they were irreparable. Moreover, some valets were known to “commit sad depredations on the wardrobe.”[4] These depredations allowed them to acquire articles that they could keep for themselves. However, sometimes cheating valets created friendships with wardrobe dealers, who would then purchase whatever they brought and wanted to sale.

There were also many other tricks cheating valets could use to acquire wardrobe items from their employers. These tricks included:

  • Hiding articles until they were forgotten and then appropriating them for their own use.
  • Mislaying shirts on purpose and declaring they were lost by the laundress.
  • Tearing down backs or pulling off strings from waistcoats to give them appearance of being old and in need of replacement.
  • Using pumice stones on trouser seams to make them appear shabby and old.
  • Burning small holes in the upper leather of footwear so that it would no longer be worn.
  • Scraping edges of collars or cuffs with knives so shirts appeared old when all that was needed was a new collar or wristband.
  • Misplacing pocket handkerchiefs, gloves, canes, umbrellas, and other accessories.

Depredation of clothing and other tricks were not the only methods cheating valets used to benefit themselves. When traveling with their masters, they often had “an eye to the little pickings-up on the road.”[5] Traveling allowed money to freely flow from their master’s hand to theirs and wherever possible they overcharged their master. Another trick was to empty the snuff-box by half each night, pour that half it into a container, and when the container was full return it to the tobacconist for a refund.

One way that cheating valets could easily take advantage of their masters was if a master became infatuated. It was particularly advantageous to valets who were lucky enough to have a lovesick master. These masters “recollected nothing” about what purchases were made by the valet in the way of gifts, candies, or flowers and underhanded valets could easily overcharge their masters and pocket the extra money without their masters being the wiser.

“Le valétudinaire,” a hand-colored etching published in November 1814 that is a satire of an elderly man with a bandaged leg being supported on the arm of his valet, who is also carrying his lap-dog. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Cheating valets also acquired extra money in an indirect fashion. This was accomplished by padding the laundry bill. This was a favorite of theirs because they could over time regularly increase the bill by as much as 25 percent. It was estimated in the early 1830s that through overcharges, a cunning valet could earn upwards of 1000l. annually. They accomplished this by determining what amount they thought could pass without notice by their master and then increased “charges about 2s. 6d. on every 10s., or more.”[6] Such minor amounts often went unnoticed, and, in fact, one valet was so adept at padding the laundress’s bill it was declared that “in a short time, without any apparent means, [he became] … the proprietor of a first-rate and topping hotel.”[7]

Another way that cheating valets obtained money was the custom of paying servants indirectly. Some people claimed it just further encouraged them to snatch whatever was in their reach as “the whole of their masters’ property they are taught to consider as flotson, when it conveniently comes within their grasp.”[8] The solution suggested was to confine valets to their duties and encourage them to be satisfied with their pay. “If this can be accomplished,” claimed one nineteenth-century gentleman, “there is no reason why servants should not be as honest and moral a class as any other.”[9]


  • [1] Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. 8, 1833, p. 712.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 716.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 713.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 716.
  • [9] Ibid.

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