One writer in the early 1830s believed that the moral character of household servants had declined. He claimed that servants had an unspoken rule whereby they could supplement their incomes indirectly from their employers and that household domestics took advantage of the situation. One way was by using various tricks to regularly gouge their employers.
One nineteenth century nobleman decried that “there is not such an animal in nature as an honest servant.” Among the servants who reportedly cheated and took tremendous advantage of their employers were valets. One person explained why: “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.”
Valets, similar to a household steward, used a variety of tricks to enhance their income. One trick was to complain to those they patronized — tailors, bootmakers, milliners, laundresses, and so forth — about the exorbitant amounts they charged. At the same the valet would then get his master to pay as much as possible. This then allowed the valet to pocket the difference.
Another trick valets used was to convince those they patronized of their importance. They 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. Such claims resulted in the valet being granted discounts, concessions, or allowances that financially benefited the valet.
When valets worked for a master, who was careless about his wardrobe, valets used other tactics to get money. For instance, valets were known to “commit sad depredations on the wardrobe.” These depredations allowed valets to acquire articles that they could keep for themselves or they sometimes sold them. They accomplished this because they made friendships with wardrobe dealers who would purchase what they brought to sale.
There were also many other tricks valets used 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 valets used to benefit themselves. When traveling with their masters, they often had “an eye to the little pickings-up on the road.” 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. Additionally, when a valet’s master became infatuated, it was particularly advantageous to the valet, as a lovesick master “recollect[ed] nothing” about what he had the valet buy for him in the way of flowers or gifts.
Another way that valets acquired money in an indirect fashion was by padding the laundry bill. This was a favorite of theirs because they regularly increased the bill by as much as 25 percent. It was estimated 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 fashionable master and then increased “charges about 2s. 6d. on every 10s., or more.” 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.”
One person noted that the “whole life of a servant in great families is spent in chicanery, hypocrisy, and trickery.” Moreover, it was declared that the custom of paying valets or servants indirectly 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 [sic], when it conveniently comes within their grasp.” 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.”
- Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. 8, 1833
- James, George Payne Rainsford, The False Heir, 1843