Housemaids and Their Duties

Servants made family life easier in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and, although today, maids work for the most elite and the wealthiest, during the Victorian era, according to the 1851, 1861, and 1871 census, they comprised the second highest category of employment, with the first being agricultural workers.* The eighteenth and nineteenth century was also a time where servants lacked employment protection, and it was not until the United Kingdom’s Master and Servant Act of 1823 that servants acquired provisions that established minimal wages and determined accommodations, clothing, and meal allowances for domestic servants.

Housemaids and their duties

Domestic worker. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among the most important of the domestic servants where housemaids whose duties were were varied. Of the housemaids, the maid responsible for supervising the other maids was known as the Upper Housemaid. She, along with the other housemaids, was responsible to “undertake the management of all the household business of a gentleman’s family.”[1] This meant cleaning the house from top to bottom. Although cleaning was something most servants did, it was difficult at times for the staff to determine exactly who was responsible for what. However, in general, the housemaid was responsible for numerous duties that ranged from cleaning fireplaces to opening and closing shutters to dusting, polishing, and cleaning mirrors, paintings, and wall hangings.

In a regular household, the Upper Housemaid rose before the sun (around five o’clock). Her first duties of the day included opening the shutters in the sitting room, removing any superfluous articles from the breakfast-room or library, and preparing the stoves, fireplaces, and hearths to be cleaned. She rolled up the hearth rugs, carefully shook them out, laid down canvas to keep the area clean and then raked the ashes, swept them up, and brushed the fireplace. The fireplace also had to be shined and any tarnish or spots acquired from constant use were rubbed first with oil, emery paper or brick dust was next applied, and finally scouring paper was used. The back and sides of the fireplace were also brushed with black-lead and rubbed dry with a hard brush that was kept particularly for such purposes. Once or twice a week, marble hearths were washed with “flannel, dipped in a strong hot lather of soap and water, which … [was] cleaned off and wiped dry with a linen cloth.”[2] Hearths of common stone were scoured with soap, sand, and cold water, before being dried with a clean house cloth.

Carpets also had to be cleaned. This was accomplished “with a hard brush, dipped in soft water, in which bran … [was] boiled.”[3] While the carpet was wet it was also rubbed with fuller’s earth — a clay material that absorbs oil and grease — and then laid in the sun to dry. This process was repeated two to three times and then the carpet was beaten for a final time to remove any fuller’s earth remnants.

The bedroom was one of the most important responsibilities of the housemaid, and it needed more than just cleaning. Unpleasant smells needed to be handled, frozen water pipes prevented, beds warmed, bugs destroyed, and the dampness in the bedroom prevented or detected. To ensure the bedroom was clean, besides the daily and weekly cleanings, twice a year the Upper Housemaid conducted a thorough cleaning. This included cleaning bed furniture, wainscoting, counterpanes, blankets, and pillows. Additionally, the “beds and mattresses [were] beat, carded, cleaned, and re-made, [with] the purity of the feathers, wool, [and] hair … employed for the mattresses or cushions, being very important.”[4]

Besides cleaning and restuffing mattresses, furniture placement in the room was important. It was recommended that the “bedstead should not be placed near a wall, but stand free … and if possible in the middle of the chamber.”[5] Part of the reason for such placement was not only to deter bugs but also to prevent some terrible accident because if lightning struck, it supposedly took “its direction along the walls.”[6] Ventilation in the bedroom was another important consideration as it was said to be “the great preservative of health.”[7] Therefore, every day, after the family dressed and left their rooms, the bedding was shook out and the windows thrown open for several hours to air out the room and “to carry off the effluvia from … bed-clothes.”[8]

Besides the bedroom, there were numerous other duties for housemaids. She maintained all the house linen, which included table linens, bedding, and towels. Sometimes she might also be requested to assist the laundry maid and clean fine linen or silk stockings, although this was considered “extra labours and … not … deemed a necessary part of the house maid’s business.”[9] Upstairs coal scuttles also had to be cleaned. Kettles used to warm water in dressing rooms had to be washed too, and when fancy dinner parties were held, china and plate needed to be washed and dried. Dusting was another major and daily job and the housemaid was responsible to shake and dust window curtains, paper hangings, and wall hangings. Cobwebs also had to be removed from ceilings, staircases, and walls.

Housemaid ready to dust. Author’s collection.

At the appointed time, the housemaid was also responsible to attend to her master and mistress by emptying their slop bowls, replenishing water ewers, and putting their rooms in order before the valet entered to help them dress. After completing these tasks, the maid then swept the principal staircase before she ate her own breakfast. Once the family went down to breakfast, the housemaid then performed the duties necessary to keep the family’s dressing rooms and bedrooms in order.

Another major duty was polishing metal items. If something was rusty, it was oiled and then polished with “flour-emery, pumice-stone powdered, or unslacked lime.”[10] To keep brass or copper clean and shiny, they were cleaned regularly with flannel dipped in sweet oil, and then rubbed hard with “finely-powdered rotten-stone,”[11] before being wiped clean and polished with plate leather. Cast iron pieces were preserved and cleaned by rubbing them with “black-lead,” and rust was removed from grates or fire-iron with either a “mixture of tripoli with half its quantity of sulphur, … on … a piece of leather [or emery and oil].”[12] There were also methods used to preserve metals from rusting. For example, to prevent iron work from rusting, copal varnish was mixed with olive oil.

Between all this polishing, housemaids also had the important duty of lighting fires. To light a fire all that was needed besides the kindling and the wood, was charcoal and a bellows. Three or four pieces of charcoal were usually used to help fires to burn instantly and briskly. If charcoal was not used, a person had to “patiently wait a considerable time before venturing to blow it,”[13] as doing so too early might immediately extinguish it. Additionally, charcoal helped fires burn longer and hotter, which was ideal when a maid was trying to heat up a cold room.

Certain days — usually Tuesdays and Saturdays — were set aside for general house cleaning. Fireplace hearths, chimney pieces, mahogany furniture, brass ornaments, and mirrors were cleaned “with more than ordinary attention,”[14] and everything was “well shaken, whisked, and brushed: in short, the best practical methods for thoroughly cleaning the whole house … [was] resorted to.”[15] Floors were scrubbed and scoured with warm soap suds, and afterwards wiped dry, with a clean linen cloth. Rooms were also scoured instead of just being swept, and all the carpets taken up and beaten clean. Black leather chairs, along with “ladies’ cordovan or gentlemen’s dress shoes,”[16] were restored to their original color using a combination of gin, eggs, and ivory black “well worked up.” Dirty or dust laden oil-paintings were cleaned with the coarse pulp of potatoes, and gilt picture frames stained by fly droppings were gently wiped “with cotton dipped in sweet oil.”[17]

A housemaid taking a break. Public domain.

If the maid’s duties were complete, she could about one o’clock in the afternoon, attend to her needlework, or perhaps some of her own private affairs. However, by mid afternoon, she was busy once again. This was because eighteenth and nineteenth century people changed their clothes frequently, and she needed to check on the cleanliness of dressing rooms. In addition, some of the maid’s last duties of the day involved preparations for bedtime. Cleaning the dressing room was again repeated when the family ate their dinner. It was also around this same time that the maid closed and fastened the shutters, turned down the beds, and lit fireplaces so as to warm bedrooms for nighttime.

* “Occupations: Census Returns for 1851, 1851, and 1871,” on The Victorian Web, accessed 13 July 2014

References:

  • [1] Adams, Samuel, etal., The Complete Servant, 1825, p. 276.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 277.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 365.
  • [4] The Servant’s Guide and Family Manual, 1831, p. 126.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 127.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Adams, Samuel, etal., p. 276.
  • [10] The Servant’s Guide and Family Manual, p. 132. 
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Adams, Samuel, etal., p. 283.
  • [13] The Servant’s Guide and Family Manual, p. 133. 
  • [14] Adams, Samuel, etal., p. 280.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] The Servant’s Guide and Family Manual, p. 131. 
  • [17] Ibid.

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