The Footman and His Duties

One of the most important domestic workers in the household was the footman. According to one source, he was “so multifarious and incessant, that in most families, if he be industrious, attentive, and disposed to make himself useful, he will find full employment in the affairs of the house.”[1] Though a footman might find full time employment, his job was often viewed as less essential than a butler, cook, or maid in a large household. However, that did not mean the footman was any less valued.

The footman and his duties

Footman. Author’s collection.

In large households of wealthy people such as Madame Récamier‘s or Napoleon Bonaparte‘s brother Joseph at his Breeze Point estate, there were many and different types of footmen. If there were two or more footmen in one household, one was designated as the under footman, and he was the person who performed the most laborious tasks. There also might be a running footman as well as a lady’s footman, who waited on “his lady only” His job included delivering messages and invitations, assisting in the preparation of her meals, and attending to her needs when she went out (by following her on  foot or riding behind her carriage).

Footman Presenting a Calling Card, Public Domain

Footman presenting a calling card from a visitor to his mistress. Public domain.

In small genteel families that could afford only one male servant, they usually hired a footman who was expected to perform multiple jobs in a timely manner. His chores consisted of cleaning furniture, trimming lamps, performing errands, preparing razor straps, and polishing silverware. He went out with the carriage, answered the door or the parlor bell, and politely and civilly announced guests, which was rigorously exacted and expected. He was also responsible to wait on the family at mealtime as described:

“[The footman was to be] attentive to all … obtrusive to none; … giv[ing] nothing but on a waiter, and always hand[ing] it with the left hand and on the left side of the person he serve[d].”[2]

All footmen, no matter their title or their duties, were to be of upstanding character and present a neat, clean appearance. Footmen were also told:

“[D]iscard every low habit and way of thinking … [and be of ] good character … [which includes] industry, fidelity to … employers, and an inviolable attachment to truth, both in words and deeds.”[3]

As far as appearance, a footman was encouraged to do the following:

“[T]ie your neckcloth neatly, and use a stiffener in it; turn your hair up in front, and let the other part be kept smooth. If you have to wear hair-powder, be very particular in keeping your hair in order … [and] never put your stockings on with holes in them … Be particular in having your linen well washed … likewise keep your feet clean … and change your stockings … for, if you do not, they will be very disagreeable to persons about you.”[4]

As for the clothing the footman wore, he sometimes provided it himself. However, his livery was generally provided by his employer and described in the following manner:

“[A] working dress, consisting of a pair of overalls, a waistcoat, a fustian jacket, with a white or jean one for times when he [was] liable to be called to answer the door or wait at breakfast.”[5]

If the footman left a family within six months of receiving a new livery, he was expected to leave the livery behind when he departed.  Further, the footman’s newest livery was usually reserved for Sunday or important dress occasions. 

Footmen had busy schedules and were expected to rise early and accomplish certain jobs before the family stirred. The dirtiest jobs were accomplished first and included such things as cleaning shoes, boots, knives, and forks. Footmen also brushed and cleaned clothes, hats, and gloves. If there was no butler, after finishing the dirtiest jobs, the footman was required to “put aside his working dress, tidy himself, and appear in a clean … jacket to lay the cloth and prepare breakfast for the family.”[6] When the weather was cold, he was also responsible to have the fire “made up.” 

Footman Collecting Coal, Public Domain

Footman collecting Coal. Public domain.

There many other jobs the footman performed. For instance, he delivered the tea urn, filled it with water, and ensured there were coffee and tea cups, saucers, cream, sugar tongs, slop bowls, teaspoons, and butter knives. He set the table with napkins, dishes, and utensils and positioned seats around the table. He also rang the bell to announce breakfast and during the meal was assisted by the housemaid. He performed such duties as making toast (putting it into the toast-rack and placing it over the fire). After the meal, he cleared away trays, swept up crumbs from both the table and the hearth, and shook and replaced the breakfast cloth. The same routine was repeated at each meal, although dinner meals were often more elaborate and required extra plates, extra utensils, and finger, wine, or sherry glasses.

If the household was well staffed, a footman’s job was different at meal time. He rang the bell ten or fifteen minutes before dinner, while at the same time arranged and carried everything needed during the meal to the table or sideboard. When dinner was served, the footman rang the bell again, and then the butler carried the first dish, followed by the under butler and the footman, who carried any remaining dishes. The butler placed the dishes on the table and removed the covers, which were then carried from the room by the under butler or footman. As the family dined, the servants then took their respective stations as described:

“The butler [is] at the side-board, to serve the wines and beer when called for, the footman at the back of his master’s chair, and the lady’s footman behind his lady.”[7]

Footman Serving His Master, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Footman serving his master.  Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When the dishes were served, the empty dishes were removed from the table and carried away by the under-butler or footman. If wine or beer was desired, the footman or butler placed an empty glass on the waiter and the butler filled them. When clean plates were required, the butler provided the footman with a clean plate, along with clean utensils, and the footman removed the dirty ones.

When soup or fish were close to being finished, the butler warned the cook to be ready with the removes, which were large dishes placed at both ends of the table or served from a side table. Removes were essentially the first course and consisted mostly of “roasted, boiled, braized, or otherwise highly-dressed meats.”[8] When the first course was complete, the footman and under-butler removed the dishes and fetched the second course while the butler reset the table with clean plates, utensils, and glasses. The third and final course was similarly repeated with the footman placing finger glasses, desert glasses, and wine upon the table.

In small families the footman had additional duties besides cleaning and helping at meals. He was also in charge of the carriage and greeting guests. Thus, when the carriage arrived at the front door, it was to be “perfectly clean, and … the glasses, and sashes and linings, [were to be] … free from dust.”[9] If carrying or receiving a message from the carriage to inhabitants within a house, he was to knock, obtain or deliver the message, and return to the carriage for any orders. He was also required to go out with the carriage, and “turn his ear to the speaker, so as to comprehend what is said, in order that he may give his directions to the coachman clearly.”[10] In addition, the footman helped the family into the carriage and was to ensure “that no part of the ladies’ dress … [was] shut in [the door].”[11]

The footman also answered the door. In fact, when someone knocked, he was tasked with answering “without hesitation” no matter whether the family was out or not. If instructed to receive guests, the footman was to open the door widely, precede the guests, open the drawing room door, and announce each guest’s name having already acquainted himself with the visitors. Moreover, footmen were to pronounce names distinctly and correctly, particularly if several guests arrived together. Mispronouncing a name was consider offensive and could lead to disagreements. When visitors were ready to depart, the footman was to be on “hand, ready, when rung for, to open the door … with a respectful manner, and close it gently when the visitors [were] fairly beyond the threshold.”[12] To learn more about the specific duties of a footman when answering the door, click here.

Footman, Public Domain

Footman presenting a caller. Public domain.


  • [1] Adams, Samuel, The Complete Servant, 1826, p. 376.
  • [2] Beeton, Samuel Orchart, Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-day Information, 1871, p. 125.
  • [3] Adams, Samuel, p. 18.
  • [4] Cosnett, Thomas, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Rememberancer, 1823, p. 162.
  • [5] Stepping-stones to Thrift, 1883, p. 124.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The Footman, 1855, p, 71.
  • [8] Francatelli, Charles Elmé, The Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, 1867, p. 131.
  • [9] Stepping Stones, p. 124.
  • [10] Beeton, Samuel Orchart, p. 126.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Stepping Stones, p. 124-125.

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