A lady’s maid of the 1700 and 1800s functioned as a personal attendant to a woman similar to the way a valet served a gentlemen. Her job was vital to her mistress, because a lady’s maid was responsible to properly prepare her mistress so that when she stepped from her dressing room into society, she was seen in the best light. To accomplish this task, there were numerous behind-the-scene tasks that a lady’s maid accomplished. Moreover, few maids functioned in such an important capacity, and it required a far superior servant than the ones that normally maintained a household. To be a lady’s maid required “great neatness, skill, and taste, as well as discretion and cleverness.” In fact, many lady’s maids were better educated than the normal servant and such maids often underwent special training so as to enable them to acquire a certain level of knowledge before entering the unique field of caring for a mistress.
To become a lady’s maid was not an easy task. The job of a lady’s maid was rare because such jobs were available only among the nobility or the elite. There were plenty of jobs for household servants but few for a lady’s maid. Moreover, the knowledge it took to do the task efficiently and properly could not be acquired over night. To become a lady’s maid, potential candidates trained for the position by first functioning as an assistant to a lady’s maid. Training often began when candidates were fresh from home or school and began after they entered a mistress’s home for the first time. However, to be considered for training, a candidate also had to possess certain traits and characteristics.
One characteristic was that a lady’s maid possessed was to be “a superior sort of girl.” A description of such a girl was provided by one lady:
“You are neat in your person and ways…speak pleasantly…you can read and write well…you are handy and tolerably quick with your needle, and … you may be trusted to tell the truth and not … gossip.”
Moreover, such candidates also needed to behave properly, be discrete, and not be overly familiar with superiors.
One of the main duties of a lady’s maid was to oversee and dress her mistress appropriately. Those in training had to learn the rules of contrast and harmony in order to achieve the best outcome for their mistress. Even millinery needed to be selected carefully so as to avoid mistresses clad in unfashionable or unflattering bonnets or hats. After all you could not have a small headed woman overpowered by a large bonnet or a large-headed mistress appear as if a clown wearing a tiny, silly looking hat.
Candidates also needed to consider a mistress’s complexion — carnation, florid, fair, pale, or sallow — her hair color, and her face shape. These factors helped to avoid a mistress wearing a wrong color or having a washed out look. The lady’s maid also needed to consider a woman’s size and shape. Based on their mistress’s size and shape, the lady’s maid then selected clothing that did not hang, pinch, or highlight a mistress’s deficiencies of contour, while also ensuring the clothing remained functional, fashionable, and pretty.
When not creating fashionable looking mistresses, a lady’s maid was busy mending and repairing clothing and stockings. Linen also often fell under the purview of a lady’s maid and was something candidates needed to maintain. To ensure that such articles were always pristine and at their best, a thorough examination was undertaken of such articles on a frequent basis. When necessary, damaged articles were mended and repaired. Stockings were always sent out to be cleaned before darning or mending was undertaken, whereas all other articles were repaired beforehand to avoid spoiling their fresh cleaned and pressed laundry look. Buttons, loops, clasps, strings, and hooks and eyes were examined, fastened, and repaired, because “discredit rests with the lady’s maid when the lady’s dress is seen to want fastenings, or when there is a hole in stocking, or when the sheets or pillow cases or towels go to the wash with any places in them through which you may see daylight.”
A mistress’s wardrobe required other types of care that candidates needed to learn. After being laundered, certain garments, such as petticoats and stockings, were arranged in a specific order in linen drawers or closets to ensure clothing was worn equally. This was accomplished by placing the last article worn at the back or bottom of a closet or drawer and the newest item to be worn at the front.
Tracking of articles sent to the wash occurred with a “washing-book.” Each item given to the washerwoman was recorded in the book and space was provided to allow the washerwoman to note the price for its cleaning. The book also allowed the lady’s maid to track each article and determine if anything was missing when the wash returned. Moreover, a lady’s maid kept a complete and thorough inventory of her mistress’s clothing and belongings. She also consulted this inventory list every few weeks, counting and double checking to ensure articles were not missing, which also avoided claims by her mistress that she was careless.
Besides wardrobe care there were a variety of other tasks that occurred behind the scenes. One important task for a lady’s maid was keeping a mistress’s apartment tidy. This included both the mistress’s bed chambers and her dressing room. Cleaning and maintaining a mistress’s quarters was to be accomplished out of sight of the mistress. It was noted of a lady’s maid that “it should be your pride that your mistress should never have reason to wish that the housemaid … enter her apartment, except on occasions of cleaning the floor, and when the family are absent.” This meant a lady’s maid was responsible to maintain bright and clean basins, wash stands, and mirrors. She also kept her mistress’s apartment free from dust and changed bedding and towels on a regular and punctual basis. Clothing and accessories were also not to be strewn about. Moreover, cosmetics and dressing tables were to be neatly arranged and well-stocked, because it was a matter of pride that a mistress’s apartment be in a “quiet and orderly state at all times.”
Other important duties included medical tasks, hair brushing, and money matters. When doctors appeared, the lady’s maid was often in attendance and sometimes she was instructed to change bandages, wash out dressings, or apply leeches. Of course, these intimate tasks were to be accomplished discretely and never spoken of “at all.” Another important task was hair brushing. To accomplish it, brushes and combs had to be regularly cleaned and a lady’s maid needed to properly brush her mistress’s hair. It was suggested long hair be brushed with “long and even strokes,” but this was also a time when the lady’s maid and her mistress were alone and the conversation that passed between the two was vital because “a girl’s conduct at those times is a test of her whole mind and heart.” Money matters was another consideration. A lady’s maid was to ensure tradesman’s bills were paid but otherwise she was not to be involved in financial matters. If a family had money problems, a lady’s maid was to be discreet because according to one source, “if you have been telling tales, you have been treacherous … you have been cruel [and] in such a case, night should bring no rest to you.”
Discretion and maintaining one’s stations were two other characteristics that needed to be acquired by those in training. A lady’s maid was considered an upper servant, and she was often present when sensitive conversations occurred. This meant she frequently knew and kept secrets that involved her mistress or the entire household. If such secrets got out they could greatly affect the standing of her mistress or the family, and, so, therefore, discretion needed to be maintained at all times. Additionally, because of the close and intimate relationship a lady’s maid enjoyed, she might forget her position and “begin to act and talk as if [she] were amongst those equal to [herself] in station and respectability.” One writer noted how important it was to for a lady’s maid to maintain her proper station stating:
“if you fail here, your place will soon be forfeited, and you will gain a character for impertinence, which is the worst thing that can stand in your way in procuring another [job].”
Besides learning all these things, those in training were also to be constantly improving themselves and acquiring knowledge to effectively maintain their fitness for the position. When chores for the day were finished, candidates were instructed to practice reading and writing and “spare no pains to [constantly] improve.” Reading aloud was also suggested, as was constant writing because legible and well-written notes of instruction needed to be provided to tradespeople. It was also important such notes be provided in a “neat, legible hand … [with] lines running straight across the paper.” Sewing was another skill that served candidates well. One person wrote that “a girl who is clever and thoughtful about other things will easily learn to do this perfectly well.” But most importantly, candidates needed to remember that “the chief purpose of many comforts and conveniences that rich people have about them is to set their time and their thoughts free for their serious occupations,” and with a properly trained lady’s maid, mistresses were able to do just that!
- The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825
- The Lady’s Maid, 1878