Servants and labor-saving products

I was just reading about domestic servants in Victorian Britain and the author made the point that households of that era needed a bunch of servants because they didn’t have the hundreds of labor-saving products that modern households have.

But the author didn’t address the chicken and the egg issue that raised. Did the practice of hiring servants decline as labor-saving products made them less necessary? Or did a market for labor-saving products develop as the practice of hiring servants declined?

Will the answer help us solve the servant problem?

Good domestics are just so hard to find these days! :frowning:

Silly rabbit, the answer is yes.

Why do you need a passel of maids of all work to do the laundry [it used to take basically an entire day between boiling the water, washing the clothes, running them through a mangle to press the excess water out of them, hanging them to dry then heating the iron to iron them.] scullery to work the kitchen [no dishwashers, all the pots and pans and utensils needed to be washed by hand, and then the dishes after every meal.] if you wanted to spit roast something, something or somebody needed to turn the spit. Cleaning day, instead of plugging in a vacuum cleaner either you used a hand pump vaccum that isn’t all that efficient or you move the rugs out to beat them with tennis racket looking beaters.

I have issues with the show 1900 house … the family they got were totally unprepared to try to live life as a 1900 family, she had no idea how to use servants. The producers or whomever were in charge letting, nay encouraging the mom and daughter to do a music hall turn, and the army officer husband of the time would have been absolutely aghast at the family apparently turning to appalling behavior as if he couldn’t properly support the family financially. [and yes i realize that they were doing that shit to get viewers … sigh fucking pseudoreality tv]

Neither and/or both.

That is to say that there were many more factors than that involved, including (but not limited to):
[li]The success of many labour-saving devices being reliant on the widespread availability of electricity and/or gas.[/li][li]As always, some of the success of labour-saving devices was down to their perceived value as novelties or status symbols as much as the actual labour they saved, but social change was leading to a larger segment of the population having more disposable income, and a greater expectation of leisure time.[/li][li]The rise of the internal combustion engine: fewer horses, fewer grooms, stablehands, footmen etc.[/li][li]Greater availability and acceptability of contraception leading to a trend among the lower middle class and upper working class raising smaller families in smaller suburban houses, with less need (or room) for servants.[/li][li]Improved workers conditions in industry, making that a more attractive prospect for many who might otherwise have gone into service.[/li][li]The increased influence of socialism among the working class, leading more people to avoid entering service for ideological reasons.[/li][li]The large numbers of servants who volunteered for the First World War led to the downsizing of most domestic establishments, and the war experiences of many of those who were lucky enough to survive made them disinclined to return to their pre-war positions.[/li][/ul]

… and probably a lot of other stuff I’ll think of just after I press “submit”.

Technological advancement doesn’t just make labor saving devices cheaper, it also makes human labor more productive, and hence more expensive. So I don’t think its really a chicken in the egg problem so much as both phenomena were caused by the third factor of general technological advancement, which both made human labor more expensive and machine labor cheaper.

My w.a.g. is that labor-saving devices had much more of an impact on the middle class. The rich could already afford servants (and having them was often a status symbol anyway). What domestic appliances did was allow the middle class to aspire to a standard of living previously available only to the upper classes.

I think this may be a difference in terminology, but the Victorian (and Edwardian) English middle class already had servants.

In this context the upper classes were the land-owning aristocracy. The middle classes were the property-owning, educated professionals – the doctors, lawyers, business owners and management-level white-collar workers. The working class were the labour force, from skilled tradesmen down to itinerant unskilled labourers (and including, of course, servants), living in rented or employer-owned accommodation and often owning little more than their clothes.

I would have said that, instead of domestic appliances allowing the middle classes to aspire to the standard of living of the upper classes (vacuum cleaners and washing machines won’t get you a country estate and a seat in the House of Lords), they allowed the better-off working class to aspire to a middle-class lifestyle.

Dude, have you ever tried to callously seduce a washing machine?! Believe me, it ain’t worth the effort. Ungrateful bitch . . .

I recall a parenthetical line that stuck in my mind from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novel The Magician’s Nephew, set in Victorian/Edwardian London (and in other worlds): “(everybody had lots of servants in those days)”. :dubious: Everybody, Jack?

As WotNot already posted, the use of servants went well beyond the upper class. An aristocratic family might employ dozens of servants but any middle class family would have had a couple as well. Even some working class families might have had one.

Right. Remember “Mary Poppins”, how the Banks family has a passel of servants and nannies? The Banks are not upper class. They are firmly middle class. Mister Banks works for a living at a bank, managing other people’s money. “Railways through Africa!” “Tell him about the ships!” “Majestic self-amortizing canals!”. They just seem upper class to us because they have money and servants. But people who worked for a living, even wealthy ones, weren’t upper class, they were middle class.

Go to India today, and middle class people like the ones who answer the phone when you complain about your computer service have servants. Same phenomenon. A vast pool of impoverished people makes maintaining a household staff cheap.

Interesting data point. Obviously India has access to modern labor-saving products. So this would imply the use of servants is due to some factor other than the availability of such products.

I doubt that you would be considered working class if you could afford to employ a servant, even at 19th-century wage levels. However, yes, many middle-class families would employ one or two servants, perhaps a cook and a maid.

A lot of it boils down to cost. Is it cheaper to hire someone to do the job versus buying a machine that you use to do the job, or using some other labor saving method that has a cost?

An example would be if they have a maid that cooks everyday. Here we tend to eat out a lot more or we buy ready made foot at the supermarket. There, they might not eat out as often, get delivery, or buy anything ready made because they have someone who cooks for them so they come home to a meal that was just cooked.

Well, I got a vacuum cleaner but I’d rather have a cleaning lady! It’s expensive enough that I keep not doing it, but if there were a huge pool of poor people I’m sure it would be much cheaper.

Actually, I think in some cases you might: a tenant landlord of a public house, for instance, might well have been considered working class by most people at the time, but would probably have employed a maid, at least. The dividing lines between classes get pretty fuzzy, largely because the social criteria don’t necessarily line up with the economic ones.

Keep in mind that servants at the lower end of the spectrum were essentially working for room and board (and many were underfed).

Right: that landlord would be living and working in a working-class neighbourhood, and all his customers would be working class, so he would look and sound working class himself. However, since he owns and runs his own business (even though he doesn’t own the premises, but rents them from someone else), I think that economically he counts as middle class.

I see what you’re saying, but I’m pretty sure no one would have thought that way at the time, or else every fishmonger or fruiterer with a barrow and a half-share in a pitch at the market would be on the same social footing as a barrister.

Property ownership might not seem so important nowadays, but it was a significant factor in Victorian England.

I found it really amusing when the mother fired her maid-of-all-work because she “just wasn’t comfortable” having someone wait on her and wanted to “free her maid” to do “other things”. This was followed by a voiceover explaining that in the Victorian era a woman who couldn’t even find work as a domestic would’ve had no other choice than to take up prostitution.

The Edwardian Country House (aka Manor House) does IMHO a fairly good job of showing what life was like in a turn-of-the-century great house. Sir John might of come off as utterly obnoxious when he said “If I’m not being served they don’t have a job”, but he was correct. Especially with regards to the women. Women had far fewer job oppurtunities than men of the same class & education level. And being a domestic servant meant your room & board was included so not only did you free up space at home you had more money (that you would’ve had to spend on food) to save up or send home. And many women did leave service after a few years to marry. Often working class & rural families would send their daughters into service as a kind of finishing school to occupy their time between turning old enough to work outside the family home & getting married.

Of course modern people would complain about how hard they were working and how demanding & indifferent their employers were or wearing uniforms. Actual Edwardians would be happy to work indoors, sleep in a warm bed (& male servants would get a bed all to themselves, eat hot meals everyday (& meat on a regular basis, not have to worry about wearing out their own clothes, and on top of all that having money to send home to mum & dad or save up for their old age.

Also the maid can still wash the family’s clothes & linen when the power goes out (a very common occurance in Indian households of all classes. What’s really interesting is that middle and upper class women in India have access to careers & professions that were closed to their Western counterparts a century ago when similiar patterns of domestic service were common. In India it’s often both spouses that were out earning a living will the maids do all the cleaning, the cook’s making dinner (having made the family breakfast as well), and the nanny’s looking after the children. Edwardian & Victorian women had to occupy their time visiting eachother, shopping, taking up suitable hobbies, or doing charity work.