Point of View by
A great deal has been said lately on the servant-girl question,
always from the mistresses' point of view; and as no ex-parte
evidence is conclusive, I offer for the servant-girl side some points
that may help to a better understanding of the whole subject.
It is said, on all hands, that servants every year grow more idle,
showy, impudent, and independent. The last charge is emphatically true,
and it accounts for and includes the others. But then this independence
is the necessary result of the world's progress, in which all classes
share. Steam has made it easy for families to travel, who, without
cheap locomotion, would never go one hundred miles from home. It has
also made it easy for servants to go from city to city. When wages are
low and service is plenty in one place, a few dollars will carry them
to where they are in request.
Fifty years ago very few servants read, or cared to read. They are
now the best patrons of a certain class of newspapers; they see the
Want columns as well as other people; and they are quite capable of
appreciating the lessons they teach and the advantages they offer. The
national increase of wealth has also affected the position of servants.
People keep more servants than they used to keep; and servants have
less work to do. People live better than they used to live, and
servants, as well as others, feel the mental uplifting that comes from
rich and plentiful food.
But one of the main causes of trouble is that a mistress even yet
hires her servant with some ancient ideas about her inferiority. She
forgets that servants read novels, and do fancy work, and write lots of
letters; and that service can no longer be considered the humble labor
of a lower for a superior being. Mistresses must now dismiss from their
minds the idea of the old family servant they have learned to meet in
novels; they must cease to look upon service as in any way a family
tie; they must realize and practically acknowledge the fact that the
relation between mistress and servant is now on a purely commercial
basis,the modern servant being a person who takes a certain sum of
money for the performance of certain duties. Indeed the condition has
undergone just the same change as that which has taken place in the
relation between the manufacturer and his artisans, or between the
contractor and his carpenters and masons.
It is true enough that servants take the money and do not perform
the duties, or else perform them very badly. The manufacturer, the
contractor, the merchant, all make the same complaint; for independence
and social freedom always step before fitness for these
conditions, because the condition is necessary for the results, and the
results are not the product of one generation. Surely Americans may
bear their domestic grievances without much outcry, since they are
altogether the consequences of education and progress, and are the
circumstances which make possible much higher and better circumstances.
For just as soon as domestic service is authoritatively and publicly
made a commercial bargain, and all other ideas eliminated from it,
service will attract a much higher grade of women. The independent,
fairly well-read American girl will not sell her labor to women who
insist on her giving any part of her personality but the work of her
hands. She feels interference in her private affairs to be an
impertinence on any employer's part. She does not wish any mistress to
take an interest in her, to advise, to teach, or reprove her. She
objects to her employer being even what is called friendly. All she
asks is to know her duties and her hours, and to have a clear
understanding as to her work and its payment. And when service is put
upon this basis openly, it will draw to it many who now prefer the
harder work, poorer pay, but larger independence, of factories.
Servants are a part of our social system, but our social system is
being constantly changed and uplifted, and servants rise with it. I
remember a time in England when servants who did not fulfil their
year's contract were subject to legal punishment; when a certain
quality of dress was worn by them, and those who over-dressed did so at
the expense of their good name; when they seldom moved to any situation
beyond walking distance from their birthplace; when, in fact, they were
more slaves than servants. Would any good woman wish to restore service
to this condition?
On the servant's part the root of all difficulty is her want of
respect for her work; and this, solely because her work has not yet
been openly and universally put upon a commercial basis. When domestic
service is put on the same plane as mechanical service, when it is
looked upon as a mere business bargain, then the servant will not feel
it necessary to be insolent and to do her work badly, simply to let her
employer know how much she is above it. Much has been done to degrade
service by actors, newspapers, and writers of all kinds giving to the
domestic servant names of contempt as flunkies, menials, etc., etc.
If such terms were habitually used regarding mechanics, we might learn
to regard masons and carpenters with disdain. Yet domestic service is
as honorable as mechanical service, and the woman who can cook a good
dinner is quite as important to society as the man who makes the table
on which it is served.
Yet, whether mistresses will recognize the change or not, service
has in a great measure emancipated itself from feudal bonds. Servants
have now a social world of their own, of which their mistresses know
nothing at all. In it they meet their equals, make their friends, and
talk as they desire. Without unions, without speeches, and without
striking,because they can get what they want without striking,they
have raised their wages, shortened their hours, and obtained many
privileges. And the natural result is an independencewhich for lack
of proper expression asserts itself by the impertinence and
self-conceit of ignorancethat has won more in tangible rights than in
Mistresses who have memories or traditions are shocked because
servants do not acknowledge their superiority, or in any way reverence
their betters. But reverence for any earthly thing is the most
un-American of attitudes. Reverence is out of date and offensively
opposed to free inquiry. Parents do not exact it, and preachers do not
expect it,the very title of Rev. is now a verbal antiquity. Do we
not even put our rulers through a course of hand-shaking in order to
divest them of any respect the office might bring? Why, then, expect a
virtue from servants which we do not practise in our own stations?
It is said, truly enough, that servants think of nothing but dress.
Alas, mistresses are in the same transgression! This is the fault of
machinery. When servants wore mob-caps and ginghams, mistresses wore
muslins and merinos, and were passing fine with one good silk dress.
Machinery has made it possible for mistresses to get lots of dresses,
and if servants are now fine and tawdry, it is because there is a
general leaning that way. Servants were neat when every one else was
To blame servants for faults we all share is really not reasonable.
It must be remembered that women of all classes dress to make
themselves attractive, and attractive mainly to the opposite sex. What
the young ladies in the parlor do to make themselves beautiful to their
lovers, the servants in the kitchen imitate. Both classes of young
women are anxious to marry. There is no harm in this desire in either
case. With the hopes of the young ladies we do not meddle; why then
interfere about nurse and the policeman? service is not an elysium
under the most favorable circumstances. No girl gets fond of it, and a
desire to be mistress of her own househowever small it may beis not
a very shameful kicking against Providence.
The carrying out of three points, would probably revolutionize the
whole condition of service:
First. The relation should be put upon an absolutely
commercial basis; and made as honorable as mechanical, or factory, or
Second. Duties and hours should be clearly defined. There
should be no interference in personal matters. There should be no more
personal interest expected, or shown, than is the rule between any
other employer and employee.
Third. If it were possible to induce yearly engagements, they
should be the rule; for when people know they have to put up with each
other for twelve months, they are more inclined to be patient and
forbearing; they learn to make the best of each other's ways; and
bearing becomes liking, and habit strengthens liking, and so they go on
and on, and are pretty well satisfied.