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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

What the Butler Saw

What the Butler Saw

C.A. Asbrey

The popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, and Upstairs, Downstairs, has really thrust the role of domestic servants in the past into the public eye. The word butler derives from the old French bouteillier, and identified the cup-bearer or the person in charge of the bottles in large households. The Latin root is also at the base of the word butt. The buttery originally had nothing to do with butter but was the place for storing the butts. Over the years, the butler slowly rose to be in charge not only of the buttery, but also of the ewery (where the napkins and basins were kept) and the pantry (where the bread, butter, cheese and other basic provisions were stored). Eventually, looking after the valuable wine cellar became one of his principal duties. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the butler was head of the male domestic servants, in larger households sometimes the butler was given a whole suite of rooms dedicated to his various functions.

A butler doesn't come cheap. They earn a salary between $50.000 and $150.000 annually, plus benefits like room and board, a car, mobile telephone, 4 weeks annual leave, once a year airline ticket home, etc. For that package most butlers work long hours - an average of 60 hours per week or more. And they work hard. Not only do they manage all the household expenditure, the staff, hiring, firing, training, and the social protocol. They can also double as valet, waiter, personal assistant, and even body guard. In 2004 Buckingham palace announced that it was actively recruiting females for the role. However, female butlers are older than we think. The first mention of a lady butler comes from an 1892 book Interludes being Two Essays, a Story, and Some Verses, by Horace Smith.

While the quintessential stereotype of the butler is seen as British, the French actually invented the role, and the modern version exists more in the USA than anywhere else in the world. China, in particular, has embraced the status symbol which comes from having a butler, with demand for fully-trained staff up 35% on ten years ago.

This demand to have a butler as a status symbol isn't new. It is something the nouveau riche of the USA wanted in the 19th century in spades, and ambitious staff from the grand English estates found there was money to be made, along with a new freedom. They moved across the Atlantic to provide the service, and were happy to do so. The British class system was designed to keep people in their place, whereas the fresh New World offered social mobility and a new start. As in all things, the Americans took the role of butler and made it their own. The USA already had a tradition of butlers, not only from the rich immigrants, bringing European ways with them, but also from a legacy of slavery.

One of the first books written and published through a commercial U.S. publisher by an African American was by a butler named Robert Roberts. The House Servant's Directory, published in 1827, is a manual for butlers and waiters. The book generated such interest that a second edition was published in 1828, and a third in 1843. A modern reprint is available.

19th century American millionaire, Marshall Field, provides a good example of the difference between the American estate, and the British system. He never interacted with servants during his childhood on a large farm, which is different from someone in the English system. They often had a staff whose parents and grandparents had served their own ancestors. They often knew the intimate, higher-ranking staff extremely well, and they trusted them with their secrets. That loyalty was returned, as it meant housing and employment for their families in the long term. The phrase noblesse oblige encapsulated the unofficial system in which the landed gentry looked after their people, and in return, the people served them with a discretion the rich today could only dream of.

The trade off was that in the US system there was a chance for the servants to move up the social ladder, where their British counterparts were as rigidly fixed throughout the generations.       

Marshall Field
Marshall Field earned his wealth as a merchant. By 1870 kept six servants his Prairie Avenue residence. He was typical of the brand-new millionaires who emulated European aristocracy. The big difference was that 10 years later, not one of those servants remained; a new group of seven were recorded. Ten years after that, the census shows that the domestic help had dwindled to four and yet again, not one remained from the previous census. Based on historical evidence, we can expect that these servants quit or were dismissed far more often than every ten years, but probably only stayed in a residence for a year or two before moving on. His British counterpart tended to keep staff until they either married or retired. It was not unknown, however, for the best chefs, cooks and butlers to be poached by social rivals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Field’s staff on the censuses only ever included two Americans. The rest were Irish, Scottish, English, Canadian, Swedish, and Norwegian. Most Americans weren’t interested in attaching themselves to a wealthy family to make a living. Even the immigrants who were servants themselves, raised a second generation of Americanized sons and daughters who didn’t seek these kinds of positions.

While the staff in the British country homes stayed in these positions for generations, there are many indications that this was due to a lack of choice and opportunity, and not to a love of the work. The First World War brought a step change in the social structure, more variation in the kind of work available to women, and a rapid reduction in the general willingness to do as they were told by someone just because they were rich or titled. Under the new order, the rich found it increasingly difficult to get staff at all, let alone apply the kind of strictures the Duke of Bedford did when he demanded that all his parlourmaids be at least five foot ten. According to one employer:

A parlourmaid must have long arms in order to reach things on the table, and a housemaid should also be tall, else how can she put the linen away on the top shelves and wash the looking-glasses in the drawing room?  

The value of servants was calculated according to their physical characteristics, including height.  A six-foot Edwardian footman could earn ten pounds a year more than a shorter one. Handsome staff were more employable than their more physically unfortunate counterparts.

Mrs Panton, in Hints for Young Housekeepers, advised that servants’ bedrooms should be ‘merely places where they lie down to sleep as heavily as they can’; prettiness and comfort were wasted on them.

Joyce Storey, a bright working-class girl, whose desires for a better life truly encapsulates why people who went to the New World for a new life. She ‘swore a terrible oath’ as she scrubbed her employer’s coal cellar:

"This is the last time in my entire bloody life I will ever be on my knees with my nose to the ground, for I belong up there with my eyes to the light, and walking upright and tall."

A life in service became a stop gap in the United States. It gave new immigrants a roof and a wage until they found their feet, and built a new life. It was no longer the inevitable only choice. Service morphed and became a new kind of profession, and came with a friendly new confidence which looked the employer in the eye instead of quietly melting into the background. The way service was provided changed. It became a respected role, highly-trained, and skilled at its best, and it even became a valuable export to be emulated the world over.

America may have taken the butler and servants from the European model, but it altered the profession forever.

Innocent Bystander EXCERPT

A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. Really interesting post, C.A. Much of this I never knew.

  2. Thank you, Kristy. The 'tall maids' thing was new to me when I was researching.

  3. Fascinating. In Colorado Springs in the 1890s, the wealthy had trouble keeping servants. Most were heading to Cripple Creek in the hopes of stiking it rich or at least earn more where their skills were in demand. Doris

    1. I think that would have happened in Europe too, if there had been opportunities. The class system kept them trapped. It's one of the main reasons people left.

  4. I never considered the difference between American and British butlers before, but it makes sense that landed gentry in Britain would have a different set of expectations than wealthy Americans. Being from Chicago, I enjoy reading about Marshall Field. And being only 5 foot two and living in a home where everyone else is tall, I got to say I see the sense in having tall servants. I wish I had one myself sometimes reaching for things the tall ones have put up on high shelves. Interesting post and great excerpt!

    1. I'm with you. I'd never considered it either until I had to research it for a story. Thanks for commenting.

  5. While reading your excellent article, Christine, I couldn't help think of all those black and white romantic comedies of the 40's that involved rich families and their dignified butlers and servants. There was one unforgettable movie where the butler brought in the platter with the beautifully roasted turkey for carving and it was mentioned this was the pet turkey and one by one the children started sobbing. Then there's a classic I've watched several times because it's so amusing where the butler is actually the main character in the movie and the family has a pompous father, a dithery mother, a mischievous willful younger blonde daughter and I think Katherine Hepburn is the older socialite daughter. Loved that movie and tried to find it searching Katherine's movie list. A hidden pearl necklace features in the story. Anyone recognize it?

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. It sounds a bit like, "My Man Godfrey." But Katherine Hepburn wasn't in that one, so it can't be. It sounds great though, and wouldn't mind the title if you find out. I love old movies.

  6. I liked the comparison of British aristocracy and their servants to American's wealthy and their quickly overturn in servant staff. The Vanderbilts who were American wealthy upper crust built a castle on a huge chunk of land in Asheville, NC. Their daughter married an English aristocrat who needed the money to maintain his estate and she got a lovely title. I rather think the American woman who married the aristocrat in Downton Abbey must have been drafted from the Vanderbilt daughter. Anyway, I found on a tour of the Vanderbilt estate that they took in people from the community to become servants and they taught them special skills to help them forward their lives. It was a school for domestic workers. A descendant of the Vanderbilts still lives there on the top floor. Over the years he has managed to take the castle from a run down relic to a very prosperous tourist attraction and even expanded to have a vineyard with its own wine, a greenhouse, and 2 hotels. He must have amazing management abilities.

    When Downton Abby was on TV I just couldn't seem to get interested in it. Maybe it was because I missed the first season. But I binged on it on Amazon Prime and found it quite fascinating.

    I'm glad I got a chance to read your post because it was jam backed with information. Wonderful blog, C.A.!

    This was such a wonderful blog.

  7. Thank you, Sarah! Yes, there were quite a lot of prominent families who married American heiresses. They gave the family money, and the titles gave the Americans the class connections they craved. I think I found out from researching this that service, unless it was at a high level, wasn't a preferrence. When given a choice most people do almost anything else. The New World gave poor people a choice in the 19th century which wasn't available until the 20th century in Europe.

  8. I had no idea of the nuances between American, British, and French butlers and household staff. Your article was so helpful. So, where do the terms manservant and companion fit in the mix?

    1. Companions were higher in the pecking order, like governesses, but were in no way on par with the family. A manservant was just a male servant.