Saturday, 8 December 2012

"Four New Aprons and a Box of Bonbons" : what to give a servant at Christmas?

What was Christmas like for servants in the past? Did employers show festive goodwill to their employees and did they celebrate together? Or did family festivities simply mean more work for 'the help'?

We can start to  think about Christmas  from the servant's perspective by thinking about gift exchanges. In the 1900's employers differed greatly in their attitudes towards gift-giving. For many, Christmas was an opportunity to provide their staff with necessities like aprons, or materials to sew new uniforms for the coming year. For instance, one woman who worked as a scullery maid in the inter-war years recalls her mistress giving her the material to make a new apron:
I was told "The lady is coming down to give you her Christmas gift." I said, "That'll be nice." So down she comes with these parcels, brown paper and string. She said, "Good morning." I said, "Good morning, my lady." She said, "I wish you a Happy Christmas." "I wish you the same, my lady." So she said, "This is for you." It was material to make an overall. That horrible, I couldn't believe it. What an insult. (1)
In what sense is a new uniform a 'gift'? Well, on the one hand, servants usually paid for their own uniforms so receiving them at Christmas did at least save the expense. On the other hand, how might you feel if your boss handed you a gift-wrapped ink cartridge or mouse mat? In other words, is such a 'gift' really just a different form of wage? Such a question might not matter in an environment where work is clearly distinguished as such, but a live-in servant spending Christmas away from her own family might have keenly felt the need for a more personal connection with her employer.

Some employers, however, did tried to move away from such pragmatic 'gifts'. In the Christmas 1906 edition of the Ladies' Home Journal, Frances A. Kellor reminds readers that:
The holiday season is the time of all others when the helper is prone to have a sense of separateness or to feel that she is not a real part of the household, but a mere spectator of joys in which she has no share whatever. The resulting feeling of loneliness is particularly trying and difficult to endure in the holiday atmosphere of anothers home. (2)
Christmas should also be an opportunity, Keller says, to "make the helper feel that her employer's home is hers."

Ladies' Home Journal, Christmas edition 1906

In response, her readers recall gifts they have given their servants. Some respondents merge utilitarian concerns while treating their staff; one reader explains how she gave her maid "four new aprons and a box of bonbons", while another explains how she gives her "helpers" money, but makes the  gesture seem more "Christmassy" by putting the money "inside a tiny purse or a pretty handkerchief" so that it is distinguished from "monthly wages".

Other employers go further. A "woman of wide experience in domestic matters" states that the woman "who selects a purely utilitarian gift for her helper makes a grave mistake ... something in the nature of a little luxury is much more acceptable." A good number of these women employ servants from outside America and so give gifts which tie in with native traditions, such as  "Scotch heather" and "German Christmas confections". This reader's moving story similarly speaks of the geographical displacements involved in domestic work:
Our helpers are two sisters, and we naturally came to know their family. We found there two brothers and five sisters alone in America and we wanted to help them keep together. Christmas seemed a good time. For two years we gave them a dinner and use of the parlour floor for the evening. But on the third Christmas when we arranged a 'cobweb party' the hearty handshake we got afterward gave us a key to future entertaining. Another pretty occasion was when we helped them to arrange a Christmas such as they have in their own country.
From the scullery maid's mistress who happily presented her employee with a new apron, to the Ladies' Home Journal respondents who go to great lengths to make sure their staff feel at home during the Christmas period, there were clearly a variety of gift-giving practices across the twentieth century. What this variety suggests is the unique position of the domestic worker, who can understand herself and be understood as a  family member, as an employee or as a strange mixture of both positions.

(1) Quoted in Jane L. Hegstrom, "Reminiscences of Below Stairs: English Female Domestic Servants Between the Two World  Wars," Women's Studies 36 (2007), 15-33, 27.
(2) Frances A. Kellor, "The Housewife at Christmas," Ladies' Home Journal 24 (December 1906). Accessed online via URL< > (17/12/2012).
Blogger Tricks

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Medieval Cooks and Food Illusions

I'm enjoying the BBC's 'Food, Glorious Food' season and as usual I have my eye out for servants. Clarissa Dickson-Wright's program shows that the medieval nobility and gentry demanded meals which were both filling and entertaining. Cooks created 'illusion foods', dishes which confounded diners' expectations. For instance meat-free 'hasteletes' were crafted from dried fruits - hasteletes were usually entrails. Yum. Below, Heston Blumenthal similarly creates 'meat fuit' by making plums out of a bull's ... er ... plums.

Even more spectacular examples of theatrical food abounded. Blackbirds baked in a pie? Small fry to Philip the Good whose chef encased a  live orchestra in a giant pastry shell at the Feast of the Pheasant. As Nicola McDonald explains, lords who commissioned such displays weren't just trying to demonstrate their hospitable natures and their largesse. Hosts who presented their guests with roast peacocks returned to their feathered skins, or rigged up cooked fowl to jump around in their dishes, showed that they had "power to conjure life itself and, by implication, death." (1)

Contemporary depiction of Philip the Good's feast (1454)

But what do these culinary shows tell us about the cooks who prepared them? Well, clearly these servants must have been highly skilled artists, but they also catered for their households' day-to-day necessities in hot, noisy and smelly kitchens. Successful cooks must have been skilled in directing staff, the many underlings who helped cook and prepare food. Furthermore, McDonald points out that lords expected their cooks to be knowledgeable in medical matters since they prepared the foods and drinks which would increase or purge their lords' humours. Indeed, beginner cooks trained for several years; cooks belonged to guilds and so worked as apprentices and journeymen before setting up their own shops or joining households as servants.

But despite their years of training and medical knowledge, their  application of elbow grease and artistic finesse, cooks suffered from an "image problem" in the Middle Ages. (2) Chefs in literature were often portrayed as drunken, stupid and bad-tempered. Melitta Weiss Adamson has speculated that educated elites looked disdainfully on chefs because they catered to the body, rather than the spirit. Chaucer's apprentice cook in his unfinished 'Cook's Tale', for instance, although an amiable fellow, is sacked because of his drinking and gambling.

So next time you watch Heston's  ice-cream pork pies or 'meat fruit', spare a thought for the unacknowledged culinary artists of the Middle Ages.

(1) Nicola McDonald, "Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion," in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. Nicola McDonald (Manchester University Press, 2004), 124-150.

(2) Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood Press, 2004).

Friday, 9 November 2012

Playing Maria


Maria in Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's wiliest and most interesting servants. This year the Globe theatre staged an all-male production of Twelfth Night and Paul Chahidi played Maria (pictured above). Click play above and you can listen to him discuss the challenges of playing a female servant, and his interpretation of Maria - courtesy of the Globe website. Do visit for more fantastic resources.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

"If you Want to Belch, be Mindful to Look at the Ceiling": Walter Map's Unruly Servants

Serving the table in the Lutrell Psalter (c. 1320)

Medieval conduct books are full of advice for children starting out as servants. Unlike the advice found in early modern household manuals, the instructions are often practical to the point of absurdity. Daniel of Beccles, in his Urbanus Magnus  or The Civilised Man (c.1200), offers these sage guidelines:

-          “Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property”
-          “If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling”
-          “Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the  patron”

(Translations found here ).

Such behavioural guides “flourished in courts and elite households” from the thirteenth century onwards “as manuscripts were passed among family members and new books were composed and conveyed through the generations” (1).  Reading them, we might image medieval servants as belching, flea-ridden, badly-behaved infants. But the advice is designed to transform these ragged infants into well-mannered courtiers and to turn dinner-times into synchronised routines. Harmonious and disciplined households would surely follow.

This transformation did not occur, however, in the household of poor Walter Map. Map, supposedly of Welsh origins, was a courtier for Henry II, and he describes his home life in his De Nugis Curialium or Trifles of Courtiers. In this text his naughty servants run rings around him, eating and drinking their fill and working together to undermine their employer. Map laments his own inefficiency; he cannot “hold the reins” of his “little team” and “[i]f I bring a just charge against any of them, he denies it and finds others to back him” (2).

A downtrodden Walter then goes on to narrate an instance of particularly bad behaviour which “was really hard on me”. His servants, he explains, were fond of spreading rumours about him and making him believe that they and the locals disliked him. One nasty rumour accused him of being “stingy”, so his servants devise a plan which, they say, will prove his generosity.  His servants began to:

go into the streets and lanes and say I had sent them to compel travellers to come in. The servants in the house received the guests with the greatest respect, said that I was most anxious to see them, and hoped they would come often. Then they would run into me and announce that guests had arrived, men of good position, and made me welcome them in.

Of course, this impromptu welcoming of strange ‘guests’ had nothing to do with  making Walter look good, but was instead a means of making “meat and drink fly”  in the guise of hospitality. The wily servants then “gorged themselves to any extent in my presence” which, Walter adds “they knew I hated” – somewhat proving his servant’s point about his stinginess.

Now, we have no means of knowing how much this was true and De Nugis is full of scurrilous court gossip. But either way, Map’s image of the unruly household opposes the kind of world conduct books tried to cultivate. Map’s servants are not deferential, orderly and moderate in their customs and habits. They run around stuffing themselves with food, inviting people into the home with no thought for material or personal safety. In fact – unlike Walter – they sound like a hoot.

(1). Roberta L. Kreuger, "Teach your Children Well: Medieval Conduct Guides for Youths," in Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English Translations, ed. Mark D. Johnston (U. of Toronto Press, 2009), ix-xxxi. ix.

(2) Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans. M.R.James (OUP, 1983).

Sunday, 22 July 2012

"But Sir...You've Never Made Breakfast Before": Alfred Pennyworth and The Dark Knight Rises

It's been a while since I last  posted but if anything was going to snap me out of a blogging stupor it was Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. I was totally unprepared for how much  I would enjoy this film. Despite living with a man whose comic book obsession means our spare room is populated by replicas of superheroes organised according to affiliation and rank, I'm not big on superhero films and 'action' scenes usually bore me silly. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is a different matter. I'm not the first to say that the scenes of Gothman residents spraying champagne onto snowy streets out of the windows of repossessed manor houses give the film a fascinating socialist tinge. The evil leader of the "reckoning" is eventually defeated, but not before he necessarily exposes rotten, hypocritical and decadent actions and motives amongst the Gotham elite.

At the start of the film, Selina Kyle makes her entrance as a maid serving up shrimp balls to Gotham's self-satisfied patrons while Bruce Wayne stays holed up in his mansion, padding around in his silk dressing gown. Set eight years after the tragic events of The Dark Knight, it's no wonder that Wayne feels a little sorry for himself. But Selina has no sympathy for his luxuriant reliance on servants to serve his meals, answer his door and make his bed. After stealing his mother's pearls and wearing them to another society fundraiser she warns Bruce that he'll soon regret thinking he could "live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

The most prominent servant in the film is of course the Batman's batman, Alfred. Alfred doesn't share Selina's sense of social injustice. He is there to support the Wayne empire, not to help topple it. But then again he is not just a prop; he is Wayne's business partner, even a surrogate father. And he's not afraid to stand up to his employer. Just after Alfred tells Bruce to buck up his ideas and stop feeling sorry for himself, for instance, he alludes to the fact that Wayne - a man so self-reliant that he can physically mend his own broken back - has never actually learnt to make his own bed. Sure enough, the next morning Bruce wakes up to the doorbell ringing and calls feebly for Alfred like an indolent teenager shouting for his mum. My title is taken from this comic strip, Gotham Adventures #60, where a similar exchange occurs:

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but want more from Alfred. I never got a sense from the film of the things he must necessarily have given up to support Bruce, even though he  has no family of his own, no possessions, no home and no partner. We might expect a flash of anger from Alfred faced with Wayne's thanklessness, not just Michael Caine's teary-eyed regret. You might argue, as a friend of mine did in the pub afterwards, that Alfred hasn't really lost anything because he's gained a family in the Waynes. But if Alfred is a father figure to Bruce, he's a strange one. I mean, what kind of father still makes his adult son's bed every day?

The ambiguity of Alfred's position is brought out nicely at times in the comics. In Superman/Batman #2 Superman struggles to make sense of the fact that Alfred is both paid employee and something more to Batman; that his work is both a paid task and an act of care (picture courtesy of my aforementioned comic book-loving partner):

Does Nolan's story encompass this kind of complexity? I'm not sure it does. It does remain, however, an almost perfect film.

P.S: For an excellent take on the history of Batman films do visit my good friend, The Magnificent Tramp.

Monday, 4 June 2012

How should Artists Depict Servants?

The Laing art gallery is currently running an exhibition exploring depictions of the family in British art and I went along hoping to see how servants fitted into these depictions  (you can see some examples on their Flikr). Sadly, I found only one example included. Plentiful paintings of servants do exist throughout the ages, as proven by a recent (ish) National Portrait Gallery exhibition. Sometimes artists treat servants as luxury objects like jewellery and sometimes they commemorated  servants' loyalty to their employers. Such paintings were often patronising caricatures, but they nonetheless acknowledged  the people who fed children, cooked meals, maintained households and sustained families.

So I was saddened not to see more servants at the Laing, but I was pleased to encounter Bill Brandt's work for the first time. Brandt's photographs juxtaposed "the formal spotless caps and aprons of parlour maids and aprons" with "images of deprivation within poor working-class households" (1). The Laing's selection, for instance, contrasts a very young child stood alone in a dingy, dirty alleyway with two bored and anxious looking housemaids attending to their employers' dinner table. In one image, an absence of care (both state and parental), in the other, a surfeit.

But is Brandt's attempt to portray British class divisions effective? Lucy Delap suggests not. Delap argues that in twentieth-century Britain, 'Great house' service was compulsively 'over-represented', despite 'being highly unrepresentative' of most servant's experiences (2). We have heard these arguments previously on this blog with regards to shows like Downton Abbey. In short, we must ask: Where are all the depictions of working-class servants, or servants in middle and working-class homes? By focusing solely on maids and servants in Great houses, Brandt arguably overlooks the existence of the numerous but culturally invisible working-class servants.

But, I want to ask, could this apparent oversight actually be the point? We are used to seeing servants in Great houses on TV and in films. Brandt's photographs continue this trend, yes, but he portrays these houses as fantastical, almost surreal worlds. The maids' outfits look ridiculous - impractical and stifling and their  their thoughts are clearly elsewhere. Brandt shows that the familiar pop culture image of the thriving Great house full of bustling, committed servants is a fantasy usually dreamt up by employers rather than employees, masters rather than servants.

(1): Lucy Delap, Knowing Their  Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press: 2011).
(2): Ibid.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Servants, Homelessness and Guy de Maupassant

Tolstoy famously described Guy de Maupassant’s working class characters as “half-animals” moved “only by sensuality, malice, and greed.” As he went on to admit, however, Maupassant was even less complimentary in his depiction of the middle classes and his short stories were composed almost entirely of middle-class scandals and deceits, ranging from murder to incest.  

His short story “Rose” is typically salacious. It begins with stability and comfort; in picturesque and temperate Cannes a pair of women enjoy the ‘festival of flowers’ an annual procession in which wealthy young men and women flung roses at each other from horse-drawn carriages. The women are physically fixed in place, submerged beneath “a dazzling, perfumed bed” of flowers (1).

This picture starts sliding out of place, however, when one of the women lets her gaze fall “on the two gleaming buttons on the coachman’s back.” Her companion, Margot, launches into a tale about a previous “personal maid” named Rose: “within a month, I was practically in love with her … I’d never had a servant like her. She used to dress me in no time and with such astonishing lightness of touch! ... After a while, I became extremely lazy, so much did I love this tall shy girl to dress me from top to toe, from undergarments to gloves … When I used to get out of the bath, there she would be, waiting to rub me down and give me a massage while I sometimes dozed off on a divan.”

Margot’s intimate story is already undermined by the events that precede it. Cannes may have been a prosperous, luxurious city but its domestic services were largely performed by outsiders who provoked anxieties and fears. As Sarah Maza explains, servants “provoked the same suspicions as other migrants in a society fearful of anonymity and individual mobility” (2). Margot, like many nineteenth-century employers in urban France tries to reduce of a stranger in her home by scrupulously researching Rose’s backstory. She recounts that Rose’s references “were written in English, since apparently her last appointment had been in the household of Lady Rymwell where she had been employed for ten years. The reference confirmed that this young lady was leaving of her own accord since she now wanted to come back and live in France. Throughout the long period of her employment … she had given absolute satisfaction.”

Margot’s best efforts to control her household, however, are not enough. One morning a policeman visits and insists on questioning her domestic staff. She gives thorough accounts of all of them: “This is the concierge, Pierre Courtin, an ex-military man … This is my coachman, François Pingau, also from the Champagne, son of one of my father’s tenant farmers.” When she calls Rose into the room, however, her oversight becomes clear: “This girl,” the commissioner explains, “is in fact a man. He is called Jean-Nicolas Lecapet. He was sentenced in 1879 for murder preceded by rape … Four months ago he escaped and we have been searching for him ever since.”

Putting to one side, if possible, the sexual and gender politics here, it’s clear that Maupassant is concerned with issues of mobility. Martine Gantrel has shown that in nineteenth-century French novels “instead of conjuring up images of domestic coziness, [the servant] somewhat paradoxically, becomes … an unusual locus of female homelessness” (3). Take for instance this account by Célestine, the chambermaid of Mirbeau’s Le Journal d’une femme de chambre:

Today I have entered a new place. This is the twelfth one in two years … Judging  from the really extraordinary and dizzy way I have roamed around, from houses to  employment agencies and from employment agencies to houses, from the Bois de  Boulonge to the Bastille, from the Observatory to Montmatre, from the Ternes to the  Gobelins, everywhere, without ever succeeding in establishing myself anywhere.
 Maupassant may seem to confirm middle-class fears about migrant and foreign servants but his story is typically ambiguous. The female protagonists are lazy, pampered and petulant and Margot's friend's response to the story is mysterious rather than censorious: “She was looking fixedly and with the enigmatic smile women sometimes wear at the two gleaming livery buttons directly before her eyes.” In Western Europe and North America today paid domestic services are typically carried out by women who have left their home countries in order to provide for their families. Yet tales like Maupassants’ suggest that“new” domestic service is “less new than one might imagine” (3). The story of domestic service continues to be one of movement and dislocation.
(1) Guy de Maupassant, A Parisian Affair and Other Short Stories, ed. and trans. Sîan Miles (Penguin, 2004).
(2) Quoted in Martine Gantrel, "Homeless Women: Maidservants in Fiction," in Home and its Dislocations in Nineteenth-Century France, ed. Suzanne Nash (State University of New York press, 1993).
(3) Ibid.
(4)Rafaella Sarti, “The Globalisation of Domestic Service-An Historical Perspective,” in Migration and Domestic Work, ed. Helma Lutz (Ashgate, 2008).