Domestic Servants and Laborers

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: About 1865 to about 1930
Location: New Englandmap
Surname/tag: Main, Scriven, Rensselaer County
Profile manager: Bob Scrivens private message [send private message]
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Domestic Servants and Laborers

One day, I ran across another US Census for someone in my Scriven ancestry that listed a servant living with the family. (See William H. Scriven). I saw that happening often and understood why when people were farmers: the "help" must have lived under the same roof and earned their keep that way. But the ancestor I just researched, William Scriven, was listed in the 1880 US Census as a carpenter who lived in rural New York, and was hardly someone who had a lot of disposable income for the luxury (at least it would be seen that way today) of having a "servant."

Did the idea of "servant" mean something different in those days? Was it a catch-all term the US Census used for people who exchanged their labor for room and board? A live-in nanny maybe? Since I assumed many other census records listed non-family residents the same way, I decided to see what I could find out.

Domestics: an overview

Since originally posting a question about this on WikiTree’s G2G, I've done more reading on "domestic servants," both in the USA and UK. Far from being the exception, it seems like having servants was the rule in rural 19th century America. A number of sites say that for any but the poorest households to function, they needed at least one maid (called "a maid of all work") to help the woman of the house with duties from taking care of the children to food preparation. Many families had what would appear to be reciprocal relationships with neighbors where their children were placed and worked for someone known to the family. It was not so much like an apprenticeship but more like a practical way of keeping the farms running using available child labor as an inexpensive resource.

On Victorian Web, John Burnett points out in his introduction to The Annals of Labour that “Throughout the nineteenth century and until the First World War domestic service constituted the largest single employment for English women, and the second-largest employment for all English people, male and female. Yet it is a largely unknown occupation." [1] Burnett continued, explaining that, only when domestic help became difficult to come by because factory jobs were seen by workers as more favorable employment, did they enter the public discussion.

Antebellum Cincinnati [2] tells how, before large scale immigration, "many households would basically borrow children from neighboring households. If a family didn’t have any female children of their own, they would take in young females from neighboring households who would help take care of the home. (309) When immigrants began coming to America in large waves, they filled the void and domestic servants became popular in rich and middle class households."

In an article, “The Decline of Domestic Help,” in The Atlantic, it explained how, even though today live-in maids are an anachronism, “For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: Either she had a maid or she was one. Servants—often live-ins—who did the bulk of the cooking, laundry, and childcare were an indispensable part of life for virtually everyone who wasn’t a domestic worker him or herself. . . . Only a generation before middle-class housewives entered the workforce en masse, they enjoyed the assistance of nannies, cooks, and cleaners. ” [3]

"The Biddies" -- Irish Domestic Servants in Early America tells how "These women cooked meals, cleaned house, cared for the children, made the beds, and other tasks of that nature. Many of them came as indentured servants . . . meaning that they worked for room and board to pay for their passage to the United States. After a no-frills journey, they would begin a labor term of four to seven years. During this period they were treated the same as slaves -- they could be tracked down by bounty hunters if they fled. . . . Until mid-century, debtor's prisons were common and anyone deemed not to fulfill their end of the agreement could be thrown into one. Women were also vulnerable to sexual assault, since they had almost no legal recourse to pursue claims." [4]

“Domestic service came to be regarded as an unattractive occupation because of the long hours, low wages, poor living conditions, low social status, and dependence on the personal habits of the employer. . . . Growing numbers of upper middle-class families in the late 19th and early 20th century increased the demand for domestic servants, which was largely met by immigrants. Immigration quotas established in 1921 cut down this supply, and the demand for servants was subsequently reduced by the use of labor-saving devices.” [5] Between immigration and these labor-saving devices (e.g. washing machines), domestic labor declined more and more into the early 1900s.

Observations of other WikiTree members

When I posted a query on domestic help and live-in laborers on WikiTree’s G2G [6], I got a lot of information that filled out the topic. Anne B. said, “I see it all the time in Censuses. . . . Lots of farmers, have an odd man listed in their household, their occupations are usually listed as farm laborer, maybe they are listed as boarders though instead of servants. I've also seen, that sometimes people you know are related, like cousins, are living with their relatives and get listed as servants, because they are trading their services for room and board.” Ellen Smith elaborated, saying, “One 1880 census record I ran across recently showed that a young daughter (age 11 or 12) of one family was living as a ‘servant’ in the household of a neighboring family, while her older and younger siblings were still living in her own parents' home. I believe she was listed as attending school. I imagine that this was an arrangement that relieved crowding in her own family's household, while ‘helping out’ in the home where she was a ‘servant’." Susan Fitzmaurice added, “I was very surprised some of my family members had servants. . . . In an earlier census they had slaves, but after emancipation they had servants. Also, some elderly people had a servant or farmworker – [because] either a husband and wife were too infirm to take care of themselves. And some turned out to be daughters-in-law who came back to live with parents-in-law after the death of their son/husband. So they don't share the same last name, and it is only when you look at earlier censuses can you put those facts together.”

French Canadians

Three out of four of my grandparents arrived in the Northeast as Canadian immigrants. “French Canadians later emigrated in large numbers from Canada to the United States between the 1840s and the 1930s in search of economic opportunities in border communities and industrialized portions of New England.” [7] When I looked in the censuses for people who were listed as domestics and laborers who lived with my French Canadian relatives, I just didn't see any. Some things became apparent from the very beginning. The first was that most of them immigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. That meant that working age family members took work in manufacturing. Since they arrived in New England, that usually meant jobs in the textile industry. Given the choice between domestic service and industry, immigrants almost always picked industry. Maybe this is why you rarely see any French Canadian immigrants listed as a domestic: even the children worked!

Typical of that would be the household of my great grandparents, Lumena and Joseph Robert, who immigrated from St. Remi, Quebec, to Massachusetts in 1906. The 1870 census for St. Remi, Quebec, lists Lumena and her seven siblings, ranging in age from 16 to 1, having no occupation. Joseph is listed as a “cultivator,” which means he had his own farm (and probably, his children helped with that). For the 1910 US Census, Joseph was a blacksmith at a local cotton mill. While Lumena didn’t work at the cotton mill, the four oldest children (age 20-14) did. My grandmother, Yvonne (13) was the oldest child still at home—along with four others from age 11 to 4. Their neighbors on Beaver St. in North Adams, MA, also had jobs at the cotton mill. Virtually the whole neighborhood, in fact, had some kind of mill job, most of them “weavers.” (One person was a cook at a boarding house.) By the 1930 census, Yvonne was married to my grandfather, Wilfred Fountain, who worked for the railroad, operating a trolley. Yvonne herself had no occupation listed, apparently taking care of her four daughters at home on Howland Ave. in Adams, MA. On the same census page, there was a wider range of occupations, most having to do with a local paper mill. There were no “domestics,” however, which would be expected at the beginning of the Great Depression. The point with all these details is that these French Canadian immigrants didn’t have servants or maids. Not only were they too poor to hire them, they also seemed disinclined to place their older daughters in other people’s homes as hired help. Relatives sometimes lived with these families as boarders, but they tended to be older males who had factory jobs and paid board.

Italian immigrants

The same seemed to hold true for other immigrant ethnic groups. In my wife’s large Italian family, I can recall only one woman who was a live-in domestic. Again, these Italian Americans found steady jobs in the mills of Berkshire County. Some of the men did work in the mines in Adams. But the rule seemed to be, once you were old enough to get a job (maybe 14 or so), you quit school and became a factory worker. My wife’s mother and her siblings had no jobs listed for the 1920 US Census. They were just children then, the oldest being 11. Other people on that census did a variety of things, like general labor, work for the local textile plant or shoe factory. By the time of the 1930 US Census, my wife’s mother had a job at the Richmond Hotel. A sister did housecleaning, other family members did manual labor. The rest of those listed in the neighborhood did a variety of things, from working in a biscuit factory to working in a textile mill. Many did not have jobs at all because of the Great Depression.

The industrial revolution and surge of immigration eventually supplanted the family domestics of the 19th century. Factory jobs paid better and gave more freedom; it was that simple. On the other hand, a Wikipedia article tells us that, “estimates in 2015, based on national surveys and/or censuses of 232 countries and territories, place the number of domestic workers at around 67.1 million.[3] But the ILO itself states that "experts say that due to the fact that this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, the total number of domestic workers could be as high as 100 million".[4] The ILO also states that 83% of domestic workers are women and many are migrant workers.” [8]

My gut reaction is that these children, these "domestics," these rural "servants," were the precursors of the child labor work force at the mills that came into practice in New England in the early 1900s. If the practice of using kids as “assets” was already legitimized on the farms, it was an easy step to send them into the factories for full work days.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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