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Being in Service in Victorian England

(the paintings are not necessarily related to the Victorian era)

George Lambert. The Maid, 1915

There were two sure signs of wealth in 19th century England aside from land - carriages and servants, they were even taxed along with fancy carriages. Sometimes middle and upper classes had more servants than needed - just to show off.
Servants made up 16% of the national work force in 1891, on another hand, the average length of service in a home was not even a year and a half.

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)

Apart from reasons of status there was a lot of work to be done in a house - there was no electricity yet, nor dishwashers, nor vacuum cleaners, everything was done by hand from cleaning the carpets to washing the dishes. And a fancy dinner for 15 guests could generate more than 500 items to be washed afterwards.

Henry Caro-Delvaille. Tea Time

Multi-layered womens clothes in the mid century would be changed several times a day from morning gown and walking dress to formal evening dress and they ahd to be cleaned by hand. If there were guests in the house, a servant would have to attend to their rooms at least 4 times a day - to draw the curtains in the morning and bring hot water for washing before breakfast, to bring fresh water at noon and before 7 in the evening for washing before dinner, then before bedtime to prepare the bed and close the windows.

However, all the servants who helped guests at a great house expected to be tipped when the guest left. By the end of a century the tips expected were so high that some people preferred not visiting their friends in a country deterred by the prospective cost of tipping all the staff.
George Washington Lambert. Lottie and the Lady
Not a Victorian gentleman or a lady would ever think of doing it themselves, that was a whole point of being a lady - you gave orders to the servants what to do. Manual labor of any kind (except for embroidery and painting) would've put in doubt your eligibility to be received in polite society.

Joseph Decamp The Blue Cup, 1858-1923

A small household could afford one maid, who cooked, cleaned, looked after the children, doing all the work; in a bigger household of a professional man like a doctor there would be a cook, a housemaid and a nurse, and in a still grander households male servants would be needed. In a great household the servants could amount to a small army. The Duke of Westminster had 50 indoor servants at Eaton Hall.
Joseph deCamp. The Steward aka Lewis of the Porcellian, 1919

The male staff was supervised by the butler and the female staff was presided over by a housekeeper who were usually in charge of firing and hiring the servants. The butler took care of the wine cellar, family silverware, and ironing the master's morning newspapers (the ink on the newspapers in the 19th century was still tacky when they were delivered). The housekeeper, beside supervising the maids work, made preserves, ordered and kept household accounts, saw to the tea and coffee, and was responsible for the household linen.

Franck Antoine Bail, A Maid Watering Flowers

Benefits were given to some servants. A lady's maid was allowed to keep her mistress's unneeded clothes and a rag bag of linen which she was free to sell, the cook was permitted to sell the household "drippings".

Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky

Being is service was hard - long and laborious hours (from 6 in the morning and often till 11 at night) were poorly paid - in the middle of the century a housemaid made £11-14 a year. Standard vacations were two weeks off a year, a day off each month, one evening out a week and a half day off on Sunday. The servants slept in cold or overheated attic rooms and worked in dark basements, neither seen nor heard as required by the Victorian dictum.

Those who stayed on service for years preferred the security of the job, the chance for pension after the years of service, the possibility of travel. (reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool)

See also London. Society and the Season

Edgar Degas

Henry Robert Morland. A Laundry Maid Ironing

Charles Frederic Ulrich Washerwomen

George Dunlop Leslie. Her First Place

Mary Hayllar. Helping Gardener

Alphonse Gaudefroy. A Moment Aside

Theophile Louis Deyrolle. Picking flowers

Carl Larsson

Franck Antoine. Bail Two Milkmaids, 1906

Abraham Solomon

Adrien de Boucherville. The Lost Supper

John George Brown. The Little Servant

Combing My Lady's Tresses by Jean Baptiste Beranger

David Emile Joseph de Noter (1818-1892), A Maid In The Kitchen

Conti Tito, The Secret Admirer

John Finnie, Maids of All Work

George Dunlop Leslie - Afternoon tea, 1865

Joseph Caraud, The Levee

Joseph Caraud. Sharing the Chocolate

Joseph Caraud

Le Lever by Michel-Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié, 1773

Pierre Outin, Les Bonbons de Madame

Willem Joseph Laquy (1738-1798) - A Scullery Maid Preparing A Chicken

Auguste Toulmouche, An Afternoon Idyll

Gustave Courbet

Gabriel Metsu

Pierre August Renoir 1880

Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky


  1. Thank you very much. Great article. As far as i know, there was also no big difference in 19 th century germany until first world war.

  2. I'm almost sure it was all the same in Germany, France, Italy..
    Thanks for the feedback!

  3. LOVE your blog!!
    Excellent presentation and fascinating little insights!
    I hope it's okay with you for me to pin to Pinterest!
    Ann Nelson


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