Sunday, April 17, 2011

17 April 1957 “We Became The Maid”

servant At the turn of the last century (1900) a homemaker could not really call herself middle class if she did not have at least one domestic servant. Rather live in or a ‘day woman’, one’s social and economic station as having arrived at the “Middle” required it. Of course, pay and work related laws and freedoms were such that a bank clerk with a modest income or the local school teacher could easily afford a female domestic servant.

During the Post WWI years, servants began to be harder to come by and more expensive. The work available in growing factories and sales positions as well as the stigma of the female available to work in public (it was once not as common to have women wait at tables in restaurants as an example). Women who had to work or those who now chose to work were finding themselves places to do so other than in an apron as a domestic.

However, even by the 1940’s when the U.S. was just getting into the war, it was more common for the solid middle class and the upper middle (the professionals such as doctors, lawyers, college professors, and businessmen) to have at least one domestic.

gussie This is portrayed in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dreamhouse, with their much loved domestic Gussie. Before they build their lovely house in the Connecticut countryside, they are living in a two bedroom flat in NYC with, presumably, a small maids room off the kitchen. And even in these tight quarters, Gussie is needed and part of their family. Even in my early days of my 1955 experiment I had my older live in niece take on the roll of Gussie for me. She would help with certain tasks, such as occasional meals or in meal prep and some light housework.

An example of this early war time is this ad from my 1943 House Beautiful magazine.

maiduniformA company still making domestic servant uniforms. What I found interesting is fast forward to 1947, only a few years after the war, and a similiar ad now appears to be aimed at the homemaker herself.wifeuniformBy the way, I love the idea of this housedress, with a simple tie and button. One stays clean and still looks fresh if someone pops by. But, by 1947 we already see the move towards the domestics demise in the middle class. The position or opportunity as a domestic in a simple middle class home seems to be dissapearing. And the growing new middle class, the machinist or even mechanic, who is finding he can afford a home in the suburbs and the growing Levittowns of the 1950’s have little room or understanding of the homemakers helper, the domestic.

Here are some interesting pages from my late 1940’s homemakers manual, “America’s Housekeeping Book” on how to deal with a domestic helper.


Somthing that did strike me from this chapter in the book was the following information.

“They realize that homemakers need helpers and that it is socially important that homes should have competent and reliable workers, as must the office, the store and the factory."


It really made me think, yes the role of Homemaker is an important one. One of importance and certainly deserving of ‘work help’. Part of that idea of having someone help the Homemaker, as she IS an actual executive of her own home, her business if you will, seems to have faded almost overnight post war.

Certainly today the very concept of a maid or live in domestic would seem so alien to many that it would almost seem cruel. Yet, think of all the women, especially older women who have more free time, perhaps they are widows with family far away. Think what a joy they might actually find in being a day helper or even a live in to have the company of the family’s children and the ability to help run a house, like she did when she was younger. And, get paid to boot. As our economy grows worse, I wonder if this could become an area that people who are single or older and more alone and need some extra money might find helpful. And if the pay could be low enough (offset with free room and meals) could become a viable solution for the overworked homemaker who has to work outside the home and would love built in daycare and a hot meal. Or even the help in the kitchen preparing for things. The servant might be dead now, but as the middle class begins to disappear in our country and the future of our economy and financial standing as a country in a vastly changing world, I wonder what is ahead. When we are expected to learn to make more ends meet, perhaps the servant will be a new role to help those hard strapped by helping those even worse off to do something. The amount of money currently spent on aid for the welfare state, were that to dry up or go away due to financial hardship of the government, domestic living could be a viable solution for an entire class of people.

However you look at it, it is an interesting part of our history. And specifically for women’s domestic history, both as a servant or as a happy middle class homemaker who was happy for the help, and glad to have some ‘employee’ in her very important business of the Home.

If a servant were affordable, could you see yourself having one? Would it be a day girl who comes a few times a week to clean, or a happy elderly grandmotherly type with a little room off the kitchen happy to have coffee and breakfast ready for you and your family? Or does the idea completely turn you off?

And for those of you who would like to listen to the radio broadcast done of Mr. Blandings builds his Dream house, I have it on my YouTube channel. It has Cary Grant, who also starred in the wonderful film. HERE is the link to the radio broadcast. It is in three parts and simply click on the next parts on the right to watch the other parts. Enjoy!


  1. As a homemaker of 23 years and mother of 4, I would have loved an extra pair of hands while the children were small. Now I am bombarded often with the question of what are you going to do when the last one moves out? I am going to continue to do what I have been doing for the past two decades, as caring for the home is an incredible task that could use an extra hand every now and then!

    What a great idea in these economic times...


  2. I'm with Humble Wife-I sure would have loved some help when the children were growing up. Now, however, I'd find it an intrusion on my day. I like to "work" at my own pace and actually enjoy the daily tasks around the house. But yes, when there are children involved-how nice that would have been.

  3. Affording one, no, ha-ha, I could see myself BEING one, lol. Interesting post for sure.

  4. My mother could never have afforded a domestic, but her mother who was born 1894 grew up with a woman who served as housekeeper and maid, hired men as her father had a smoked fish business and had a house keeper herself in her early marrage. She was married 1918. Personally I would have loved help especially after a birth. The Amish women here do no work for eight weeks after a birth and not even carry their own babies around. Hold them yes but carry, no. I went home after two days and went back to my domestic chores. Oh well, I have made out ok.

  5. We have 5 children and homeschool. I have plugged along all these years without any help(I would have loved some help but didn't have it). Finally, this year I got to the point where I realized there was too much to do and not enough time. I was loosing my mind. I think part of it was deciding I needed help and then putting my creative energies to solving the problem. I wound up hiring a homeschooled teenager that lived near me. I'm afraid she was payed poverty wages because that was all I could afford. But it was a HUGE help. I began to wonder "where did the stigma come from that says to be a good homemaker we have to do it all ourselves?" Having someone to help can be an inconvenience as you have to work around a schedule. I guess you have to weigh out in your mind if having the help is worth the inconvenience of organizing a schedule for the help. In my case, it was definately worth it. She was an absolute angel.
    Amy Fuller

  6. I would welcome a helper in my home. I also am sure my mother, a true women of her day, had someone who cared for my older sisters. I know she did some light cleaning and cooking too. My mom went to work as many did during the war at an early age of 17. She worked in the same factory for many years. I wish I could ask her about this now. I'm wondering how much money she paid them. She passed a few years ago. I know she talked about how little they did have and how she had to be very careful with her budget.

    Very interesting post, I enjoyed it.

  7. Reading your post, I was taken back to my high school years when for a short time I WAS the hired girl. My duties were to keep an eye on three children, start dinner and do some light cleaning. At the time it was quite the adventure, being responsible for helping to run a household at a relatively young age.

    Fast forward twenty-some years and I'm thinking wouldn't it be wonderful to have someone like that available to me now? I work long hours and commute to the city. There never seems to be enough hours in the day to keep up with everything that needs to be done and am always left feeling behind in keeping house.

    If we had the money for it, it would be lovely to have someone come in once or twice a week and do some of the house cleaning for us. Something to think about...

  8. Your comment about the swirl dress jogged my memory about a post on another blog about vintage swirl dresses. I thought you might enjoy it.
    Amy F.

  9. I honestly do not know if I would feel comfortable with having a hired help. I know my great grandmother was a maid in England, and my great grandfather came to Canada because he wished for his daughter to not be, he wanted a better life for her.

    My friend works full time, long hours and has a housecleaner come in every other week, I joked with her one time helping her to clean her house and she took it seriously. I told her kindly no thanks.

    My great grandfather died during the Spanish influenze at 32 in Canada and his wife had to return to England for awhile to work, she remarried and returned to Canada. My aunt did work as a companion to a woman and her family, she helped to take care of the children.

    It`s sad that my great aunt`s father did not live long enough to make sure his daughter could have the same life as his sister who only taught piano lessons.

    I think the time for domestic help has long gone and that older ladies and gent would far benefit from having an active social life in community centres rather than working to care for another`s house.

    Mom in Canada

  10. I just recently went back to work full time. It is a difficult adjustment after spending so much time home. I hate to say that I do not think I will continue it long term because I would rather be home gardening and taking care of the household. I felt this need to go back to work though because I felt that guilt of being one of the few wives that I know who "did not work." But, anywho...

    I think that I would feel weird having someone in my home taking care of things. However I guess that is odd for me to say since my mother used to clean houses after she had retired from her former job. (She was a school cafeteria manager so that she could have off when I was off from school while I was growing up. My dad worked a very labor intensive sheet metal fabricator - before computers did it all.) She enjoyed the few homes she went to once or twice a week. I believe she worked for 3 at most at one time, and 2 of the 3 of the homes she cleaned were of elderly, but she did take care of some homes of families who worked too.


  11. Four years ago, I was working full-time outside of the home, was pregnant with my third child, had two younger children (4yo and 2yo), my husband was working long, stressful hours and I was also providing assistance to my mother (driving her to appointments, taking her to run errands, etc). I was feeling very overwhelmed in that season of life and I asked my husband about having someone come in to assist with cleaning. His answer was, "Absolutely not!". He didn't like the idea of a stranger coming into our home. And didn't want to pay for something we could do ourselves - even though I was doing all of it! I was upset at the time and felt him to be a little insensitive to my needs. But, it provided motivation to me to get my house in order and develop routines (FlyLady).

    Just recently, I asked my husband again about having a service come in because the topic had come up on a finance/frugal living forum I frequent. His answer was still the same - absolutely not! Even though the extra help would be nice and it is something we could afford, I know no one else would put the care into cleaning our home like I would (that's why I refer to it as "homecaring"). It's part of my ministry as a wife, mother and working home keeper to care for my home, provide a haven for my family, prepare meals for them. Working outside of the home doesn't diminish that role for me.

    I am thankful for my mother, who lives with us. She watches the children while we're at work. That's a big help!

    Mary Ellen
    The Working Home Keeper

  12. We have had a cleaner in the past, and I don't like it! I like to have my space private, without intrusion. My MIL has a maid who comes every weekday + Saturday, and it's a terrible distraction/interruption when I'm there. And everything is "too clean"! No life clutter, nothing.

  13. Such a great mix of answers. Actually, I thought most people would be almost mad and say, "Maids, what?!"
    I think, as we move forward in our worsening financial times, we might see that odd and detrimental view of maids lessen. When jobs become more scarce or even, heaven forbid, more social money disappears for the elderly, the ads for "nice older woman, light house work, loves children, cooks a nice meal, can live in" might start to appear.
    Now, I am not saying this is good or bad, but in a way the view of the nice happy domestic woman in the middle class home might reappear. Now, only the very wealthy can really enjoy a live in. Yet, we often find those in politics and with money actually paying low wages to illegal immigrants. The return of the maid as a job one does as much as someone working at Starbucks or at the local Grocery, just might return.
    When I owned my business I had a girl who came in twice a week. She cleaned (not very well) did laundry and put that away and did some marketing. It was nice to have, though. Yet, we never had a comorodory or a connection one would have had with a live in woman. I believe there was a special female bond there. And I am sure there were wretched bosses to work for (What we always see in films!) I bet there were just as many, if not more, happy pairs of women, one wife one domestic, who had a good laugh in the kitchen preparing meals together, or laughing about the children. It the stigma disappeared about being a domestic, it could, in fact, be a good job.
    Much as the stigma now exists for homemakers. We are often seen or viewed in a way that is not true. So to, I believe, is the maid or domestic.
    I know if I found a woman happy to live in and work for what little we could ever afford (her being happy to have the work, a roof over her head and NOT just sitting in the local 'old folks senior center watching tv', I'd gladly have her. IT would be an adjustment, but it would also be a boon for both of us and honestly less cleaning for both of us as well.
    So many good comments.
    Mary Ellen-my goodness you sound such a busy woman, God bless you. I had to laugh again, as I keep wondering if I must be a wretched wife, but whenever I see a wife say she 'asked her husband and he said no' I have to laugh to myself. Because, I don't think I asked my husband about the maid. I was overworked and he was as well (we split the duties of house care/marketing/laundry) so I just hired someone I could afford. It never occurred to me to ask.We both were earning incomes and also having to care for the home, so I knew he would be glad of the lessened work himself. What an ogre I must seem to some of you ladies, but you will excuse. One gets set in one's ways.
    To me, I have come to see homemaker as a real career, a real 'executive job' and certainly if the time ever could be, having employees at that job only solidifies to me its import and reality.
    I also think we might see the domestic return slowly in ways that is affordable to both parties as it is one of the few jobs that cannot be outsourced. Even our retail, the job market that took many domestics away, is slowly shrinking. Shopping from home with the computer is lessening the need for such brick and mortar stores.
    Still, interesting things to think about and thank you all for our lovely discussion.

  14. 50's gal - No, you're not a wretched wife! That's just how the dynamic works in our marriage. Even though we're both earning incomes, I still see my husband as my head. Particularly in matters that involve finances, we must both be in agreement. And even when my husband doesn't quite see things my way, ultimately I know and trust that he has the best interests of our family at heart.

    Now, if I would have approached him and asked to pay for a cleaning service using my personal allowance, he probably would have said sure. But, I have other things to spend my personal money on like dresses, gardening supplies, paints, craft supplies, home decor!

    Mary Ellen
    The Working Home Keeper

  15. Donna, I worked for a dentist in our previous town caring for her children, doing household chores and cooking for nearly 10 years. I was there 4 days a week and it was a good job for a mom to have.
    When I began, she had one child and so did I. Ten years later, she had three children and I had two. Whew!
    For about 9 years, the family lived in her husband's "bachelor pad", a small three bedroom house.
    Eventually they built a new home a few miles out of town and it must have been about 5,000 sq. ft. This included 6 bathrooms. At that point, it became too much for me, so I returned to teaching preschool, another good "mommy" job.
    I agree that employment as live-in household help would be a good way to avoid poverty for some. Sadly in our current society, it would be difficult to find someone trustworthy in many areas.
    Have you ever considered a post on boarding houses? My father lived in one during his college years. I have often thought they would be an economical way to live for many people.
    They seemed to disappear a number of years ago.
    Thanks for another great post.......Denise

  16. I love the idea of having extra help. I had neck surgery in Novemeber and have been struggling to recover. I just hired a housekeeper, who is a mother of one of the kids' friends, to come and clean for me every other week. It is wonderful!!!! She's happy to have some extra cash and I'm happy to be able to recuperate without the stress of trying to clean house. I think I will keep her even after I'm well. I have 5 children ages 3 through 12 and my hands are really full as it is. I used to joke to my husband that I wanted an "Alice." Remember Alice from "The Brady Bunch?" How nice to have the extra help. I have several friends that have Au Pairs and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For me, I think I would resent having someone spending too much time with my kids. I'm the mom and I still want to be the chief person, along with my husband, caring for them and training them.

    Great post, yet again.


  17. Sorry if I offended you 50`s gal.....

    What I have also failed to mention in my above post, is that in our area we have a wonderful senior citizen centre that offers tap dance lessons, card tournaments, yoga designed for older people and many other amenities, it also organizes shopping trips etc.

    There is an active crafts group, that makes lovely crafts to sell, I volunteered there as a teenager and although they moved the center to the new location, it offers similar amenties.

    It is a place where seniors can go to mingle, exercise, and there is no television in sight.
    It truly is a model place and keeps the older population active :)

    Mom in Canada

  18. I live in a townhouse in Boston that belonged to my g-g-grandparents; in their day they had 11 domestics to serve 4 people. In 2011 we just have a weekly cleaning lady, a day cook, and a parlour maid (waitress - necessary, because the kitchen is in the basement). Most of our 18 rooms are not in use, but since the house is in trust, we can not sell it; so,we live in it with no mortgage/rent/or utility expenses, so we can not complain. I happened upon your blog, as I am an historian, specializing in women's role as homemaker in New England from the Edwardian age, through the Atomic age. I enjoy reading your modern perception of the 1950s.

    Huntington Cabot

  19. I was always touched by the relationship Susan Baker had with the Blythe family in the Anne of Green Gables books. The idea of an older lady in the home to help out really appeals to me. There is nothing like a multi-generational home, and for so many nowadays, it's just a fond memory of the days gone by.

  20. So many wonderful comments. I have always been interested in domestic service history. I found more interesting information that affected the middle class homemaker and her housekeeper that I want to share in another post.
    Mr. Cabot, you are lucky. Hubby and I have the unlucky circumstance of being leaves on the poorer cousin branches of the Brahmin tree. We saw silly moves made by a few generations that left brownstones and country homes to pay off debts. You are lucky indeed. I also have always liked the layout of the basement kitchens/servants halls with usually the men kept below stairs and the female servants in the attic. Another time, for sure.
    I shall indeed do more posts on the domestic.

  21. I just discovered your blog, and may I say, I am in love with it!!! I've always loved the era of the 40s and 50s since I was a little girl watching classic movies with my mom, and now, well, I have a slight obsession with collecting vintage patterns (of which I have made some and long to make more. I even made many of my maternity clothes from vintage patterns, and they were definitely the most stylish and comfortable of anything I wore while pregnant.) This has been like meeting a kindred spirit ;)
    But, when it comes to a maid. I don't like the idea of someone always being with me, but then again, if I were used to it, I think it might end up being like having one of your girlfriends with you all day (that's if you get fortunate enough to have one that you get along with, and they often do in the movies and on tv). Other than my being slightly discomforted because I'm unaccustomed to the idea, I would love to have some help around the house, and I think it would make me want to do more, because I wouldn't want to just be sitting around while someone else does all the work.
    My dad said my grandmother always had a housekeeper. They were anything but wealthy, but she worked full time at a factory and the housekeeper was seen as essential and entirely understandable. However, my dad has said he felt as though he weren't as important to his mom as the housekeeper often ended up being their babysitter, too.
    I think many of us today are more likely to not want a maid because we're too OCD about our households and couldn't stand to relinquish any control over it.
    Oh, and how come the Brady Bunch had Alice?
    Again, LOVE your blog! :D

  22. Nice timing if your post. Let me explain. I've had our maid for almost 15 years. When hubby and I were working it made sense. Then I became pregnant with our first child and we kept her on because we figured we'd need the extra help with a baby in the house, even though I stayed home. Anyway, Yolanda has been with me thru out it all. The birth of my children, the death of my mother, the chaos of preschoolers, mishaps in the kitchen, you name it. She comes once a week and although she doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Polish we have a relationship. Well, just yesterday Yolanda told me she was moving back to Poland. I knew this day would come but I'm so shaken nonetheless. And the reason she's moving back is why I'm upset. She's sick and wants to be with her family. Also the healthcare is more accessible there. I'm not sure exactly what the ailment is but I've noticed her work isn't as it used to be, which I'd never mention. She's earned the right to take it easy after all these years.

    I'm considering not hiring someone new. I guess you could say I'm set in my ways. Yolanda does her duties as she sees fit, I do mine, and sometimes we'd work on a project together. Like organizing the basement or flipping all of the matresses. She's just a kind soul to help me manage the details of family life. If I was looking for a missing snow boot on a hectic morning and one of my children needed juice, she'd get it. I think this easy going feeling will be hard to find again. I certainly won't find it in a maid service.

    I understand how some would feel weird about having a stranger "touching your stuff". I grew up with domestic help as did my mother. I think if I'd hadn't I'd feel differently. I also think I got very lucky. I hired Yolanda from a small cleaning service but without references. Only the word of the owner of the service. Her job has changed over the years and she has just rolled with it.

    Anyway, not to go on and on. I'll miss Yolanda and I pray for her health.

    Sarah H.

  23. I am currently in my senior year at school, and have paid my tuition, books and expenses through my nanny job and VERY frugal living, while mys husban'ds job has paid rent, utilities, and food. We have emen managed to save a bit.
    The family I have worked forin the past 4 years had three boys, aged 6,10, and 13. I rarely saw the 13 year-old, as he was always at sports practice, but had the privelege of watching the other two grow up. Although I have heard horror stories about nannies practically raising the children while the parents were at the spa, I was very lucky in that the parents were very involved, but overwhelmed with the different schedules of the three. The kids' mom is a stay-at-home mom, but extremely down to earth, and would support my decisions regarding the rare discipline issues, and has always treated me with great respect, kindness and friendliness, which made me turn myself inside out to do things for them, even to rearranging my schedule to do extra babysitting.

    I will be forever greatful that their generous pay has enabled me to get through college without college loans, and I will miss the boys terribly once I begin to work in my chosen field public relations in the performing arts. (I have an internship with the Symphony herre in Houston!)

    My dream job is to stay at home and keep house for my husband, and any children that may come along, but he is persuing an MBA while self-employed, and we feel that it is important for me to have some job experience in case anything ever happens to him, and we'd like to be able to pay for his MBA without loans as well.

    He's all for the idea of being married to a housewife, as he's a bit old-fashioned, but we know that now is not the time. I can't wait for the chance to be a stay-at-home wife, but will live vicariously through this blog until I can!

    Anne in Houston, TX

  24. Oh dear! Many appologies for the deplorable spelling and punctuation errors!

    Anne in Houston,TX

  25. Again, I am so happy this post was so popular. So many wonderful stories.
    Sarah-that is just how I picture myself with a maid. Someone who becomes part of the family and may not always do the job perfectly, but then when do any of us? The middle class servant often became a confidant and comrade of the homemaking because, unlike her upper-class counterpart, she was often in the kitchen with the maid working as a team. And yet, when the homemaker had to go out with hubby, attend functions during the day, she could feel good knowing that her children would come home to a familiar face and a warm meal. There is much to be said for this set up and I would love to see it, much like homemaking, make a comeback because people WANT to do it, not because they are FORCED to do so. And why not? Who says someone can't be happy being a maid in a family that appreciates her and makes her part of the family? In many ways she is similar to the role of the homemaker and we here certainly see the relevance in that, don't we?
    I will post again, as I said, about another aspect that lead to the disappearance of the middle class maid. It has to do with, no surprise, new tax laws.

  26. It is perhaps appropriate that English domestic help were called "slaveys" and it also seems appropriate to point out that slavery is still manifest within the American household. An English woman friend was employed ostensibly as a nanny to look after the children, but was soon put upon to run the entire household, ie: getting the children out of bed, dressed and washed,fed,school run, housecleaning, grocery shopping, pets, evening and main meals weekends, and on call 24 hours a day, at the beck and call of her employers and their children. The whinning, pineing, lower middle classes who wistfully covet "help" especially with the "children," soon turn out to be as vicious as any antebellum plantation owner!!!, when given the opportunity.

  27. I am so happy to see that I'm not the only SAHM that feels like some help would be GREATLY appreciated. Running a home is HARD work. I have two little ones and trying to get things done is darn near impossible! Thanks for posting this if only for people like me to see we're not alone!

  28. I can speak to this phenomenon from personal experience. I graduated from college (liberal arts degree, no less) in 2010 and found myself the unfortunate victim of the down economy. I am now working as a housekeeper/nanny for a family I used to babysit for while I was a student. I won't lie and say it is my dream job or what I had hoped for when I first started school, but it is working for me at the moment. I really like the family I work for and I feel I have good chemistry with them. Also, because I have room and board covered I can put almost all my pay toward student loans, which is a plus.
    P.S. Sorry if this posted twice, I think my first attempt got eaten by the internets.


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