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.
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.
A 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.By 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!