For those of us who do all our own housekeeping, trying to figure out the staff in historic-set TV shows like Downton Abbey or in our favorite books can be confusing. Here's a basic primer that might help.
If you could only afford one servant, she would probably be a maid-of-all-work, a woman who cleaned, laundered, cooked, shopped, mended, and watched the children. Her life was probably difficult and full of drudgery, but depending on the household, she could be comfortable. However, according to Mrs. Beeton (who penned a must-have book on housekeeping),
"The general servant or maid of all work is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration. Her life is a solitary one and in some places her work is never done."
Wealthier households would hire more servants: a cook and housemaid at least, and a nurse for the children. The extremely-wealthy hired many more servants, which followed a strict code of hierarchy.
Indoors, a butler was the top banana. Below him was the underbutler, and then the master's valet. Next came footmen and any other men, including lampboys. The butler supervised the male staff; he announced visitors, sometimes took responsibility for the table setting, and was in charge of the wine.
|Maids cleaning ashes, perhaps?|
Footmen served food, carried packages, and accompanied their owners out and about. Maids, meanwhile, scrubbed, mended, and swept. Ladies’ maids were higher up in the hierarchy than housemaids, which had more status than chambermaids.
|This kitchen looks warm and spacious|
Outdoor servants included gardeners, gamekeepers, a coachman, and grooms.
Hours were long and the wages low, but servants sometimes received “vails” or tips from houseguests, which boosted their incomes. Some saw being in service as a career, while others viewed it as a way to stay warm and fed, as they were housed and served meals as part of their compensation.
Another interesting note? Sometimes, servants' names were changed for the employer's convenience. If one maid was named Mary, it might just be easier to call each consecutive maid thereafter Mary, too. This went for butlers, lady's maids, and cooks, too, depending on the whim of the employer.