How to manage your servants in the 18th century

For this post, we are revisiting a book we’ve used before, The Art of Conducting a Family with Instructions to Servants to take a look at some of the guidance for employing servants at the end of the 1700s.

Fidelity

Servants are an invaluable acquisition, but they have no interest at heart but their own. The more extravagant a family is, the better they fare. Economy they hate. Service, they say, is no inheritance.

Maidservant; British School
Maidservant; British School; The National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle;

Wastefulness

Servants like to see their masters and mistresses spending their money and servants enjoy wasting it for them regardless of whether it can be afforded or not.  A good servant should be as careful and frugal of their master’s property as they would be if it their own.

The Careless Servant; Francis Wheatley
The Careless Servant; Francis Wheatley; Walker Art Gallery

Respect

A servant owes his master respect and should never answer back and only speak when spoken to. Whether servants are hired by the week or the year, their whole time is their master’s; and if they wilfully waste that time, by idly omitting what they are ordered to do, or by staying longer on messages or errand, it is as bad as picking their master’s pocket; for it is robbing the master of that time the servant has contracted to give him, and for which he is paid.

The Scullery Maid; Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin
The Scullery Maid; Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow;

Leave

If a servant asks permission to take leave and it is declined, under no circumstances should he/she take it regardless but wait until a more convenient time.

A Game of Quadrille by Hubert-François Gravelot, 1699–1773, French, active in Britain (1733–45) c1740. Yale Center for British Art
A Game of Quadrille by Hubert-François Gravelot, 1699–1773, French, active in Britain (1733–45) c1740. Yale Center for British Art

Disagreements

If the master and mistress have any disagreements the servant must never interfere.

An Old English-Gentleman pester'd by servants wanting places.
An Old English-Gentleman pester’d by servants wanting places. British Museum

Loyalty

As a wife is bound in duty to obey the injunctions of her husband, should it so happen that a master gives a servant one direction, and the wife or mistress contradicts it, or gives counter-orders, it is the duty of the servant to tell his mistress, when she gives those counter-orders, that his master has ordered otherwise; and that it is his duty to obey the master rather than his wife or mistress.

Displeased with servants. Lewis Walpole Library
Displeased with servants. Lewis Walpole Library

No Singing or Romping

No servant should ever sing, whistle or talk loudly in the hearing of any of the master’s family, nor make any other noise about the house, so as to disturb, nor particularly should the men and maids romp in the kitchen.

A Master Parson with a Good Living by Carington Bowles
A Master Parson with a Good Living by Carington Bowles. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tread lightly

When a servant enters the room where the master or mistress is, they should tread lightly and never speak but in a quiet voice. They should equally go up and down stairs lightly.

Doors

When entering a room, if the door is closed, they should close it after them and close it again when they leave. Whilst speaking to the master they should not keep the door open and fiddle with the knob of the lock, but shut it gently, by turning the bolt, and opening it again, when they retire. Nothing is more insolent, or gives more offence, that slamming a door.

Silence is golden

Quietness adds to the comfort of every family and the more quiet and orderly servants are, the more they are valued.

Answering back

Servants should never answer their master or mistress back.

No Spitting

A servant should neither blow his nose or spit in his master’s presence and, if possible, neither sneeze nor cough.

Answering the bell

Attentive servants will always come at the first ring of the bell. Tread lightly and speak in an under-voice, yet so as to be heard distinctly, and will whisper to their master or mistress. They will not thrust their heads in the face of their master or mistress nor poison them with offensive breath.  To avoid anything disagreeable on this score, such as attend the room, servants will be clean of their person and will on no account eat onions, garlic or shallots.

Taking instructions

When a servant is receiving directions, he should be attentive, look in his master’s face, and not leave the room until the master has finished giving his instructions. If this was always done, there would not be so many mistakes nor would the ignorance of servants be so much complained of.

A Trusty Maid; Geroge H Hay; Hospitalfield Arts
A Trusty Maid; Geroge H Hay; Hospitalfield Arts

Books and Papers

A servant should not presume to take a book out of a master’s room or library to read, nor take away or remove any paper that may lie about, without first asking whether it is of any use. Many a valuable paper has been destroyed by the ignorance and carelessness of servants.

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