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.

‘One can never have enough saucepans’ – the duties of an 18th-century cook

Justus Juncker - cook
By Justus Juncker

Well, so far we have looked at household maid and the laundry maid, so we now move on to take a look at what would have been expected of the cook according to Mrs Parkes. Her description of the role provides an interesting insight into the way in which the employer viewed the role of the cook and her possible honesty and integrity as well as how frugally the household food budget could be managed – perhaps a lesson in for us in today’s ‘times of austerity’.

The cook should be healthy and strong, and particularly clean in her person. Her hands, though they may be rough from the nature of her employment, yet, should have a clean appearance.

Her honesty and sobriety must be unquestionable because there will be so many things tempting her to betray her trust and this she may do for a length of time without discovery.

She can neither be clean nor neat in her work if she does not have a sufficient number of saucepans, kettles, and a variety of other utensils but which must bear a proper proportion to the quantity of cooking which she has to perform.

Roller towels, kitchen table-cloths, and towels should be given out to her each week, in sufficient number, to afford her the means of being clean, without extravagance.

In those houses in which there is much cooking, and in large families, a kitchen-maid is generally kept, to whom devolves the preparing of the servants meals, and the cleaning the kitchen and the various cooking utensils; but, in smaller families, this additional servant is unnecessary, the work being easily performed by the cook.

The kitchen should be thoroughly cleaned twice during the week, and well swept each day: besides which, the broom and mop should always be at hand to remove anything that may have fallen on the floor, while the business of cooking is going on. A dirty floor, fire-place, unpolished utensils, with basins, jugs, or other articles left lying about, are symptoms of a slovenly cook, and are sufficient to excite suspicions of her nicety in things of greater importance to your comfort.

The cleaning of the kitchen, pantry, passages, and kitchen stairs, should always be over before breakfast, so that it may not interfere with the usual business of the day.

(c) Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Elizabeth Hickman (d.1784), Cook to the Corporation by unknown artist (c) Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

If there is no housekeeper, the cook should, early in the day go into the kitchen and look around to see if all this has been properly done. You can then give your orders for the day, and inquire what is required from your store-room. The other servants should, also, come at the same time to ask for such things as they may need.

After each day’s cooking is over, the grate and hearth should be cleared, a small fire made up, and the boiler and kettle filled up and set on to boil. She should then, when there is no scullion, proceed to wash her dishes, having previously prepared two tubs, one with clean hot water, and the other with cold; in which latter the plates and dishes should be well rinsed before they are put onto the rack to dry.

The saucepans and kettles which have been used should be then scoured, but not too roughly, either with wood ashes, or with fine sand, then well rinsed out, wiped dry, and turned down on a clean dry shelf. If tin saucepans are not well dried, they quickly rust and are then spoiled.

The upper rim of saucepans should be kept bright; but the outside, where the fire reaches and burns, it is useless to attempt keeping bright; and indeed the rubbing and scouring they would require would soon wear them out.

For the same reason, the saucepans should not be scoured with a very heavy hand, which wears off the inside tinning without cleaning them the better. Iron and tin saucepans are properly superseding the use of copper; for although metallic copper be not poisonous, yet, if a copper vessel be left by a careless servant in a damp state exposed to the air, it cannot be used with safety until it be scoured. When copper pans are not well tinned, the Verdigris, or rust of copper, very soon appears, and this is, as you know, highly poisonous; particularly, if anything, in the smallest degree, be suffered to stand in it till it becomes cold.

Plucking the Turkey exhibited 1776 Henry Walton 1746-1813 Purchased 1912 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02870
Plucking the Turkey exhibited 1776 Henry Walton 1746-1813 Purchased 1912

When you are in the country, you will find your poor neighbours very thankful for the water in which meat has been boiled, which they will thicken with Pease and other vegetables, and thus obtain from it a comfortable and nourishing meal.

This your cook will, perhaps, consider as her prerequisite, unless you make a point of reserving it for the use just mentioned. The value of it to the cook may not be even one penny, while to the poor it gives a portion of strength and comfort.

If you desire it always to be poured into an earthen vessel kept for that purpose, and placed in your larder, you will then see it in your daily visits to your kitchen and will be able to direct to whom it shall be given. It would greatly add to the benefit if your cook were to prepare it, as the poor are very deficient in the art of cooking.

The pease-soup eater, or, Pain and laughter, by John Dixon. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
The pease-soup eater, or, Pain and laughter, by John Dixon. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

In those families where economy is obliged to be studied (and in my opinion, it should be studied even in affluent families, for waste and extravagance can in no case be excused), the broth which boiled meat has produced, is frequently thickened into soup for the servants’ table. Good Pease soup may also be made for the same use, from the bones of roast beef, and the bones of the legs and shoulders of mutton. Those which have been cut from meat before it was cooked, should be stewed down for gravy, which a clever cook will, by a little contrivance, have constantly at hand.

There are very few cooks who are not extravagant in coals. A good fire is essential while cooking is going on, which may, perhaps, bring them into the habit of keeping a large one at other times of the day, and which every mistress or housekeeper should endeavour to prevent.

Your cook should never suffer her fire to get very low; for she wastes both many coals and time by this negligence. A fire should be regularly supplied with coals, which would prevent it from ever being so smoky as to be unfit for use at a few minutes’ notice and it should be generally known that smoke is merely unconsumed coal. If it gets low when anything is required to be prepared quickly, the cook has no resource, but to apply the bellows furiously, so that, before the fire burns properly, much coal must have been wasted. The ashes should be riddled from the cinders, and these reserved to throw on the back of the kitchen fire after cooking is over; or they will serve to burn in stoves and ovens, when once the fire under them has been lighted. When there is roasting going on, the meat-screen assists the fire and prevents the necessity of having so large a one as it would require without a screen. Also, when boiling alone is going on, the fire need not be unusually large.

Gamekeeper and Cook by David Wilkie
Gamekeeper and Cook by David Wilkie; Bradford Museums and Galleries

Much was done by Count Rumford to improve fire-places, and economize fuel and I recommend to your attention his essays on this subject. It is usual, but I do not think it a good plan, to allow the cook what are called ‘perquisites dripping’ (today we would refer to this as ‘perks of the job’), for instance, if that be soap-fat and ashes are sometimes allowed as perquisites to servants, but for the reasons above stated, are to be deprecated and prevented.

Some cooks have even been known to meltdown butter, and the ends of candles, in order to add to these kitchen perquisites. Temptation, therefore, should be as much avoided as possible; but where there is a dishonest spirit and a want of principle, no precautions will avail. Still, if allowing wages, equivalent to the value of these perquisites, would diminish the contest between honest and dishonest principles, how much better it would be, both for the mistress and her servant, if this part of her domestic economy were to vary from the general system!

The Comforts of a Rumford Stove - Gilray
The Comforts of a Rumford Stove – Gilray

While on this topic, I ought not to omit to mention some other of the practices of which town servants are accused, in order that you may be on your guard, should you be so unlucky as to be the mistress of an unprincipled servant.

As servants are supposed to influence their employers in directing their custom to any shop they please, the tradespeople find it, too often, for their interest to bribe them, either with Christmas-boxes or to give them a discount upon the bills paid by their masters. It is well if this discount is not, in the first instance, drawn from the customer’s purse, by some extra charge and thus a system of dishonesty carried on as detrimental to the morality of tradesman and servant, as to the interest of the customer.

Sometimes, connivances have been discovered between petty tradespeople and servants, by which, articles that never entered the house have been charged in the bills The articles thus placed to the credit of the customer, are technically termed “the dead man’s portion;” and the produce obtained is divided between the defrauding parties.

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It is very unpleasant to entertain doubts as to the integrity of those we employ about us, and on whom we must necessarily rely in some degree. The best check, however, against these practices, is to permit your servants as seldom as possible to have anything to do with your bills and to carry on all your dealings with your tradespeople in person.

Also, I recommend you to acquire as early as you can, a knowledge of the quantity which, of each of the common articles of housekeeping, must necessarily be consumed in your family.

When you have ascertained that, you may judge each week for yourself, whether dishonesty or extravagance has been practised in your house, always, however, taking into the account the circumstances of the week, which may have increased this consumption.

Extravagance is frequently found accompanied by dishonest intentions proceeding chiefly from careless indifference to the interest of master and mistress. From whatever cause it proceeds, vigilance is absolutely necessary, either in the housekeeper or her mistress.

It is part of the cook’s duty to take such charge of meat, beer, bread, butter, cheese, and all the articles of common consumption, as shall prevent any degree of waste. Not the most vigilant mistress or housekeeper can attend sufficiently to this point; the cook, therefore, must be in a great measure responsible.

The greatest check the mistress of a family can have over her cook, is to show her that she has a thorough knowledge of the quantity of each article that must necessarily be consumed, according to the size of her family, and that when this quantity has been exceeded, she expects to have it accounted for. Accumulations of small pieces of bread ought never to take place, with a clever cook, who will always insist upon having those fragments eaten by the servants before fresh pieces are cut from the loaf.

When there are any pieces left, she can pour boiling milk over them, and prepare a common bread pudding for the early dinner.

There is frequent waste in the consumption of beer, owing to too much of it being generally drawn at a time. When this happens to be the case, a thoughtful cook will remember that a crust of stale bread put into it, and the jug covered over, will, for a short time, prevent it from becoming very flat.

A good cook will always be careful that the spits are wiped clean while they are hot, and left ready for the next day’s use. The jack should be oiled and cleaned occasionally, or the dust will clog the wheels, prevent it going well, and will make it necessary to have it taken down and more thoroughly cleaned.

Lewis Walpole Library
Lewis Walpole Library

It is bad management in a cook ever to be without hot water, especially if she lives in a family where there are young children, for whom it is in frequent, and, sometimes, immediate demand.

The salt-box and candle-box should both be kept very clean. The former should be hung near the fire, as common salt attracts water from the air and dissolves and the latter as far from the fire as it can be, in a dry place.

Silver spoons should never be used in the kitchen, unless for preparing preserves; wooden and iron spoons are as cleanly and may be used without fear of scratching or bending them.

The cook should not permit the dust-hole to remain long without having it emptied, and no cabbage leaves or green vegetable matter should be allowed to be thrown into it. These soon ferment, and the sulphureted hydrogen gas, which is extricated, causes an intolerable stench.

Of course, we simply couldn’t resist a final image courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library!

lwlpr10240

Sources:

Domestic duties:, or instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households