Today’s arrangement is a historical anomaly. Consider the genteel poverty of protagonists in novels by chroniclers of class such as Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, and Jane Austen. Regardless of their reduced circumstances, these characters would have been shocked by the idea that they should be responsible for sweeping, let alone mopping, their own floors. In perhaps literature’s most extreme example, even the eternally optimistic but penniless Micawber family from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield can’t imagine giving up its servant.
This situation remained the status quo for so long because it relied on a cheap and abundant supply of labor from unskilled workers, most of them easily exploited women and children who had few, if any, other options, and no employee protections. A 2013 Mother Jones examination of the history of domestic workers reported that, according to the 1870 census, “52 percent of employed women worked in ‘domestic and personal service.’” From 1870 through the mid-1900s, that percentage only increased. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
Domestic service represented the leading occupation of women in Chicago and the nation … Domestic work attracted few native-born women because of the long hours, low status, lack of freedom, and close supervision. Consequently, domestic servants often came from the ranks of the most desperate members of the community, either those too poor to pay for housing or those excluded from other vocations.
In 1912, a “hired girl” with 33 years of experience anonymously published a narrative of the trials of her line of work, in what was the era’s equivalent of the hit novel The Help:
There is often no Sunday out until after four and no evening out until after eight. Foreign girls do not go into housework for this reason. They prefer the fixed hours of factory and shop work.
Ladies are sometimes not honest in money matters concerning the girls they employ. I have known many nice girls to work for little money—two dollars and a half or three dollars a week—and one week out of every five or six the lady would forget, or pretend to forget, to pay for. If the girl has given no written receipt for her wages, she sometimes has no proof of what is due her.
After the Great Migration brought multitudes of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th century, black women took over the bulk of these exploitative jobs. Only during the Great Depression, and then temporarily, did this dynamic shift, according to the National Women’s History Museum:
Unemployment was especially severe among African American women. Many African American women lost their positions as domestic servants to white women who entered the market during the Depression. In urban areas, they were forced to convene on city corners in “slave markets,” hoping to be hired for very low-paid day labor.
By 1970, appliances, ready-made food, and other technologies had reduced both the amount and the rigor of household work and rendered domestic help a luxury. By the 1980s, household help was played for laughs on sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Mr. Belvedere. It was a running joke on Gilmore Girls that Lorelei Gilmore’s wealthy mother, Emily, couldn’t keep a maid. By then, only women of Emily’s class were expected to have one.