A Case in Point
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
IT seems to me that the contributor who discourses on the servant question, in a recent number of The Atlantic, and says that women " lack business knowledge and capacity,” and show themselves “ singularly unintelligent in regard to the conduct of affairs,” hardly takes a fair view of the situation. Possibly the charge may be true, but it is hardly proved yet.
If a manufacturer, for any cause, finds it desirable to cut down the wages of his employees, he may be compelled to close his factory, his interests may suffer, his spirits may be low ; but while these things doubtless worry him, he is not worked to death. Meantime he eats and drinks as usual, goes to bed, gets up, wears clean linen, loses his buttons, wears out his stockings, — in a word, continues to live like a civilized being.
Now suppose that his wife, impressed by his firmness, anxious to economize, and convinced that her servants are receiving unnecessarily high wages, decides to imitate him. At the first word of reduction the servants leave, following the example of the factory hands. But the house cannot be closed, like the factory. The family must live. I am speaking of life in the country. I know nothing of city life, but the contributor did not, so far as I am aware, limit her remarks to city women.
The mistress of the house at once tries to get new servants, but that is not easy. They are all in league, and the grievance of one is the grievance of all. So while waiting and hoping, she takes up her burden, with a brave spirit, perhaps, but probably with very weak nerves and muscles. She begins by putting out the washing, at say three dollars a week. Then comes the daily routine : she bathes and dresses the children, gets the breakfast, washes the dishes, makes the beds, dusts the house, sweeps where she must, cooks the dinner, and so on through the unending round; and meanwhile takes care of the children, waits on them, listens to them, answers them, mends the ever-breaking stocking-straps, flies upstairs and down-stairs, but spends little time in “ my lady’s chamber.” Finally she goes to bed with aching head, breaking back, and terribly sore hands and feet, gets up two or three times in the night to soothe the youngest darling, and wakes in the morning, unrefreshed, wishing that the family needed to be fed only once a month.
This sort of thing goes on for a week or so, according to the strength of the victim (a friend of mine once held out for six weeks, because she was unwilling to have the servants eat in the diningroom after the family, but was obliged to yield from sheer exhaustion), and then neuralgia or something else sets in, and one morning she stays in bed, while her husband and possibly a small daughter try to start the machinery by themselves. They have been somewhat helpful hitherto, and she thinks they will manage somehow, but it takes them two hours to get a cup of tea and a bit of toast. After this mild repast the husband goes out and finds a woman who will come for a dollar a day and cook, and the little daughter, on her way to school, notifies another woman, who is engaged, also at a dollar a day, to look after the neglected babies, — who have all caught cold by this time from want of care, — wait on the sick mother, and mend a few stockings. The doctor arrives, and orders a tonic and complete rest. Seventeen dollars a week and a doctor’s bill make the last state of that family worse than the first.
Then the husband, who is fond of his wife, says that she must have good servants, no matter what she pays them, and the wife, utterly subdued by fatigue and illness, is only too glad to yield. So they send to the city and get new servants at rather higher wages than before, and once more begin to live ; and just as our friend is saying, “ Well, after all, I would rather do without new clothes for a year than try to economize in servants’ wages,” she takes up the new Atlantic, and finds that she is “ singularly unintelligent in regard to the conduct of affairs.”
It may be suggested that women should unite in some sort of league. I too used to have that idea, but found that nobody would join it who had tolerably good servants at the time, feeling that the frying-pan was, after all, a degree less uncomfortable than the fire. Of course unanimous rebellion on the part of the mistresses (so called) would in the end bring submission from the servants, and I do not deny that the impossibility of obtaining unanimous action shows a lack of courage and of public spirit. But consider the miseries of even a week without servants, and think how those miseries are increased in families where there are invalids or babies, and make some allowance.
The contributor holds that it would be well to give servants plain food. So do I, if it were practicable; but an acquaintance of mine, who locks up the dainties, finds it difficult to keep servants, and I have no doubt her cooks help themselves to more than she can possibly save by locking up.
No one can more deplore the present state of things than I, but I have not yet been able to see a remedy. I should be much pleased to know whether the contributor finds it easy to carry out her own ideas of reform, or whether she too meekly bends her neck to the yoke.
One thing I should like to add. The quality of service to be obtained in this part of the country is better than it was twenty years ago. When I was a child my mother was obliged to make with her own hands all dainties in the way of cakes, pies, custards etc. ; now we can get excellent cooks, although we generally pay the incompetent ones just as high wages as the good ones. More training schools for servants are greatly to be desired; perhaps, if such schools were numerous, wages might be graded according to the nature of the work performed.