Recent Progress in the Study of Domestic Service

A LADY recently called at the house of a friend, who answered in person the ring at the door. With careworn expression and flurried manner she apologized for the confusion that apparently reigned in the house, saying, —

“My parlor maid is upstairs ill, —not ill enough to go to the hospital, too ill to work, too far from home to go there, yet needing attention from me. My waitress is having a fit of the sulks, and I have sent her out to do an errand and get some fresh air. The cook is just now not on speaking terms with her husband, — the coachman, — and is seeking a divorce, so that one or the other must go. The footman came home drunk last night and had to be discharged this morning. My house is at sixes and sevens, my husband lunched down town, my mother has taken the children and the nursery maid home with her, guests arrive this evening, and I have spent the day in a vain search for help in the house. I belong to a club studying household economics, and have allowed it to turn a search light on all my household affairs in the interests of society at large. I am now ready to call a halt, to refuse to have my domestic arrangements considered a hunting ground for theorists, to pronounce all such clubs vain mockeries, snares, and delusions, inventions of the enemy for squandering time, and showing the bitter contrast between abstract theory and concrete reality. The only club I am interested in must provide on tap maids who never get ill or sulky, cooks without a temper, and coachmen and footmen of unimpeachable habits.”

It is possible that such conditions are not confined to “the uninhabited districts west of Schenectady,” and that elsewhere there may be despairing housekeepers ready to cry out against all serious study of domestic questions, because such study has not yet had an immediate and practical bearing on the management of their individual households. It is, indeed, not improbable, for there is in every clime the tradition of a time when household helpers were abundant, competent, and cheap,—a golden age when harmony reigned in the household and domestic discord was unknown, Has this peaceful condition been rudely broken up by the meddlesome interference of domestic busybodies ? Has progress been hindered by the club studying household economies, by the investigator seeking for facts, by the theorist trying to square the ideal with the real, and by students of social conditions anxious to explain the present by the past ? Is the only remedy for present ills the suppression of all discussion, since discussion breeds contempt and unhappiness ? Is the club to revert to Browning, the investigator to confine himself to the comparatively safe field of ancient history, the theorist to live in the future, and the student of social conditions to content himself with flower missions and soup-kitchens? If it can be shown that conditions are worse than they have ever been before, and that discussion and investigation are responsible for this deterioration, then assuredly the club should change the field of its activity, and all discussion of the household affairs should cease.

But the immediate dissolution of the club studying household economics is not imminent. The premises on which its detractors base their criticisms are false, and hence the conclusions deduced from these premises are illogical and unreasonable. All literature goes to show that an ideal condition of domestic service exists and has existed only in the castles of Spain. But recent literature and recent legislation do show that some little progress has been made in the study of domestic service as an occupation, in spite of the fact that individual housekeepers still have and always will have trials and perplexities that at times seem almost overwhelming. The Hudson empties its waters into the ocean, yet twice each day the mightier force of the ocean tide turns the current back upon itself, — in winter it bears upstream the moving mass of ice, and in summer it makes its overbalancing power felt almost to the very source of the great river.

The individual housekeeper feels only the force of the household current that bears her helpless to her destination,— she forgets the still stronger force of society that makes itself felt over and beyond that of the individual home.

In balancing the accounts of domestic service and in asking what has been accomplished in the past ten years in the direction of improvement, it must be frankly said at the outset that it is probably just as difficult to-day to secure good household employees as it was ten years ago, — perhaps even more difficult; that wages are probably even higher than at that time; that the service rendered is no more efficient; that recommendations are no more reliable; that cooks still have tempers; that coachmen sometimes drink; that maids have “followers;" that nursery girls gossip in the parks with policemen; that new employees engaged fail to keep the engagement; that valuable china is broken, and that household supplies are wasted.

But if the work of these years has not borne immediate fruit, it has not been without results that will sometime come to fruition. These results are seen in the distinct, positive, and direct improvement in the literature of the subject; flippancy is giving place to seriousness in considering the relations of mistress and maid; historical and statistical investigations of the question have multiplied and become more thorough and elaborate; substantial facts are supplanting sentimentality and visionary theories in the discussions of the subject; a diagnosis of the case is being made and the prescription of a remedy withheld while the examination is progressing; humble-mindedness and willingness to learn are now found where formerly there was absolute certainty and positiveness of conviction in dealing with the question; in a definite way, an improvement in legislation has been made, disreputable methods of employment agencies have been exposed, social oases have been planted in desert places, and in general a concrete method of procedure has been substituted for polite abstractions and innocuous generalities. All this means that a long step forward has been taken within the past decade.

The great improvement in the character of the general literature of the subject is seen in the gradual disappearance of the fault-finding, the sentimental, the goody-goody magazine article, and the appearance in its place of genuine contributions to the subject, like those recently made to the Atlantic Monthly by Miss Jane Seymour Klink and Miss Frances A. Kellor. Miss Jane Addams in “A Belated Industry ”1 has dealt most, thoroughly with the economic phases of the subject, as has Mrs. Mary Roberts Smith in her admirable article on “Domestic Service; the Responsibility of Employers.” 2 Mr. Bolton Hall has set forth most vigorously the employee’s side of the case in “The Servant Class on the Farm and in the Slums; ” 3 while a symposium on the subject by a group of men has recently discussed in an impartial manner many of the difficulties of the situation.

Pure literature also makes its contribution, and Mrs. Mary Hartwell Catherwood has recently given a charming picture of “A Convent Man-Servant.”4 Nothing could prove more effectively the change in the attitude of the public mind toward the subject, than does the contrast presented between such a sketch drawn with light and sympathetic pen, and that given in the satires of Dean Swift and of De Foe. The very absence of the figure of a domestic servant in the modern novel, and in current popular literature in every form, is in itself an indication of a changed attitude of the public mind toward the question as a whole. Figaro, and even Sam Weller, are almost as far removed from us as are the servants of Potiphar and of the Queen of Sheba.

The attitude of the daily press toward the subject of domestic service certainly leaves something yet to be desired, — the stock jests on the impertinent maid and the ignorant mistress, like those on the mother-in-law and the summer girl, die hard, but they will go in time.

The historical investigations of the subject have been few in number, but they have been of great value. Mr. Albert Matthews has placed all students of the subject under obligation to him by his exhaustive study, “The Terms Hired Man and Help,” 5 as Mr. James D. Butler had previously done by his investigations on “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies,”6 and Dr. Karl Frederick Geiser on “Redemptioners and Indented Servants in the Colony and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” 7

The Public Library is always first to create as well as to satisfy a demand for literature on subjects of general interest. It is therefore not surprising to find that the Providence Public Library as far back as 1893 issued a bibliography of all works and magazine articles on domestic service, which has been followed by the still more exhaustive reference list published in 1898 on the general subject of domestic science, and that the Salem Public Library has a similar list. The New York State Library has published a comprehensive bibliography of the whole subject of domestic economy, and it sends out, to all parts of the state, traveling libraries of the best volumes on the same subject, — the list of the volumes included being in itself an excellent guide to the study of household economics. But the greatest of all steps in advance has been made by those libraries that have changed the classification of works attempting to treat scientifically the subject of domestic service, from the class of Domestic Economy to that of Economics proper. The change seems slight, but it is a recognition of the intimate relation that exists between domestic service and other forms of industry.

The statistician, like the librarian, is also quick to create as well as to respond to (he demand for information of a serious nature, and this has been shown in the growing recognition of the importance of domestic service as a field for statistical research. Among the most thorough of these statistical investigations is that carried on by Miss Isabel Eaton, — recently fellow of the College Settlements’ Association, in regard to negro domestic service in the seventh ward of Philadelphia.8 Miss Eaton has made an exhaustive study of one phase of the subject in a limited area, considering not only the number of negroes thus employed,but the methods of living, savings, and expenditures, amusements and recreations, length and quality of the service, conjugal condition, illiteracy, and health. The work has been done in a thoroughly scientific manner, and the results form an admirable presentation of negro service in a single ward of one city.

Similar thorough investigations of special aspect s of the question have been carried on by Miss Mary W. Dewson and Miss Edith G. Fabens for the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of Boston, and by Miss Gertrude Bigelow, fellow of the Association of Collegiate Alumnæ, at the School of Housekeeping. They have collected statistics in regard to the hours of labor in domestic service, the social conditions of domestic service, household expenses, and the relative cost of home-cooked and of purchased food. The results of these investigations have been collected by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, and the reports based on them have been commented on by the press. Scientific information in regard to the subject has thus been widely circulated, and this must have been effective in changing somewhat the attitude of the public mind toward the subject as a whole. Mention must also be made of the Twentieth Century Expense Book, prepared by Miss Mary W. Dewson: its widespread use would be of service in affording opportunity for a comparative study of household expenses.

It was early recognized that some of the most difficult factors of the problem concerned the intelligence office, and investigations on a somewhat limited scale were carried on in several cities, but largely owing to political considerations it was not deemed advisable to publish the results. The most thorough and systematic investigation undertaken in this direction has been that of Miss Frances A. Kellor, whose Out oj Work, based on a study of more than seven hundred agencies, has laid bare the evils of the present system of securing new employees, as seen by employer, employee, and manager of the agency. A body of facts has thus been made available that must prove of the highest service in any attempt to cope with the notorious evils attending many agencies.

The state bureaus of labor have in several instances done valiant service to the cause through the official investigations carried on. As far back as 1872 the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor devoted four and a half pages of its annual report to domestic labor. But the first real investigation of the subject made by a state bureau of labor was probably that undertaken by the Minnesota Bureau in 1890. This has been followed by special investigations in other states,— notably Kansas and Michigan, — and in Canada. Moreover, it must be remembered that many bureaus, while they have made no special investigation of domestic service, have incidentally considered the subject in connection with their investigations of general labor questions. Most of all is encouragement to be found in the comprehensive investigation recently carried on under the direction of the Industrial Commission.

These investigations enumerated have been of a severely scientific, statistical nature, and have been carried on by state or national organizations. But other studies no less important have been made by organizations of a purely private or of a semi-public character. Notable among these has been the Association of Collegiate Alumnæ, several branches of which have been most active in making studies of domestic service, both as a special field for investigation and also in connection with the larger subjects of home economics and domestic science. Students in colleges and universities have made special studies in the same field, and in some instances have made distinct contributions to the subject. This work has been of most value, however, in the indication it has given of a desire on the part of college-trained investigators to make domestic service a subject of serious consideration.

Domestic service has been until very recently a field untouched by the statistician and investigator. The studies already made show not so much what has been done, as how much yet remains to be done. But the territory is already being occupied. Trained investigators are mapping out the field, workers are at hand, and in a few years we shall have a body of facts that will afford a sufficient basis for scientific deductions in regard to the condition of domestic service in the entire country.

Opinions may honestly differ as to whether it is advisable to substitute in schools and colleges subjects along the line of household affairs for other subjects more properly classed as liberal studies. But it is interesting to note how much has been done in this direction. Courses in household economics have been given in recentyears in the state universities of Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as in the Leland Stanford Junior University, while Columbia University through the Teachers’ College has offered similar work.

In many agricultural colleges, and in seminaries and academies like those in Auburndale, Massachusetts, and Painesville, Ohio, there are such courses in the curricula. On the other hand, there can be no question whatever as to the propriety and necessity of introducing, as has already been done, courses in domestic science into the great technical schools, such as the Pratt, Drexel, and Armour institutes.

The School of Housekeeping established in Boston in 1897 under the auspices of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union went still further, in that it was not so much a technical school, as a more truly genuine professional school for the training of experts in the great profession of housekeeping. The honorable record it made while an independent institution gives reason to believe that, now that it has been merged in Simmons College, it will go on to still greater achievements under the new conditions. The establishment. of similar schools elsewhere has been much discussed, while in some places there have been sporadic efforts to establish classes in household training. Indeed, it must be said that in certain classes of fashionable schools it is at this moment the latest fad to have instruction on all household matters, quite as much as on art and music.

Study and investigations have, led to organization, and the first association in the field was the National Household Economic Association, formed in 1893, with branches in many states, some of which did admirable work.

The Lake Placid Conference that met first in 1899 is not strictly an organization, but an informal gathering of workers who have discussed the subject particularly on its scientific side, since the attendance has been largely made up of those interested in the educational and scientific side of household economics. Its proceedings give an admirable summary of the latest scientific discussions of the subject.

The most recent as well as the most important of all such organizations has been that of the Inter-Municipal Committee on Household Research, formed “for the purpose of studying existing phases of household work, to aid in securing fair conditions for employer and employee, and to place their relations on a sound business basis.” Much has already been accomplished by it, especially in the direction of investigating employment agencies, establishing a bureau of information, and studying the conditions under which Southern colored gilds are brought to the North to enter domestic service. Its programme for the future lays out a constantly enlarging sphere of activities.

All these investigations and educational measures have been undertaken in the belief that household employment has its economic side, like other forms of industry. The widespread recognition of this fact has been a most significant advance, since earlier discussions of the subject had considered only the ethical factors involved. But an interesting reversion to the more purely ethical consideration of the question has been seen in the various efforts to follow the injunction of Charles Reade: “Put yourself in his place.” A number of young women have entered domestic service in disguise, and from personal experience have narrated the life of a domestic employee. It may well be questioned whether the actual results reached are commensurate with the effort expended; — the experiment has meant months of unnatural life and strained relationships, and in the end we probably know little more in regard to the condition of domestic employees than could be known by turning the inner sight of our own consciousness on our own households and those of our acquaintances. But the experiment has been interesting as indicative of a determined effort to look at the subject from every point of view.

It is not surprising, in view of all the agitation of the question in our own country, to find that a similar interest has been aroused elsewhere. In Germany, that home of conservatism in all domestic affairs, an elaborate statistical investigation has been carried on by Dr. Oscar Stillich. and its results published in an exhaustive work entitled The Status of Women Domestics in Berlin.9 Nor again is it surprising to find that neither official nor domestic Berlin has taken kindly to the investigation, since bureaucracy has in it no place for private initiative, and the Kinder, Küchen, Kirchen theory of domestic life has resented what has been deemed unwarranted interference in private affairs. But it is a matter of congratulation that the author has been of undaunted courage, and that his work stands as a thoroughly scientific investigation, and therefore the most valuable contribution yet made in any country to the theory and condition of domestic service.

Two things of special encouragement must be noted. One is the changing attitude of domestic employees themselves toward their own occupation, and the other is the introduction of men into a field where it has always been held that by divine ordinance women ruled supreme.

The number of domestics who have shown any interest in the question is indeed, as yet, infinitesimal in comparison with the total number in the occupation, but five righteous men shall save the city. Here and there one is found who realizes that domestic employees must be ready to help themselves if help is to come from others, that it is possible for them to improve the conditions of domestic service through their own efforts, that respect for any occupation comes, as those connected with it command respect for it, through their own attitude toward it. This is as yet realized by so few that no appreciable results can be seen with the naked eye, but the leaven is working.

A very welcome and appreciable change has come through the practical interest in the question shown by men. They have lectured and written on the subject, and have listened to the lectures on it given by women. This means that the subject is being recognized by them as worthy of study and discussion and as of importance to all — to men and to women alike — who are interested in the welfare of society. On its practical side also the interest of men is making itself felt. Chafingdish courses have been opened for men, where they have learned the preparation of the luxuries of the table, as the roughand-ready experiences of camp life in summer vacations and in military campaigns have taught them how to prepare the necessities of life. Young men in college and young men living in bachelors’ apartments are proud of their attainments in afternoon teas and chafing-dish suppers, while men trained as nurses learn the preparation of delicacies for the sick. It is true, indeed, that cooking-classes are but indirectly connected with domestic service, but everything that breaks down artificial barriers, and permits the free industrial entrance of both men and women into whatever occupation they prefer, is a direct gain to every line of work. Any one whose attention has been turned in the direction of securing household employees must constantly come in contact with the fact that there is a considerable number of men engaged in household employments for remuneration.

Does this enumeration of the progress of the past ten years seem indeed like a Homeric catalogue of the ships? It may, yet the ships are bound for a definite haven, and must in time enter port.

If one lasting gain of these years has come to be an appreciation of the necessity of diagnosing the disease before prescribing a remedy, it must follow that the remedy prescribed fits the disease. Has it been shown as a result of exhaustive and exhausting investigation that the great barrier to the entrance of competent men and women into domestic employment is the social one, — it follows that efforts are being turned toward leveling this barrier. If we have learned that the loneliness of the life is in sharp contrast to the opportunity for comradeship presented in other industrial pursuits, we have thereby learned to ward against this loneliness by encouraging means of wholesome recreation. When scientific research has disclosed the plague spots in the employment agency and the intelligence office, restrictive legislation has followed. If it has been found that the weak and the ignorant have been taken advantage of by the strong and the knowing, efforts for moral regeneration have been put forth. Since we have realized that in the household, as elsewhere, it is impossible for the blind to lead the blind, technical schools have offered instruction in household affairs to employers of household employees.

Yet when we look over the field still to be reclaimed in the interests of comfortable home life, more than enough causes for discouragement remain. House-keepers still carry on their households in defiance of all business methods; ignorant women boast that they “have never so much as boiled an egg in their life,” and complain that their cooks will not stay with them; idle women spend their time in playing bridge, and wonder why their maids are discontented; men boast at their tables of their shrewdness in obtaining something for nothing, and cannot understand why petty thieving goes on in their households; society receives the once, twice, and thrice divorced, but draws the social line at the cook and the butler; communities tolerate by the score the places where domestic employees, as others, can find recreation and amusement of every questionable kind, but the communities can yet be counted on one hand where they can obtain genuine, wholesome, attractive recreation; the church, with a few exceptions, is prone to close its doors, except for Sunday and midweek evening service, and to expend its efforts on fine music, with church suppers to foot the bills, — forgetting the poverty of interests in the lives of so many in the community.

But when all has been said, it must be felt that the balance shows much to the credit of domestic service, — a balance due to the capital invested in it through the study of conditions made by both men and women. In no country are these conditions so favorable as they are in America to-day. England has its well-trained, obsequious butler, Germany has its police regulations of servants, France has its chef, Italy has hopeless machines who are “really servants.” America has none of these, but it has men and women who believe that if the future holds for us a solution of the problem it lies, not in the direction of reproducing on American soil the English flunkey, or in the introduction of German governmental control, or in increasing the number of French chefs who shall give us endless varieties of new soups and salads, or yet in crushing all interest in life out of the hearts and souls of those who serve us, as a pitiless fate seems to have done in Italy, but men and women who believe that the solution lies in the path of hard, toilsome investigation, to which students must come without prejudice and with a fearless acceptance of the results of such investigations.

In no country are the conditions of domestic service so hopeful as they are today in America, and it is in large part due to our theory of education which has been in practical force for more than a generation. Men and women receive the same school, college, and university training, and this training enables women to order their households, on their mechanical side, in the same systematic way that the business enterprises of men are managed. The result of this is that matters pertaining to the household command the respect as well as the sentimental consideration of men, and that men and women are more and more becoming co-workers in all efforts to secure improvement. Each year the proportion of housekeepers with trained minds increases, and in the same proportion the number increases of housekeepers who make intelligent demands on their employees, who do not encourage poor service by tolerating it, who realize their responsibility to other households, and understand that “every irresponsible mistress makes life more difficult for every other mistress and maid.” It is at least significant that this progress has been made in a country where the education of men and women is precisely the same, and that the least advance has been made in those which arrange a special curriculum for women and which profess to train girls and young women specially for domestic life. America holds that education means for women, as well as for men, intellectual training rather than the accumulation of information without it, and that the value of this is seen, in the ease of women, in the intelligent study they are everywhere making of household affairs.

When the vital question in Italy was that of independence from Austria and of unity under an Italian government, Mazzini said, with a sublime appreciation of the principle involved, “Without a country and without liberty, we might perhaps produce some prophets of art, but no vital art. Therefore it was best for us to consecrate our lives to the solution of the problem, ‘Are we to have a country?’” It is possible to have peace and contentment in individual households along with ignorance of the economic laws that govern the household, but there can be no radical reform in domestic service in this or any other country that does riot recognize the inseparable connection between domestic service and all other forms of labor, and that does not make this fact its starting point. If the difficulties in the present situation, which are all too evident, are to be overcome, it can only be by devoting our energies, as did Mazzini in Italy, not so much to temporizing in our households as rather to the slow methods of careful, patient investigation of the conditions without. The immediate gain to ourselves may be slight, but those who come after us may reap the benefits.

  1. American Journal of Sociology, I, 556-559, March, 1896. Cf. the chapter entitled “ Household Adjustment,” in Miss Addam’s Democracy and Social Ethics, 1902.
  2. The Forum, August, 1899.
  3. The Arena, September, 1898.
  4. The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1897.
  5. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. v.
  6. American Historical Review, II, 12, October, 1896.
  7. New Haven, Connecticut, 1901.
  8. Isabel Eaton, “ A Special Report on Domestic Service,” in The Philadelphia Negro, by W. E. B. Du Bois. Publications of the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 1899.
  9. Die Lage der weiblichen Dienstboten in Berlin, von Dr. OSCAR TILLICH. Berlin. 1902.