23 September 2008

Women: A Ladder of Maids

By Jennifer Linforth

A house was nothing if not crammed with every kind of maid imaginable. Women were essential to the running of a Victorian household and the maid a very important cog. There were your parlormaids, nursemaids, housemaids, chambermaids, scullerymaids, dairymaids, lady's maids...

Let us climb the maid ladder, shall we?

In less affluent households there was the young girl considered the maid-of-all-work. Basically she was all you had if you did not have the money of more affluent households. The washing, cooking, scrubbing, cleaning and milking all fell on her shoulders. They took care of the children and often had no time to do anything beyond sleeping off their exhaustion and starting over again the next morning.

Parlormaids were up a rung and mostly seen in households that wanted status but could not afford the staff for it. Parlormaid did all the work of both male and female servants. Male servants were paid higher wages after all. They did all the work usually set aside for footmen—answering doors, serving dinner and announcing visitors. Since they were in the public eye like a butler would be they were expected to be pretty.

Next is a nursemaid reserved for houses with children. Like a nanny of today they dressed and cared for the younger children and often took them out on walks.

Climbing up, we have your kitchenmaids which comprised of those lighting fires in the stoves and assisting the cooks with preparing meals. Within the realm of the kitchenmaid are your scullerymaids, those who cleaned the pots and did the dirty work. Scullerymaids were truly the lowest respected maids in the household, their hands often worn raw from harsh detergents and rough scrubbing. A country house might also have a dairymaid responsible for all the milking and churning of butter.

The heartbeat of an estate was its housemaid. These are the women who made the house run. The made fires, cleaned chamber pots, hauled fresh water for baths and took away the dirty. They drew the drapes, turned down beds, and polished the floors. Housemaids often were divided into upper and lower maids; the lower maids doing the polishing and scrubbing while the upper maids did the "easier" work.

On the highest rung of the maid ladder was the lady's maid. She was considered an upper servant and did not live under the control of the housekeeper. Her duty was to see to the lady of the house, dressing her, mending for her or reading her stories. Often she received cast off clothing so she could be well dressed also. If at all possible she was French, for the French seemed to have the most respected lady's maids. If not French, English girls would do so long as they were young and personable.