Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Know How to Treat Servants

By the way, it is unlikely that your servants will become your BFFs.

Back in the day, having servants, even in a modest household, was very common as labor was very affordable and the day to day work of running a household was very, very difficult. Today, if you are in the position of having live in help, most of this is still likely to apply. I’ve sourced this information from Emily Post in 1920 and Amy Vanderbilt in the 1960s and the basics are very similar, so they are likely to hold up today as well.

Hiring Servants:

  • Interview candidates in your own home, making sure to state all the bad parts of the job as well as the good parts. Be upfront and clear about the wages.
  • Be sure to have your children present when interviewing nannies and nursemaids, as you shouldn’t hire someone who your child instantly dislikes.
  • Always be in charge during the interview- if a servant starts bossing you around from the beginning, they will always be in charge in the relationship
  • When introducing a new servant to the household, make sure to introduce them to everyone, even the men! (ed: yay, sexism!)
  • References are the standard currency of servants and withholding one is a very serious matter indeed. Always make sure you check references when hiring and offer them to departing servants.

Servants in the Home:

  • Children are called by their first names by servants. In very formal household, teens are called Master John and Miss Jane. Adults, of course, are called Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith.
  • If you can, call servants Mrs. Jones instead of Lucy, unless she prefers to be just Lucy. This is especially important for more senior servants like a housekeeper.
  • Introduce servants to guests, but don’t introduce the guest to the servant.
  • Always be polite to servants, say please and thank you.
  • For adequate service you need at least three servants: a cook, a butler (or waitress), and a housemaid. But if you can only afford one, both Post and Vanderbilt helpfully provide menus for entertaining that can be handled by one servant. (ed: no servants is unimaginable!)
  • Live in servants must be given as much independence as possible and their room should be comfortable and be a place where they can visit with a friend. The furniture should be comfortable- spend a night in your servant’s quarters to test it out!
  • In the US it is customary that the servants eat the same food as the family, except for perhaps, special delicacies. If the special foods do disappear, you can buy a locked food safe!
  • In households with minimum servants, the employers have to be more aware of fitting into the cleaning schedule and making sure they are out of the way so things can get done.

Post stresses that if you have “servant trouble” the cause is probably your poor management and poor treatment of your servants.

Examples of poor servant management are:

  • Allowing poor work to slip by, too much leniency is just as bad as too much strictness.
  • Reprimanding a servant in front of another person.
  • Reprimands for work left undone when there are more tasks than time.
  • Being distrustful: locking up all valuables, watching the servants at all times.
  • Not allowing them to have some space for themselves in the house where they can entertain friends.
  • You should know how to do all of a servant’s tasks so you can teach and direct instead of complain.
  • Be careful when servants do the household ordering- some merchants give kickbacks to servants for bringing in business and pad their bills, or they charge for things they don’t send. Always ask to see receipts!

Etiquette for Servants:

  • Always be neat and speak in a low voice.
  • Always say “Yes, ma’am/madame” or “No, sir”
  • Everything is always presented to employers on a tray.
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