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.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Figure Out Which Servants We Need

And yet people still feel guilty about having someone in to clean their house once a week.

So you’re thinking of getting some servants. Do you even know what all the different kinds do? Here’s a handy little guide (if you’re living at Downton Abbey, that is!):

The Different Kinds of Servants:

The Butler:

  • The Butler is the most senior male servant, but he is only a butler if there is other staff below him. A single male servant with no other servants in the house is called a houseman (and is mostly called a houseman if he is part of a husband and wife team of servants, though you could call him a butler.)
  • Butler’s Duties:
    • Answering the phone and the door
    • Serves as valet to the men of the house if there is no specific valet
    • Serves the dinner, with help from footmen or maids if there are any.
    • Generally in charge of the dining room and pantry, especially taking care of the wine and silver and choosing which dishes will be used to serve meals.
    • In smaller houses, he does more hands on work, in larger houses he oversees the work of the staff.
  • Butler’s Clothing:
    • Butlers generally wear a normal suit during the day, with perhaps a more formal suit with vest and tail coat in the afternoon. After 6pm, the butler wears a dress suit with a vest, white tie, and tails. A butler is distinguished from the gentlemen of the house by the simplicity of his suit and lack of all jewelry and adornments.

The Valet

  • Valet’s Duties:
    • It is always pronounced val-ET and not val-AY. Beau Brummel called the valet the “gentlemen’s gentleman”. (Do you guys know about Beau Brummel? I think he needs a post of his very own!)
    • Helps his employer dress
    • Manages his clothing, shopping, keeping everything repaired and shoes shined.
    • Often does things like making travel/restaurant/theater reservations
    • Packs and unpacks luggage for the male members of the household and any male guests.
  • Valet’s Clothing:
    • A regular, dark business suit


  • Footmen’s Duties:
    • Footmen are the male servants who help the butler serve meals
    • They also help clean, especially heavier tasks like moving furniture. And especially, in very large houses, one footman, when not serving meals, spent all of his time polishing silver!
    • They also help answer the door
    • In many places, footmen were especially chosen for their looks- they often had to be a particular height and have nice legs (given what they had to wear!)
  • Footmen’s Clothing:
    • Footmen traditionally have a particular livery they wear when serving meals consisting of knee breeches, stockings, and fancy coats. Many very fancy families also had their footmen powder their hair (in the 20th century! in this country! people paid other people to dress up like servants in a French Court EVERY DAY!).
    • Usually a household will have a set of colors- like cream and navy and the footman’s livery and the females servants uniforms will be in those colors.

The Chauffeur

  • Chauffeur’s Duties:
    • Drives the cars and cares for them
    • Often doubles as a butler or gardener/stableman
  • Chauffeur’s Clothing:
    • A strict chauffeur wears a traditional livery.
    • Nowadays, most chauffeurs have multiple duties and wear a regular gray or black suit with a dark tie.

The Housekeeper

  • Housekeeper’s Duties:
    • The Housekeeper is IN CHARGE!
    • She totally runs the household, standing in for the mistress of the house if she is unable or not inclined to do it herself.
    • Housekeepers are treated with great respect and always called Mrs. Lastname (even if she isn’t married!)
  • Housekeeper’s Clothing:
    • She wears dark clothing of her own.

The Social Secretary

  • Secretary’s Duties:
    • Handling much of the household’s business and correspondence.
    • She often does the general bookkeeping and bill paying.
    • In households without a housekeeper, she often takes on many of those duties, such as meal planning.
    • She helps with party planning- guest lists, menus, invitations, etc.
  • Secretary’s Clothing:
    • She wears her own clothing.

The Cook and Kitchen Maid:

  • Kitchen Duties:
    • A professional cook only cooks. She will also keep control of the kitchen and see that it is properly stocked. She often does the shopping. She collaborates with the mistress of the house on menus.
    • In larger households, there might be a second cook who mostly cooks for the servants and only helps the main cook with simple dishes.
    • The kitchen maid assists the cook, especially prep work and does the washing up.
  • Kitchen Clothing:
    • The cook wears her own white dress, white stockings, and neutral shoes.
    • The kitchen maid wears the same short sleeved uniform dress as the rest of the servants with an apron over it.

The Parlor Maid:

  • The Parlor Maid’s Duties:
    • The parlor maid takes care of cleaning the downstairs rooms. She might also answer the phone and the door.
    • Sometimes she might also help serve meals and wash up.
  • The Parlor Maid’s Clothing:
    • The parlor maid wears the uniform dress of all the servants with an apron. In some houses, the maids also might wear some kin. Don’t you wish you could have this many people doing every little thing for you?

The Lady’s Maid:

  • Lady’s Maid Duties:
    • The lady’s maid has many of the same duties as the valet: tending to the clothing and person of the lady of the house.
    • She draws baths, lays out clothing, does mending, sometimes does the laundry of just the lady’s clothing.
    • Often she does the hair and nails of her mistress.
  • Lady’s Maid Clothing:
    • A lady’s maid may wear her own dark clothing or she may wear the uniform of the other maids.

The Chambermaid (or Housemaid):

  • Chambermaid’s Duties:
    • The chambermaid is in charge of all the bedrooms of the house.
    • She makes the beds and cleans the upstairs rooms
    • She makes sure the bathrooms are clean after every use.
    • She is in charge of the linen room and makes sure it is all clean and mended. She collects the family’s laundry.
  • Chambermaid Clothing:
    • She wears the same uniform dress as the other female servants.