Manners and social usages,

CHAPTER XLV.SERVANTS, THEIR DRESS AND DUTIES.


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As we read that a West Point hotel-keeper has recently dismissed all his waiters who would not shave off their mustaches, we must begin to believe that the heretofore heedless American is considering the appearance of his house and carriage-servants. In the early days of the republic, before Thomas Jefferson tied his horse’s rein to the palings of the fence and sauntered into the Capitol to be inaugurated, the aristocrats of the various cities had a livery for their servants. But after such a dash of cold water in the face of established usage by the Chief Magistrate of the Country, many of the old forms and customs of Colonial times fell into disuse, and among others the wearing of a livery by serving-men. A constantly declining grade of shabbiness was the result of this, as the driver of the horses wore a coat and hat of the same style as his master, only less clean and new. Like many of our American ideas so good in theory, the outcome of this attempt at “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” was neither conducive to neatness nor elegance.

But so strongly was the prejudice against liveries instilled into the public mind that only seven years ago a gentleman of the most aristocratic circle of aristocratic

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Philadelphia declared that he refrained from having a liveried servant behind his carriage from fear of shocking public opinion. In New York the presence of a large, foreign, social element long ago brought about a revulsion of opinion in this matter, and now most persons who desire a neat, plain, and appropriate style of dress for their coachmen and footmen put them in a livery, for which the master pays. Those who are particular in such matters do not allow a waiter or a footman to wear a mustache, and require all men-servants to be clean-shaven, except the coachman, who is permitted to wear whiskers. Each must have his hair cut short, and the waiter must wear white gloves while waiting at table or when handing refreshments; even a glass of water on a silver salver must be brought with a gloved hand.

Many ladies have much trouble in impressing upon their men-servants the necessity for personal neatness. The ordinary attire of a butler is a black dress-coat, with white cravat and white cotton gloves. A waiter who attends the door in a large establishment, and who is one of many servants, is usually in a quiet livery–a frock-coat with brass buttons, and a striped waistcoat. Some families affect the scarlet waistcoat for their footman, which, indeed, may be used with very good effect for the negro servant.

Neatness is indispensable; a slovenly and inattentive servant betrays a slovenly household. Yet servants often do their employers great injustice. They are slow to respond to the bell, they give uncivil answers, they deny one person and admit another, they fail to

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deliver notes, they are insolent, they neglect the orders of the mistress when she is out. We cannot expect perfection in our domestic service, but it is possible, by painstaking and patient teaching, to create a respectable and helpful serving class. Servants are very apt to take their tone from their employers–to be civil if they are civil, and insolent if they are insolent. The head of the house is very apt to be copied by his flunkies. One primal law we must mention–a hostess should never reprove her servants in the presence of her guests; it is cruel both to guest and servant, and always shows the hostess in an unamiable light. Whatever may go wrong, the lady of the house should remain calm; if she is anguished, who can be happy?

We have not here, nominally, that helpful treasure known in England as the parlor-maid. We call her a waitress, and expect her to do all the work of one floor. Such a person can be trained by a good housekeeper to be a most admirable servant. She must be told to rise early, to attend to the sweeping of the door-steps, to open the blinds, to light the fires, and to lay the breakfast-table. She must appear in a neat calico dress, white apron and cap, and wait upon the family at breakfast. After breakfast, the gentlemen will expect her to brush their hats, to bring overcoats and overshoes, and to find the umbrellas. She must answer the door-bell as well, so should be nimble-footed and quick-witted. When breakfast is over, she must remove the dishes and wash them, clean the silver, and prepare for the next meal. In well-regulated households there is a day for sweeping, a day for silver

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cleaning, a clay for mirror-polishing, and another for making bright and neat the fireplaces; but each one of these duties requires a certain share of attention every day. The parlor must be dusted, and the fires attended to, of course, so the parlor-maid, or the waitress, in a large family has much to do. The best girls for this arduous situation are English, but they are very difficult to procure. The Germans are not apt to remain long with one family. The best available parlor-maids are Irishwomen who have lived some time in this country.

A servant often sins from ignorance, therefore time spent in teaching her is not wasted. She should be supplied with such utensils as facilitate work, and one very good house-keeper declares that the virtue of a waitress depends upon an infinity of crash. And there is no doubt that a large supply of towels is a constant suggestion of cleanliness that is a great moral support to a waitress.

In these days, when parlors are filled with bric-à-brac, a parlor-maid has no time to do laundry-work, except such part of it as may pertain to her personally. The best of all arrangements is to hire a laundress, who will do all the washing of the house. Even in a very economical household this has been found to be the best plan, otherwise there is always an unexplained delay when the bell rings. The appearance at the door of a dishevelled maid, with arms covered with soapsuds, is not ornamental. If a cook can be found who will also undertake to do the washing and ironing, it is a better and more satisfactory arrangement. But in our growing prosperity this

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functionary has assumed new and extraordinary importance, and will do nothing but cook.

A young house-keeper beginning her life in a great city finds herself frequently confronted with the necessity of having four servants–a cook, a laundress, a waiter or parlor-maid (sometimes both), and a chamber-maid. None of these excellent auxiliaries is willing to do the other’s work: they generally quarrel. So the first experience of house-keeping is not agreeable. But it is possible to find two servants who, if properly trained, will do all the service of a small family, and do it well.

The mistress must carefully define the work of each, or else hire them with the understanding that neither shall ever say, “This is not my work.” It is sometimes quite impossible to define what is the exact duty of each servant. Our house-keeping in this country is so chaotic, and our frequent changes of house and fortune cause it to partake so much of the nature of a provisional government, that every woman must be a Louis Napoleon, and ready for a coup d’état at any moment.

The one thing which every lady must firmly demand from her servants is respect. The harassed and troubled American woman who has to cope with the worst servants in the world–the ill-trained, incapable, and vicious peasantry of Europe, who come here to be “as good as anybody,” and who see that it is easily possible to make a living in America whether they are respectful or not–that woman has a very arduous task to perform.

But she must gain at least outward respect by insisting

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upon having it, and by showing her servants that she regards it as even a greater desideratum than the efficient discharge of duties. The mistress must not lose her temper. She must be calm, imperturbable, and dignified, always. If she gives an order, she must insist, at whatever personal cost, that it shall be obeyed. Pertinacity and inflexibility on this point are well bestowed.

Where there are children, the nurse is, of course, a most important part of the household, and often gives more trouble than any of the other servants, for she is usually an elderly person, impatient of control, and “set in her ways.” The mistress must make her obey at once. Nurses are only human, and can be made to conform to the rules by which humanity is governed.

Ladies have adopted for their nurses the French style of dress–dark stuff gowns, white aprons, and caps. French nurses are, indeed, very much the fashion, as it is deemed all-important that children should learn to speak French as soon as they can articulate. But it is so difficult to find a French nurse who will speak the truth that many mothers have renounced the accomplished Gaul and hired the Anglo-Saxon, who is often not more veracious.

No doubt there was better service when servants were fewer, and when the mistress looked well after the ways of her household, and performed certain domestic duties herself. In those early days it was she who made the best pastry and sweetmeats. It was she who wrought at the quilting-frame and netted the best bed-curtains. It was she who darned the table-cloth, with a neatness and exactness that made the

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very imperfection a beauty. It was she who made the currant wine and the blackberry cordial. She knew all the secrets of clear starching, and taught the ignorant how to do their work through her educated intelligence. She had, however, native Americans to teach, and not Irish, Germans, or Swedes. Now, few native-born Americans will become servants, and the difficulties of the mistress are thereby increased.

A servant cannot be too carefully taught her duty to visitors. Having first ascertained whether her mistress is at home or not, in order to save a lady the trouble of alighting from her carriage, she should answer the ring of the door-bell without loss of time. She should treat all callers with respect and civility, but at the same time she should be able to discriminate between friend and foe, and not unwarily admit those innumerable cheats, frauds, and beggars who, in a respectable garb, force an entrance to one’s house for the purpose of theft, or perhaps to sell a cement for broken crockery, or the last thing in hair-dye.

Conscientious servants who comprehend their duties, and who try to perform them, should, after a certain course of discipline, be allowed to follow their own methods of working. Interference and fault-finding injure the temper of an inferior; while suspicion is bad for anybody, and especially operates against the making of a good servant.

To assure your servants that you believe them to be honest is to fix in them the habit of honesty. To respect their rights, their hours of recreation, their religion, their feelings, to wish them good-night and good-morning (after the pretty German fashion), to

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assist them in the writing of their letters and in the proper investment of their earnings, to teach them to read and write and to make their clothes, so that they may be useful to themselves when they leave servitude–all this is the pleasurable duty of a good mistress, and such a course makes good servants.

All ignorant natures seek a leader; all servants like to be commanded by a strong, honest, fair, judicious mistress. They seek her praise; they fear her censure, not as slaves dread the whip of the tyrant, but as soldiers respect their superior officer. Bad temper, injustice, and tyranny make eye-service, but not heart-service.

Irresolute persons who do not know their own minds, and cannot remember their own orders, make very poor masters and mistresses. It is better that they should give up the business of house-keeping, and betake themselves to the living in hotels or boarding-houses with which our English cousins taunt us, little knowing that the nomadic life they condemn is the outcome of their own failure to make good citizens of those offscourings of jail and poorhouse and Irish shanty which they send to us under the guise of domestic servants.

Familiarity with servants always arouses their contempt; a mistress can be kind without being familiar. She must remember that the servant looks up to her over the great gulf of a different condition of life and habit–over the great gulf of ignorance, and that, in the order of nature, she should respect not only the person in authority, but the being, as superior to herself. This salutary influence is thrown away if the

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mistress descend to familiarity and intimacy. Certain weak mistresses vary their attitude towards their servants, first assuming a familiarity of manner which is disgusting, and which the servant does not mistake for kindness, and then a tyrannical severity which is as unreasonable as the familiarity, and, like it, is only a spasm of an ill-regulated mind.

Servants should wear thin shoes in the house, and be told to step lightly, not to slam doors, or drop china, or to rattle forks and spoons. A quiet servant is the most certain of domestic blessings. Neatness, good manners, and faithfulness have often insured a stupid servant of no great efficiency a permanent home with a family. If to these qualities be added a clear head, an active body, and a respectful manner, we have that rare article–a perfect servant.

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