Tomorrow: Living Life as a 19th Century Servant

Hanna(h) Cullwick, scrubbing the floor. (source)

After the Famine struck Ireland in 1847, millions of Irish immigrants landed on America’s shores.  Many of them were women, young and unmarried.  In fact, it was far easier for a single woman to get a job in America than a man–because there was a huge demand for domestic servants.

In England and America in the 19th century, housework was incredibly laborious.  If you could afford it, you got a servant.  A household with just one servant had what was called a “Maid-of-all-Work,” a lone woman that was responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, and general maintenance of the members of the household.  If you had more money, you could get a cook, a housemaid, a lady’s maid, a butler, and a valet.  Some households were even so large there were complex hierarchies among the servants.  Even the servants had servants.

Domestic labor provided an open door to new Irish immigrants–they could get a job almost right after they landed and room and board was included, which allowed them to save money and send it home.  Often, after they married, they would leave service to manage their own households and raise their own families.

But did the next generation, the American born daughters, follow in their mother’s footstep and go into service?

Hell. No.

Because being in service was terrible.

The servant we know the most about is an Englishwoman named Hanna Cullwick.  She entered service at the age of 8, and remained a servant until 65.  She kept a diary of her daily doings from her mid-twenties to her mid-sixties–from about 1853-1893.  A typical entry looks like this.

Opened the shutters & lighted the kitchen fire.  Shook my sooty thing in the dusthole & emptied the soot there.  Swept & dusted the rooms & hall.  Laid the hearth and got breakfast up.  Clean’d 2 pairs of boots.  Made the beds & emptied the slops.  Clean’d and washed the breakfast things up.  Clean’d the plate, clean’d the knives & got dinner up.  Clean’d away.  Clean’d the kitchen up; unpack’d a hamper.  Took two chickens to Mrs Brewer’s & brought the message back.  Made a tart & pick’d and gutted two ducks & roasted them.  Clean’d the steps & flags on my knees.  Blackheaded the scraper in front of the house; clean’d the street flags too on my knees.  Wash’d up in the scullery. Clean’d the pantry on my knees and scour’d the tables.  Scrubbed the flags around the house & clean’d the window sills.  Got tea for the Master and Mrs. Warwick…Clean’d the privy & Passage & scullery floor on my knees.  Wash’s the dog & cleaned the sinks down.  Put the supper ready for Ann to take up, for I was too dirty & tired to go upstairs.  Wash’d in a bath & to bed.

It’s thanks to her tedious diary that we know anything about a typical servant’s daily life.  But the reason she kept this diary at all is quite interesting: for 36 years, she secretly dated then married her employer, Arthur Munby.  The diary was for him.

The marriage wasn’t made public until Munby’s death, when he willed her his fortune and estate (she was already dead by this point, so it’s all a little confusing).  When they were alone, she was the lady of the house.  When guests were visiting, she returned to her role as servant.  As Bill Bryson describes it in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “At his bidding, she called him ‘massa’ and blackened her skin to make herself look like a slave.  The diaries, it transpires, were kept largely so that he could read about her getting dirty.”  Other accounts say she cleaned his chimney naked and licked his boots clean.

Mundy seemed to fetishize servitude, and the work of a housemaid.  They had this sort of dom/sub roleplay relationship that for many years kept them quite happy.  I say good for them. (although there is nothing funny or lighthearted about actual slavery).

All that aside–I’m going to spend tomorrow living the life of a domestic servant of the 19th century.  My day as a Maid-of-all-Work will begin at 6:30 am.  Breakfast will be served at 10 am, Dinner at 2, Tea at 6, and Supper at 10 pm.  And my apartment could use a post holiday scrub, so I’m going to be doing all the cleaning as well.  I’ll be updating the blog all day, so check back frequently to see what I’m up to. I will not be licking anyone’s boots clean.

See you in the morning.


I first read about Hanna Culwick in At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.  Her diaries have been published, but are out of print.  Tomorrow, I’ll also be using descriptions of servant life from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (buy it here).


20 thoughts on “Tomorrow: Living Life as a 19th Century Servant

  1. “Dated.. her employer”? More like “50 Shades of Gray”. I have abridged version of diary. Oh my!

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  4. What an interesting post!

    I’m working on a project for a class. We’re making a digital library on Domestic Servants. Could we use this page in our digital library?

  5. In a news article about my great aunt being married in 1884, it listed items given as wedding gifts to she and her new husband. One item given was a “tidy”. Any idea what that is?

    • A tidy is a small container that can be used for small items such as sewing materials or even scraps.

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  7. Very Interesting about the diary. I am researching a Boston Beacon Hill/North Shore Mass family from the mid 19th-mid 20th century. During the late Fall and into the early spring Mt. Vernon street was their residence Come May or June until October the family moved into the Prides Crossing property. Four separate staffs of about 4-6 full time. Two for the houses in Mt. Vernon St and two for the Farm and the other family house at Prides Crossing.
    1n the 1930s the family sponsored one of the domestics for citizeship.

  8. just have to comment on your statement about the american children not becoming servants. my 3rd great grandfather came over from ireland and wound up becoming a servant, and his daughter, my 2nd great grandmother, was also a servant. early american census’ and passenger lists confirmed this information very recently for me

    • just to clarify: his daughter, my 2nd great grandmother, was born in michigan. i can’t imagine that’s the only case where it’s happened.

      • Just to add to the comment on April 18, 2018 by anonymous, I found this site looking for information to help clarify the use of the word servant in the U.S. Federal 1900 census. The family lineage at this point was almost entirely from Michigan, and were children of parents born in other countries. It appears that it was extremely common to put children in other homes as servants, some as young as 7. The idea that servanthood ended in the way described in the original 2013 posting seems highly unlikely.

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