Friday, July 13, 2012

Victorian Servants and Their Uniforms

I’m writing a novel about a Victorian manor house, and came upon an interesting tidbit—one that I didn’t believe at first. For it makes no sense.

When a girl became a maid of any sort—whether kitchen or chambermaid—she had to provide her own uniforms. A black dress and white apron for formal occasions when she was seen by the public, and a simpler dress to wear when she was doing the hard work. This would cost between £4-5 (equivalent to £228-285 today, or $354-442.) In 1900, with a yearly wage of only £22 pounds (£1255/ $1948) she had to provide her own clothes? She had to spend nearly 20% of her first year’s wage on her uniforms.  They also had to do their work wearing a corset. No thank you.  Ever, actually.

The Lady’s Maid, who was often of some social position, usually knew a bit about fashion so they could be of use in advising, dressing, (and mending) their mistress’ clothing. They could wear normal clothing, even castoffs from her mistress (£32 (£1824/$2831.)


The Housekeeper, earning £45 (£2567/$3985), usually wore a dark dress, and the butler--the highest paid at £60 (£3423/$5314)—wore a formal black suit. The cook (who I would consider the most important servant) earned £40 (£2282/$3543.)


Their employers only paid for the uniforms of the footmen—the fancy-dancy livery. The footmen were paid £26 a year (£1484/$2304.) The fancier the livery, the more status for the family. They even were given a stipend to pay for the powder for their hair. So the footmen, who made decent money, didn’t have to pay for anything. No wonder they often had a haughty attitude. And if they were over six foot tall? They got paid extra. And if they were a matching pair…zounds. Now that was something to brag about.  Having good calves was also important and some footmen wore "falsies" to pad their lacking calves. It looks like the two in the photo at the right could have used a little extra padding.  Sorry, chaps. I'm just calling them as I see them.

Just to give you the full picture, the lowest position was the scullery maid, who made £12 (£685 /$1063.). And the lowest male position of hallboy got £16 (£913 $1417.)

I’m still learning about servants—and there’s so much to learn. But paying for uniforms? That seems unfair. And yet… I remember working in a restaurant that had a uniform, and I had to purchase it. But no way did it cost 20% of my annual income.

The good thing about being a servant is that their room and board was provided, so they had few expenses. But they also had little time off and had to suffer the heirarchy of their employers--and the strict heirarchy of their own servant-world (more on that in another post.)

I’ll also be writing more about the duties of servants later. But I can tell you now, I’m very happy I've never had to empty a chamber pot.//Nancy

14 comments:

  1. This is all so fascinating. When my daughter worked at a very posh restaurant, she had to buy her own uniforms and the requirements included "dry clean only." Her dry cleaning bill alone took a big bite out of every payday. My mother was a maid for a wealthy woman in southern Illinois. She had some great stories. Like cutting the "dividers" out of grapefruit to serve for breakfast. To the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. You can imagine she didn't do grapefruit ever again for herself. She thought the grapefruit spoon a wonderful invention.

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  2. This is even more fascinating after watching the first 2 seasons of Downton Abbey! Great post!

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  3. Love, love, love Downton Abbey. If you like servant/manor house things, you need to watch "Manor House" (Netflix has it.) It was a project where modern day people (the year was 2001) took over the positions of servant and master in a manor house, living that life authentically for months. Fascinating. http://www.pbs.org/manorhouse/

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  4. Love this post. Been thinking on the maid purchasing their own uniforms. As a person who was from a poor family that does problem solving, the ability to scrounge for a maids uniform would have been a good challenge. Perhaps that was how one worked up to being a better paid maid.
    A well meaning mother would start saving for cloth for their daughter and hired some seamstress to make a maids uniform. Now there is a story forming in my brain.
    Like a poor kid trying to get a job nowadays I suppose. Getting a decent suit for the interview can take some doing.
    Perhaps 2nd hand stores back then... my brain is churning away. Thanks for the brain candy.

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  5. Brain candy... hey, I'm all for candy of any kind. But I think you're right, Leah. It's always been a challenge to find a nice outfit for a job interview. And if the job requires the purchase of a uniform? Extra expense. Whether it's just a polo shirt with the company logo on it, or a tux, uniforms were--and still are--a hurdle to jump over.

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  6. How many set of clothes for each dress would typical be required?

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    1. I've not seen an exact amount, but I would think just a couple work dresses (that would get dirty) and one formal black uniform.

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  7. Governesses had to pay for their own clothes too. They were required to dress a certain way, depending on the occasion, so I suppose you could call them uniforms, as well.

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    1. I think you're right. They had to wear simple dresses in conservative colors. I've seen a few with the lace collars to dress them up.

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  8. I was wondering, what did nurses (nursery maids) wear? They weren't on public display much, so did they need a uniform, or just a suitable dress?

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    1. I've seen simple, solid color (lighter color) dresses with a bib apron and a cap, so yes, that is a type of uniform. And no, they weren't seen much at all. In fact, the nursemaids were very separate from the other servants, in their own little world. That would have been very hard to take. They belonged to neither world: not family and not completely a servant.

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  9. A very interesting post. I worked as a chambermaid in a "posh" hotel for some time and was required to wear a uniform. It was not so much different from some older style uniforms seen on period dramas. Dress not as long (calf length)and with a white full bib apron and cap. We hated those uniforms as they were so much more vintage maid like than other housemaids wore at the time. The uniforms were supplied but we had to launder them ourselves. Inspection was at 7.00a.m and if your apron was not suitable starched the head housekeeper would let you have it. lol Kim.

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  10. One of my daughters has endured similar uniform demands and inspections working as a server in a posh restaurant frequented by the rich and famous. She echoed some of your feelings Kim ... although the tips eased the pain most of the time LOL. Happy New Year!

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  11. Thanks for commenting, Kim. Starch... who does starch anymore! Actually I like the idea of uniforms for work. In today's too-casual society they set a standard. Otherwise, we all can imagine what people would wear to work! Casual Friday has already spread out into all the other days of the week in most workplaces.

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