These ladies didn't skivvy for any toffs. Dame Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery as the Dowager Countess Lady Violet and Lady Mary. Photographer: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece via Bloomberg.
These ladies didn't skivvy for any toffs. Dame Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery as the Dowager Countess Lady Violet and Lady Mary. Photographer: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece via Bloomberg.

Over Labor Day weekend, I read “The Maid’s Tale” by Rose Plummer, an East Ender who spent about a decade as a servant in London’s big houses before she married an odd-job man. If you are ever tempted to nostalgia for the good old days, this account of her first day should put you off it:

I was tired by mid morning that first day as it seemed endless, but I kept quiet and though I made lots of mistakes I was determined not to make so many the next day. And I think Cook realised I wasn’t completely stupid and so was quite nice to me, really. I think she sensed I wanted to get it right and she was the same. Like me she was a bit of a rebel inside but took pride in her work. She showed me how to put out all the implements each day in their allotted places; kitchens in the early twentieth century had far more knives and different kinds of pan than they do now. The pans were cast iron or copper and really heavy. You’d never believe the number they used them -- big copper pots you could put a sheep in down to the tiniest pots for a single egg. And they all had to be cleaned every day, all 26 of them.

I quickly learned to put out the ones I thought Cook would need as well as all the necessary ingredients.

As soon as she was ready and happy with what I’d put out she’d say, ‘Off you go,’ and I’d start chopping and slicing like a mad thing. Then when that was done I was sent off to the back stairs to carry on cleaning the steps. What a slow painful climb that was -- more than 100 steps on my aching knees. I also oiled the narrow wooden banister with linseed.

The steps and banisters took about three hours and I was exhausted at the end of it.

When I’d finished I had a bit of dinner down in the kitchen with Cook. We always called lunch ‘dinner’ in those days. All ordinary people did. I had it with The Boots and Cook, the three of us not saying a word. The Boots ate as fast as I’d ever seen anyone eat -- and I’d seen some bloody fast eating, I can tell you. He was called Tommy and he was scruffiest little blighter I’d ever come across. I think Mrs W hardly paid him anything and he lived in a space under the stairs. It really was under the stairs, but the stairs were big so it actually wasn’t such a bad little room in a way. Mrs James didn’t live in but I did so it was just The Boots and me. It was an unusual arrangement because a house that big would normally have had more servants and I wondered if they were actually a bit short of cash. I have no idea why but The Boots also had to eat sitting on a stool. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been Cook who insisted on it. It would have been a rule of the house to create a sort of social hierarchy even among the lowly.

As I sat there munching I felt really awkward and found it hard to swallow because my swallows sounded so loud! Apart from my gulps all I could hear was the big clock on the wall. But the dinner was lovely. I’d never had such a delicious meal and I’ve never forgotten it. It made me think for a bit that there might be something to this servant business after all. I had a chop, some lovely mashed potato and a huge pile of cabbage. And then Cook asked me if I wanted more. I nearly fell over. There was never any question of more at home. She dolloped another load of cabbage on my plate and a ton of spuds. Not another chop, but I didn’t mind a bit; I was in clover. ‘You’d better eat up girl,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a lot more work to do today.’

She wasn’t joking, either. As soon as I finished eating I had to clean the pans and the plates and knives and forks from our dinner and from Mrs W’s breakfast. The pans -- and as I’ve said there were loads of them -- were sprinkled with what looked like brick dust. I believe it was special sort of sand, and then you tipped a bit of vinegar in. You rubbed it with your hands till the pans were scoured out nicely. There were no detergents. I did it as if my life depended on it. I regretted this later when I noticed that I’d virtually skinned my fingers. I did the cutlery next in the big old lead-lined sink. A huge amount of the metal in those old kitchens was lead, especially the pipes. No one worried because we didn’t know it was bad for you. We must have eaten and drunk loads of small bits of it and damaged our brains!

I was told never to soak the knives and forks because it would make the handles fall off. They had to be cleaned using more of that bloody painful sand, but this time mixed with oil. After they’d been cleaned with this mix they were polished with a dry cloth. Plates were cleaned with soap that came in great big tins. Or sometimes we’d collect old remnants of soap in a wire basket which was then dipped in the water and sloshed about until there was enough soap to do the knives. Very little was wasted. You rinsed the plates in clean water in another sink and then put them in a rack to dry.

Though not as bad as the vinegar and oil and sand, the soap was enough to turn your hands raw. Then there was the cleaning soda which was sometimes used -- it was like bloody acid. The truth is that everything we used made our hands a mess because there were no protective gloves then. You just had to try to put up with it. Many girls couldn’t -- their hands got so bad they had to leave and go home. There they weren’t always welcome because, if they didn’t work, they cost their families money to keep. Many girls didn’t have a home like mine where, though we were skint, my mum wouldn’t have dreamed of letting on that we were a burden. I met lots of girls terrified they’d be sacked and have to go home because their mums didn’t want them back or because they hated it at home.

You can argue that these jobs were unnecessarily horrible. Certainly the nonsense of making lower servants sit on uncomfortable chairs just to reinforce their status is indefensible -- and hardly the only bit of nonsense in the book. Consider how servants are supposed to exit rooms backward, rather than turn their backs on their employers, and how they must find somewhere to disappear to if they encounter someone in the hall.

But the most galling elements are not anywhere close to the worst bits of the jobs she describes; they’re just petty annoyances. The bad things are the physical discomforts: the hours (from dawn until after dinner), the hands scrubbed raw, the knees crippled with arthritis as they tried to scrub the front steps white in coal-fogged London. Perhaps the employers should not have tried to keep their steps so white, and perhaps if they hadn’t held themselves at such callous remove, they wouldn’t have. And probably the jobs would have been a bit better if England’s income distribution had been more equal.

Yet many of these things were simply features of the time -- housewives as well as servant girls were making their hands red and raw with the era’s primitive cleaning solutions. When I was a child in the 1970s, all the dishwashing liquids promised to save you from “dishpan hands,” a mysterious ailment that I’d never seen. Nor has any child born since; you could keep your hands immersed in modern dishwashing soap all day, and the worst you’d get would be a bit of chapping around the cuticles -- from the damp, not the soap. But the women to whom they were marketing freedom from “dishpan hands” probably remembered the day when women who did their own heavy work frequently had red, calloused hands.

For all the horror of these jobs, they were often actually better than the alternatives, as Plummer goes on to point out: “As a friend I made a bit later on once said to me: ‘I loved it when I started work – I might have had to skivvy for a load of toffs but at least they fed me and I had my own bed and a bit of decent food. At home I was an unpaid servant and the food was terrible and my mum and dad were always at me to get out of the house.’” For women without educations or family connections, domestic service was actually one of the better jobs: indoors, safe, and usually pretty well fed.

It is customary to end these pieces by saying that these jobs went away, or got better, because unions and the government made them so, but this isn’t true. These jobs went away because the alternatives improved. Yes, by the 1950s, the normally affluent could not afford servants, thanks to the heavy taxation that had reduced their incomes. But long before that, the lives of servants began to improve, because domestic servants were getting scarce. With opportunities opening up in factories and offices, people refused to go into service unless they were treated quite well. World War II basically ended the heyday of the British domestic servant, not because of some law, but because the servants could get a better deal for war work.

Economic progress made people too economically productive to waste hours of their lives making the steps white. So the steps stayed gray (at least until the invention of the pressure washer). That, in a nutshell, is the sum of human progress. So in honor of the recently passed labor day, let us now praise gray, dirty steps.