Sunday, November 13, 2011

Maidservants in the 18th Century..A Necessary Evil, According To Author Daniel DeFoe

Author Daniel Defoe Speaks Out Against The Excesses of Maidservants in the 18th century.

Women servants are now so scarce, that from thirty and forty shillings a year, their wages are increased of late to six, seven, nay, eight pounds per annum, and upwards; insomuch that an ordinary tradesman cannot well keep one; but his wife, who might be useful in his shop or business, must do the drudgery of household affairs; and all this because our servant-wenches are so puffed up with pride nowadays, that they never think they go fine enough: it is a hard matter to know the mistress from the maid by their dress; nay, very often the maid shall be much the finer of the two.

Our woolen manufacture suffers much by this, for nothing but silks and satins will go down with our kitchen-wenches; to support which intolerable pride, they have insensibly raised their wages to such a height as was never known in any age or nation but this.

Let us trace this from the beginning, and suppose a person has a servant-maid sent him out of the country, at fifty shillings, or three pounds a year. The girl has scarce been a week, nay, a day in her service, but a committee of servant-wenches are appointed to examine her, who advise her to raise her wages, or give warning; to encourage her to which, the herb-woman, or chandler-woman, or some other old intelligencer, provides her a place of four or five pounds a year; this sets madam cock-a-hoop, and she thinks of nothing now but vails and high wages, and so gives warning from place to place, till she has got her wages up to the tip-top.

Her neat's leathern shoes are now transformed into laced ones with high
heels; her yarn stockings are turned into fine woollen ones, with silk
clocks; and her high wooden pattens are kicked away for leathern clogs;
she must have a hoop too, as well as her mistress; and her poor scanty
linsey-woolsey petticoat is changed into a good silk one, for four or
five yards wide at the least. Not to carry the description farther, in
short, plain country Joan is now turned into a fine London madam, can
drink tea, take snuff, and carry herself as high as the best.

If she be tolerably handsome, and has any share of cunning, the
apprentice or her master's son is enticed away and ruined by her. Thus
many good families are impoverished and disgraced by these pert sluts,
who, taking the advantage of a young man's simplicity and unruly desires,
draw many heedless youths, nay, some of good estates, into their snares;
and of this we have but too many instances.

Some more artful shall conceal their condition, and palm themselves off
on young fellows for gentlewomen and great fortunes. How many families
have been ruined by these ladies? when the father or master of the
family, preferring the flirting airs of a young prinked up strumpet, to
the artless sincerity of a plain, grave, and good wife, has given his
desires aloose, and destroyed soul, body, family, and estate. But they
are very favourable if they wheedle nobody into matrimony, but only make
a present of a small live creature, no bigger than a bastard, to some of
the family, no matter who gets it; when a child is born it must be kept.

Our sessions' papers of late are crowded with instances of servant-maids
robbing their places, this can be only attributed to their devilish
pride; for their whole inquiry nowadays is, how little they shall do, how
much they shall have.

But all this while they make so little reserve, that if they fall sick
the parish must keep them, if they are out of place, they must prostitute
their bodies, or starve; so that from clopping and changing, they
generally proceed to whoring and thieving, and this is the reason why our
streets swarm with strumpets.

Thus many of them rove from place to place, from bawdy-house to service,
and from service to bawdy-house again, ever unsettled and never easy,
nothing being more common than to find these creatures one week in a good
family, and the next in a brothel. This amphibious life makes them fit
for neither, for if the bawd uses them ill, away they trip to service,
and if the mistress gives them a wry word, whip they are at a bawdy-house
again, so that in effect they neither make good whores nor good servants.

Those who are not thus slippery in the tail, are light of finger; and of
these the most pernicious are those who beggar you inchmeal. If a maid is a downright thief she strips you, it once, and you know your loss; but these retail pilferers waste you insensibly, and though you hardly miss it, yet your substance shall decay to such a degree, that you must have a very good bottom indeed not to feel the ill effects of such moths in your family.

Tea, sugar, wine, &c., or any such trifling commodities, are reckoned no thefts, if they do not directly take your pewter from your shelf, or your linen from your drawers, they are very honest: What harm is there, say they, in cribbing a little matter for a junket, a merry bout or so? Nay, there are those that when they are sent to market for one joint of meat, shall take up two on their master's account, and leave one by the way, for some of these maids are mighty charitable, and can make a shift to maintain a small family with what they can purloin from their masters and mistresses.

If you send them with ready money, they turn factors, and take threepence
or fourpence in the shilling brokerage. And here let me take notice of
one very heinous abuse, not to say petty felony, which is practised in
most of the great families about town, which is, when the tradesman gives
the house-keeper or other commanding servant a penny or twopence in the
shilling, or so much in the pound, for everything they send in, and
which, from thence, is called poundage.

This, in my opinion, is the greatest of villanies, and ought to incur
some punishment, yet nothing is more common, and our topping tradesmen,
who seem otherwise to stand mightily on their credit, make this but a
matter of course and custom. If I do not, says one, another will (for
the servant is sure to pick a hole in the person's coat who shall not pay
contribution). Thus this wicked practice is carried on and winked at,
while receiving of stolen goods, and confederating with felons, which is
not a jot worse, is so openly cried out against, and severely punished,
witness Jonathan Wild.

And yet if a master or mistress inquire after anything missing, they must
be sure to place their words in due form, or madam huffs and flings about
at a strange rate, What, would you make a thief of her? Who would live
with such mistrustful folks? Thus you are obliged to hold your tongue,
and sit down quietly by your loss, for fear of offending your maid,

Again, if your maid shall maintain one, two, or more persons from your
table, whether they are her poor relations, countryfolk, servants out of
place, shoe-cleaners, charwomen, porters, or any other of her menial
servants, who do her ladyship's drudgery and go of her errands, you must
not complain at your expense, or ask what has become of such a thing, or
such a thing; although it might never so reasonably be supposed that it
was altogether impossible to have so much expended in your family; but
hold your tongue for peace sake, or madam will say, You grudge her
victuals; and expose you to the last degree all over the neighbourhood.

Thus have they a salve for every sore, cheat you to your face, and insult
you into the bargain; nor can you help yourself without exposing
yourself, or putting yourself into a passion.

Another great abuse crept in among us, is the giving of veils to servants; this was intended originally as an encouragement to such as
were willing and handy, but by custom and corruption it is now grown to be a thorn in our sides, and, like other good things, abused, does more harm than good; for now they make it a perquisite, a material part of their wages, nor must their master give a supper, but the maid expects
the guests should pay for it, nay, sometimes through the nose. Thus have they spirited people up to this unnecessary and burthensome piece of
generosity unknown to our forefathers, who only gave gifts to servants at Christmas-tide, which custom is yet kept into the bargain; insomuch that a maid shall have eight pounds per annum in a gentleman's or merchant's family. And if her master is a man of free spirit, who receives much
company, she very often doubles her wages by her veils; thus having meat, drink, washing, and lodging for her labour, she throws her whole income upon her back, and by this means looks more like the mistress of the family than the servant-wench.

And now we have mentioned washing, I would ask some good housewifely
gentlewoman, if servant-maids wearing printed linens, cottons, and other
things of that nature, which require frequent washing, do not, by
enhancing the article of soap, add more to housekeeping than the
generality of people would imagine? And yet these wretches cry out
against great washes, when their own unnecessary dabs are very often the

But the greatest abuse of all is, that these creatures are become their
own lawgivers; nay, I think they are ours too, though nobody would
imagine that such a set of slatterns should bamboozle a whole nation; but
it is neither better nor worse, they hire themselves to you by their own

That is, a month's wages, or a month's warning; if they don't like you
they will go away the next day, help yourself how you can; if you don't
like them, you must give them a month's wages to get rid of them.

This custom of warning, as practised by our maid-servants, is now become
a great inconvenience to masters and mistresses. You must carry your
dish very upright, or miss, forsooth, gives you warning, and you are
either left destitute, or to seek for a servant; so that, generally
speaking, you are seldom or never fixed, but always at the mercy of every
new comer to divulge your family affairs, to inspect your private life,
and treasure up the sayings of yourself and friends. A very great
confinement, and much complained of in most families.

Thus have these wenches, by their continual plotting and cabals, united
themselves into a formidable body, and got the whip hand of their
betters; they make their own terms with us; and two servants now, will
scarce undertake the work which one might perform with ease;
notwithstanding which, they have raised their wages to a most exorbitant
pitch; and, I doubt not, if there be not a stop put to their career, but
they will bring wages up to 201. per annum in time, for they are much
about half way already.

It is by these means they run away with a great part of our money, which
might be better employed in trade, and what is worse, by their insolent
behaviour, their pride in dress, and their exorbitant wages, they give
birth to the following inconveniences.

First, They set an ill example to our children, our apprentices, our
covenant servants, and other dependants, by their saucy and insolent
behaviour, their pert, and sometimes abusive answers, their daring
defiance of correction, and many other insolences which youth are but too
apt to imitate.

Secondly, By their extravagance in dress, they put our wives and
daughters upon yet greater excesses, because they will, as indeed they
ought, go finer than the maid; thus the maid striving to outdo the
mistress, the tradesman's wife to outdo the gentleman's wife, the
gentleman's wife emulating the lady, and the ladies one another; it seems
as if the whole business of the female sex were nothing but an excess of
pride, and extravagance in dress.

Thirdly, The great height to which women-servants have brought their wages, makes a mutiny among the men-servants, and puts them upon raising their wages too; so that in a little time our servants will become our partners; nay, probably, run away with the better part of our profits, and make servants of us vice versa. But yet with all these inconveniences, we cannot possibly do without these creatures; let us
therefore cease to talk of the abuses arising from them, and begin to think of redressing them. I do not set up for a lawgiver, and therefore shall lay down no certain rules, humbly submitting in all things to the wisdom of our legislature. What I offer shall be under correction; and upon conjecture, my utmost ambition being but to give some hints to remedy this growing evil, and leave the prosecution to abler hands.

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

Smiles & Good Reading,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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