April 24, 2010

Hints for Servants from 1859: How to address the family

Civil War Reenacting ServantsThe servant class is practically obsolete today, although it was thriving up until the 1900s. We today would not even know how to have a servant. Servants used to help dress, cook and clean in the place of middle and upper class women. Could you imagine having someone dress you? It was only proper for the lady of the house to enter the kitchen once a day, only to tell her servants what to cook. Many immigrant women quickly became servants when they came to America, especially the Irish women in the 1860s. These women were known by common names such as "Maggie" or "Bridget." It was even customary for the Master and Mistress of the house to rename their servants to names that suited the family. It also was not required for families to know the names of their servants.

It is important to remember how vital the servant class was in the past. In the case that you are portraying a servant or a middle class person at a living history or reenactment, you should remember the role of a servant or the amount of work that the upper and middle class people would not be able to do on their own. 

These are some excerpts from the Servant's Behavior Book to get a better idea of how a servant would have to talk to her employing family.

Servant’s Behavior Book; or Hints on Behavior and Dress by Mrs. Motherly (1859):

  • My Dear Girls, Every rule in this book is necessary to a girl entering a gentleman's family. Some of the things I shall tell you will be known to many of you, and some will seem new and strange; but all are equally important, if you wish to be well-behaved and agreeable servants. If you neglect to observe the rules I shall teach you, you will always be awkward, and fit only for common places and low wages; but if you learn and practise them, you will be able to rise higher as your domestic knowledge and abilities improve, (v.)”
  • “Never Speak To A Lady Or Gentleman Without Saying, "sir," " Ma'am," Or "miss," As The Case May Be. I have had several servants who had not been in place before, and in every instance have had much trouble in making them observe this rule. Every young person will say “Sir " or " Ma'am " occasionally; but few do it always, till taught to do so in a regular place. Some, on my telling them several times of this omission, have said, as an excuse, that it seemed awkward to say “Ma’am " so often; but this is quite a mistake. It sounds very awkward to leave it out; and, what is worse, it sounds, and will always be thought, very ill-bred and disrespectful, (32.)”
  • “In some houses, the servants call the lady and gentleman of the house " My master " and " My mistress ;" in others, " Mr. Smith " and " Mrs. Smith," or by whatever may be the surname. I would advise you in this matter to follow the custom of the house you are in. You are most likely to be in families where the first mode of speaking is adopted; but whichever title you may give your master and mistress, in speaking of them, be sure you never address them by a surname; as, “Thank you, Mr. Smith." This would sound very rude. The simple " Sir " and " Ma'am "—of which we have before spoken—is always the right word to use in speaking To a lady or gentleman, (36.)”
  • “If you wish to call your mistress, as it may sometimes chance, in a hurry,—or on going into a dark room, to ask if she is there,—do not call her by name, as, " Mrs. Smith!" but speak in some way that does not need the use of a name ; as, " Are you there, ma'am ?"—" Can I speak to you, ma'am ? (37.)”
  • “I need scarcely tell you that you should never speak of any lady or gentleman, whether friends of your mistress or not, without saying "Mr." or " Mrs." before the name. It is sometimes a habit with tradesmen and others, for quickness, to say, " Up at Green's," " Over at Turner's," &c., in speaking of gentlemen's houses; but this sounds very unbecoming in a servant. If, in speaking of your master's next-door neighbour to him, you say, " The blinds are down at Anderson's," he will naturally suppose that were you speaking of his house to Mr. Anderson, you would say, " They are not down at Taylor's "—or whatever his name may be; so you are guilty of rudeness, in a certain way, to both your master and his neighbour. I should not have thought any girl in service would need to be warned against this mistake, had it not been committed by Rose, who always spoke of my neighbours as " the Browns," " the Millers," &c. There is no harm in speaking thus of tradesmen; as, " Over at Thompson's," " Past Eley's dairy," &c.; but private houses should never be so styled, (39.)
It is kind of sad to read that the best these women could do was to "be a good servant." The promise that if they were a good servant, they could work in a nicer house is sad. Most of the girls lived with the families they worked for and rarely saw their real families. Some families couldn't afford to feed and house their daughters so eagerly sought out servant positions.   


  1. Having to call somebody sir or ma'am and never using their name would be pretty awkward for me, and it would probably get old pretty quick.

    I guess it's sort of the same in the military though, having to call officers "sir".

  2. Sir? Were you talking to me? I think it would get very annoying.


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