Oh dear! What’s to be done about the help?
This lament was once as common as it sounds comical today – even in Bangor. Many more families hired servants a century ago than do today. The job of maintaining a household was far more burdensome. Women didn’t have such labor-saving devices as electric refrigerators or automated washing machines. Coal furnaces, wood stoves and kerosene lamps produced a high level of household grime that required almost constant cleaning.
There were plenty of females, especially immigrants, willing to work for almost nothing so it didn’t require great wealth to hire help. Often they got room and board, living in a backroom and eating the same meals as the family or the leftovers anyway. The trouble was there never seemed to be enough of the type of girls desired by the demanding housewives who employed them. Some of these servant girls, it turned out, had minds of their own.
“The servant girl problem is again troubling the people of Bangor and complaints are heard on all sides that it is next to impossible to get girls for housework,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on Oct. 6, 1906, a century ago this week. “The newspapers are full of ads for domestics and the local employment agencies are beseiged each day by housekeepers who are anxious to obtain them.”
One Bangor employment agency had a list of 50 families looking for servant girls. An employment agent said the situation was the worst he had seen in 25 years. The going rate was $3 or $4 a week, and more for the “first girl, one familiar with cooking.”
A major reason for the shortage was the growing number of occupations competing for the services of young women. Many working girls preferred to work in hotels, shops or factories where there were fewer restrictions on their spare time. A growing number were becoming “typewriters” in offices or teachers as more children went to public schools.
“Many families expect too much from the girls and they are allowed but one evening or afternoon to themselves during the week. In a hotel or shop when their work is done their time is their own to do as they please with,” pointed out the Commercial’s reporter.
Bangor people increasingly had to depend on women from out of town – immigrants or country girls seeking a foothold in the city – for their help. “As a general thing the girls living in the city are too independent and expect too much from their employers,” complained the newspaper writer. “They are not obliged to work as the most of them have homes to which they can return if they lose their position. On the other hand, the girl coming from a long distance must stick to her work, at least long enough to lay by enough money to return home by.”
The most desirable girls were those from the Canadian provinces or from Sweden, “as they are willing to work and they learn easily.” And, of course, they also had a long way to go to return home.
The Commercial ran an editorial on the lamentable servant problem 10 days later, developing its arguments further. Cooking and housekeeping had become lost arts among young women. “Too many of the working girls of today have acquired a distaste for household work and strive after something more flashing and showy which, after all, too often leads only to disappointment, unhappiness or ruin,” the editorial writer harangued, adorning his case with a moral. But ultimately, his pitch was mainly about dollars and cents and personal freedom.
“[Y]oung women who engage in domestic work in good families have to work less hours, have more privileges, have better rooms, have better board and save more of their wages at the week’s end than those who work as salesgirls or at office, store or similar employment,” he wrote. “Instances are numerous among the best families of this city where young women are treated with as much respect as though they were members of the family, are given more liberties, enjoy more freedom, dress as well, perform less hard service and lay by more money than girls who are in stores and offices, who work more hours, have poorer rooms and at the week’s end less money.” And furthermore, he claimed, “No employment pays better than that of domestic service.”
On the same page as the editorial was a story out of New York telling how despite labor laws forbidding it, girls were working in some factories in that state for up to 14 hours a day. A campaign was also under way in Maine to stiffen labor laws and to have the current ones enforced. The writer could have written a similar story about some Maine factories. The 40-hour workweek, and even the 48-hour workweek, was still only a distant dream.
The editorial closed with a resounding call for action: “There is a need that the mothers of today get back to first principles and instruct their daughters in the dear old art of cooking and housekeeping; that the young woman of today make a study of domestic service as an honorable, useful and remunerative employment, and that together they help to readjust the social economy, now so sadly out of joint, on a reasonable and satisfactory basis.”
It is doubtful if either the editorial writer or the newspaper publisher, assuming they were not one and the same, were encouraging their daughters to become domestic servants. It is easy today to find ironic humor in their words, while forgetting the bitter struggles that went on during the last century to give women, nonwhites and poor people generally more opportunities in the workplace than as members of the serving class.
Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.