“A day in the life of Patty Leigh,” chapter 18 of The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, is now available. Our magicians have been busy. But as everyone ought to know, they could not survive a day without the help of Patty Leigh. At least she thinks so. Not that she would tell you, for she is working undercover.
In the above chapter, I mention in passing the attitude of antebellum Americans to being servants, and how this surprised and annoyed foreign travelers. This aspect of American society and attitudes became famous in the 1815-1850 era, when many Europeans traveled to the United States and wrote accounts of their visits there. These works invariably compared American political and social institutions and manners with European ones. Suffice it to say that as people generally approve of their own customs, European visitors often found Americans uncivilized.
One of the most famous accounts was written by Mrs. Fanny Trollope (1779-1863), the British mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope. Her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) painted a highly unfavorable view of the nation and its people. Her work was so popular in Britain that to “trollopize” became a slang term for abusing Americans. Naturally, it was endlessly criticized here in the United States.
On the subject of servants, Fanny is quite acerbic. “The greatest difficulty in organizing a family … is getting servants, or as it is there called, ‘getting help,’ for it is more than petty treason to the Republic, to call a free citizen a servant. The whole class of young women, whose bread depends upon their labour, are taught to believe that the most abject poverty is preferable to domestic service. Hundreds of half-naked girls work in the paper mills … for less than half the wages they would receive in service … ” Fanny goes on to explain that American girls who will work as servants will do so only until they have enough money to buy some new piece of clothing, that they resent eating in the kitchen, that they demand to be able to come and go as they please, and that they are forever borrowing money from their masters. If you’d like to read the colorful details, they may be found in Book I, chapter 6 of Domestic Manners.
By 1886, when Dragon Lady is set, this prejudice against working as a servant had declined greatly in the United States. It is quite likely that the end of slavery had removed some of the more more servile connotations of service. And the immigrants pouring in from Europe and from French Canada sometimes found work in the mills so undesirable that they would go into service as lighter work. The older Yankee stock in New England was still prejudiced against service, but even they sometimes bowed to economic necessity and became servants.