Imagine living in the Victorian era, where the use of electricity, gas, running water and even toilets were not yet widespread. To survive in this world, wealthy families could not help but have at least one servant at their disposal. In fact, about one in four households had at least one servant, and by 1890, nearly half of these servants worked alone or with a single colleague. Conversely, wealthier people might have as many as 50 servants, all of whom lived and worked in one large house. The Duke of Westminster in the 90s of the XIX century had more than 300!
For these wealthy Victorian families, having domestic help was essential to living in an elegant, refined, civilized and gracious way. Also, if they simply wanted to live in a large, clean, comfortable house and eat regular, enjoyable meals, they needed to have well-trained, hard-working servants. Cooking and cleaning in the Victorian era required slow, heavy and unwieldy equipment, and housework was exhausting and time consuming. Most of the houses still didn’t have electricity, and only a few had gas, but only for lighting. Running water and toilets were not common, even among the servant-owning classes, until the end of the Victorian era.
Even in large stately homes, cooking was done on dusty and unreliable coal stoves or on large rotating spits set up in fireplace caverns. The rooms were heated by wood or coal fires which had to be cleaned and rearranged every day. After dark, the light came from oil lamps which needed to be regularly topped up and trimmed. There were no refrigerators, freezers or microwaves. Washing clothes, even babies’ diapers, was done by hand (laundresses were famous for their strong arms) and hung out to dry.
Servants had become an integral part of wealthy families in the Victorian era, and were considered members of the family itself. They were loved and respected, and were trained to perform specific tasks such as preparing meals, cleaning rooms, taking care of clothes, and even caring for children. Furthermore, servants represented a symbolic status for wealthy families, as their number it was a sign of prestige and wealth. It was also important that the servants were polite and respectful, so as to adequately represent the family to guests and society.