The Regency Maid-Servant – Part One

A sketch of the female domestic servant during the Regency period is summed up thus:

“..her own character and condition overcome all sophistications…her shape, fortified by the mop and scrubbing-brush, will make its way; and exercise keeps her healthy and cheerful. Through the same cause her temper is good..”

La Belle Assemblée; or, Bell’s court and fashionable … N.S. 15-16 (1817)

Of course, if the maidservant be “dirty always,” like the nature of her labor, there is little to be interested in. But if the maid is otherwise “snug and neat at all times,” and if she always has a pin to give you, that is something remarkable, and therefore worth examining.

In the “ordinary room,” which is usually the kitchen, the maidservant has a drawer assigned to her. It might be in the great trestle table, or among the zillions of drawers in the large wall-cupboard. Inside it she keeps her thimble, thread-case and a piece of looking glass to check her appearance.

The restored kitchen at Ickworth House in Suffolk and all those drawers

                       The restored kitchen at Ickworth House in Suffolk

In the garret, where she sleeps:

“a good looking-glass on the table; and in the window a Bible, a comb and a piece of soap…and, under lock-and-key, the mighty mystery–the box.

The writer of this character sketch must have once been the child of a family who employed such a maid. Perhaps he or she had been the young master of a great house in the country, or the pampered daughter of a grand Mayfair townhouse.

Only a child could be curious enough to know of the box and be completely obsessed with what it contained.

When it was opened, no doubt after much cajolery, the contents did not disappoint. Inside were the clothes the maid had stood up in upon her arrival at the house, during her interview of employment, to be stored away while she was in uniform. There were also song-books, tragedies costing a half-penny per sheet, little enamel boxes and other fripperies from the local fair, along with correspondence from home, penned in letters without regard to capitalization.

This popular tragedy was published in 1800.

This popular tragedy was published in 1800.

There, too, were coins, fascinating beyond their purchase power. They were evidence of the maid’s excursions beyond the gatehouse or the Mayfair square:

“…pieces of country money, with the Countess of Coventry on one of them riding naked on the horse; a silver penny wrapped up in cotton by itself, and a crooked sixpence.”

the Coventry half-penny

                    the Coventry half-penny

They lay beside the maid’s wages paid in half-crowns, nestled in a purse, the only thing that stood against her and an uncertain future were she to be turned off–without a character.