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Domestic employment was difficult for women

March 17, 2014
Samantha Hall-Saladino , The Leader Herald

A look into almost any newspaper from the 19th and early 20th centuries will reveal a rash of "wanted" ads, almost all beginning with the generic: "Wanted - Girl to do housework." Domestic servitude was one of the only available options for working-class women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the other option being employed by a factory or shop.

According to the 1870 census, 52 percent of employed women in the U.S. worked in "domestic and personal service." Most of these women were unmarried immigrants, many of them Irish, who were willing to take on the difficult tasks and long hours of keeping house.

Fulton County's glove and leather industries drew people from all over. Europeans came with knowledge of glove-making or the desire to learn the trade. Well-to-do citizens sought domestic servants to assist with housework. In turn-of-the-century Fulton County, there were 443 female domestic servants living in the households where they worked. Of those, 161 employees were immigrants, mostly coming from Ireland and Austria, but also from Scotland, Germany, Hungary, Canada, Russia and England. While that number may seem high, by 1900, it was becoming increasingly difficult for people to find - and keep - domestic servants. Contemporaries called it "the servant problem."

The shortage of "good help" was a source of aggravation for would-be mistresses. The author of a 1926 article titled "Solving the Servant Problem" laments: "Fewer servants are recruited each year, and the good Irish and German stock which entered service 20 years ago is being replaced largely by Southern European, Bohemian, and Slav girls, who are much harder to train into our American ideals."

While newly arrived immigrants were willing to subject themselves to domestic servitude, their employment was hardly ever long-lasting. Many of them left after finding better prospects or a husband, and some of them bounced around from employer to employer before leaving the profession if they could. In Gloversville, many women found jobs in the glove industry, assembling gloves in their homes.

Let us look at the example of George W. Mandrill of 71 Fremont St., Gloversville. Mandrill was a glove maker from England who came to the U.S. in 1873. The Mandrill family also included George's wife, Anna, and three daughters: Lillian, Anna, and Grace. In the Jan. 3, 1900, edition of the Daily Leader, he placed an ad: "Wanted - Girl to do housework, wages $3.00. Inquire Geo. W. Mandrill, 71 Fremont St." Those weekly wages are equal to about $70 today.

A look at the U.S. Census for that year tells us that a servant named Kate Collins was living and working in the Mandrill household, indicating his advertisement was a success. Collins was then a 29-year-old single woman, born in Buffalo, N.Y., to Irish parents. But the State Census five years later lists a different servant, Cathorn Welch, a 35-year-old Irish woman. And again, in another five years, the 1910 U.S. Census shows us Marry Hasek, a 19-year-old from Austria. If we had account ledgers for the family, we might see even more turnover in that decade. The Mandrill household exemplifies the typical pattern of hiring and leaving that occurred with domestic workers.

The reason for high turnover and lack of interested prospective employees was simple: Domestic work, more often than not, was awful. Hours, conditions, and pay were all unregulated. There was a higher percentage of consumption among servants than any other type of workers.

Pioneer social worker and Progressive reformer (and founder of Chicago's Hull House, the first settlement house in the country) Jane Addams indicated that "there is more danger of prostitution for the girl in domestic service than in any other occupation." Servants' bedrooms were often not adequately heated or furnished. Daily tasks were at the whim of the lady of the house, with no regulation of responsibilities. Women in single-servant households were referred to as "maids-of-all-work" and were expected to do cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry and whatever else the mistress might have her do. Hours were not fixed, meaning an employee could be kept very late to help with guests or asked to work on an afternoon off. In the article "Experiences of a 'Hired Girl'" (1912), the anonymous author explains: "Foreign girls do not go into housework for this reason. They prefer the fixed hours of factory and shop work."

Wages might come late or not at all, and overtime pay was at the discretion of the employer. Servants were often expected to make do with inadequate tools. Still, some women did stay in the profession. Eliza Adams was living with the Rhoda family in Gloversville in 1900. She was 70 years old. As far back as 1870, Adams can be found on the census as a servant (living with the Smith family in Johnstown that year).

The National Labor Relations Act was created in 1935 to protect the rights of workers in the U.S., but it did not cover domestic workers. It wasn't until as recently as 2010, when New York became the first state to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, that these employees were given the right of overtime pay, a day off every seven days, three paid "rest days" a year, protection under state human rights laws, and a special cause of action for harassment on the job. Hawaii and California passed similar bills in 2013 and 2014, respectively. There is yet to be any protection for domestic workers on a national level.

In 1928, jazz blues singer Hattie Burleson recorded "Sadie's Servant Room Blues," a song that highlighted some of the common complaints of domestic workers. Domestic work was especially important for black women, who were often excluded from other jobs. By 1920, 40 percent of all domestic workers in the U.S. were African-American women. Census records show that most of the African-American domestic servants in Fulton County in 1900 were from New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C.

However, Burleson's song speaks to the woes of all domestic workers, especially long hours and poor pay. Domestic servants everywhere most likely identified with the fictional Sadie, especially when she sings: "I'm going to change my mind, yeah, change my mind/ 'Cause I keep the servant room blues all the time."

Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.

 
 
 

 

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