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The Expert Maid-Servant By Christine Terhune Herrick Characters: 16316

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The most common method of engaging a servant is through an intelligence office. There are nearly as many different kinds of these as there are types of domestics who patronize them. An office with a high standing should be selected. This is not only because a lower grade of employées is to be found at the other variety, but also on account of the methods followed in some of the cheaper offices. Such establishments occasionally have unscrupulous managers, who make a business of encouraging the maids they place to change often, in order that the renewed fee of the employer may come to the office. This practice has become common enough in some States to justify legislative intervention.

In nearly every city or town there are reputable agencies, sometimes conducted as business enterprises simply, sometimes run in connection with church or benevolent societies, where a register is kept of the references of servants for whom places are secured. These references are usually held as confidential between the agent and the would-be employer, and the latter is thus enabled to learn with some certainty the qualifications of the maid she thinks of engaging.

Once in a while a mistress is so fortunate as to secure a maid by the recommendation of some other housekeeper or through a servant in her own or a friend's employ. Maids engaged in this fashion are often more satisfactory than those found at an office, from the fact that they enter their new positions somewhat prejudiced in favor of the employer, instead of holding the attitude of armed neutrality often found in servants who seek places through an office.

Wherever the maid is met and in whatever capacity she is engaged, there should be a clear understanding from the beginning as to what her work shall be. The mistress should begin the interview with the maid she seeks to employ by stating what are the duties of the place she offers and inquiring as to the capabilities of the maid for the position. Often a few questions and answers will prove the unsatisfactoriness of the situation or of the applicant. In this case, the affair should be dropped at once. Never, no matter what the exigency, should the housekeeper endeavor to persuade a domestic into taking a place for which she is disinclined. It is a mistake almost sure to result badly.

The housekeeper should come to an interview with a prospective maid with an open mind, and not allow herself to be prejudiced by appearances. An aspect of sullenness is frequently the result of shyness and does not indicate unwillingness to work or a bad temper. The would-be employer should speak gently and not ask questions with a manner of having the maid in the witness-box. Such treatment will sometimes frighten a timid maid into inability to answer intelligently, and the employer will produce an impression of her own hardness and severity which she will find it difficult to overcome later. The pert and self-sufficient maid is likely to declare her nature within a very few minutes. Kindness will not intensify these qualities in her, while it will enable a bashful girl to appear to better advantage.

Before interviewing a maid, the mistress should have clearly framed in her own mind the outlines of the work required, and should know definitely what queries she means to put. Each mistress probably has her own way of learning the maid's capabilities and of explaining the work she wishes done. The housekeeper who has had little practice in engaging servants will do well to make up a formula of inquiries in advance. To begin with, it should be ascertained what experience the maid has had, what was her last place, how long she stayed in it, what were her reasons for leaving it. Having thus learned if the servant seems to be in the main satisfactory, so far as disposition and willingness are concerned, the mistress should proceed to explain what is the work of the house, putting such questions as will enable the girl to tell of her competency.

For instance, in engaging a maid for general housework, she should be asked if she understands plain cooking of meats and vegetables; if she can make bread, biscuit and muffins, soups and plain puddings; if she can follow a recipe, etc. More elaborate culinary accomplishments can rarely be looked for in a maid-of-all-work. She should also be able to do washing and ironing, have some knowledge of chamber-work and of waiting, and be willing to learn. There are so many qualifications for the general-housework girl, who must be a sort of Pooh Bah in petticoats, that it is no wonder the supply is usually inadequate to the demand.

There should be no attempt on the part of the mistress to make things in the place she offers seem better than they are. A servant who is brought into a house under false pretences is never likely to do well. If the prospective mistress entertains a good deal, if she is likely to have guests staying in the house often, she should give full notice of her intention from the start, explaining at the same time that she is willing to do all she can to lighten the burden of extra work. So far as possible, the amount of labor should be put clearly before the employée, so that if the place does not suit her she may know its drawbacks from the beginning. Naturally, it should also be the part of the mistress to point out what are the especial advantages of the situation, and to let the maid see that the employer is ready to do anything in her power to prevent unusual toil from being too heavily felt. No chance should be left for misunderstanding upon any point, and from the first it should be comprehended that a spirit of accommodation and kindliness will be accorded by the mistress and expected from the maid.

After the mistress and maid have reached some kind of an adjustment that makes them feel the relation of employer and employed would be desirable to both, it is time for the housekeeper to make special inquiry about the maid's references. If the office is a reputable one it may be taken for granted that the servants' characters are in the main what they should be, but the mistress will wish to go into details and either see the former employer or write to her.

This matter of references is most important. The mistress owes it to the maid as well as to herself to see that these are all they should be. No matter how excellent is the written reference shown by the servant, it should be verified by the prospective employer. In many cases the mistress of a departing maid will write for her an uncandid reference for the sake of saving herself an unpleasant scene or from a mistaken kindliness. She does not wish to endanger the maid's chances of securing further employment, and she prefers to stretch the truth to being honest in the recommendation she bestows. A lamentable want of honor prevails between housekeepers in this regard, and the woman who has not found a maid in the least satisfactory while in her own employ will send her forth with a reference which makes it tolerably sure she can obtain a situation elsewhere without difficulty. On the other hand, the new mistress is no less heedless and will take a servant into her employ simply on the strength of a written reference without giving herself the pains to inquire as to its accuracy.

Too much stress can hardly be laid upon this necessity for honesty in the references given. It is the protection of the maid as well as of the mistress. So long as any servant can secure a good place by a forged reference or by one granted to incompetency by easy good-nature, she will not feel that her employment depends upon her merits. The conscientious trained worker stands on precisely the same plane as the careless, unqualified shirk. A good part of the reformation of the much criticised domestic service lies with the mistress who deplores its faults. When a maid understands that laziness, impertinence, dishonesty, ill-temper, incompetency, will be mentioned in her reference just as frankly as the contrary good qualities, she will take more pains concerning the recommendation that will win or lose her a place.


a matter of course, there is always the chance that an unscrupulous or bad-tempered mistress may take advantage of the power of the reference. But this risk is small, especially in the present condition of our domestic service. We have not yet reached the point attained by the English, with whom a false reference-that is, one not written by a genuine employer of the servant holding the reference-is punished by fine or imprisonment. From present appearances, it does not seem likely that we shall ever get to that. But the mistresses might at least have the sense of mutual responsibility that marks "living-out girls." If a place is once known as hard, or a mistress as unreasonable, unkind, or a "driver," it is difficult to find servants to fill it. There is an unorganized trades-union among servants which helps to protect them, in a measure. The mistresses have too little esprit de corps when references are in question.

It is difficult to describe to a prospective maid exactly what her work will be, but she can have a general outline of it given to her. Concerning her privileges it is possible to be more explicit, although the privileges vary with the position the maid occupies in the household. Where one servant is kept, it is customary to allow her every other Sunday afternoon and evening out, and an afternoon and evening besides on a week-day, once a fortnight-or else an evening every week. When two servants are employed the same privilege is allowed to each, and it is the general rule that one shall take the work of the other on the days and evenings out of the latter. Thus, the second maid prepares dinner as well as serves it, when the cook is out, while the cook does the waiting and serving and answers the bell, in addition to doing her own work, when the second maid has her holiday. In some households it is the custom to have supper instead of dinner on the night when the cook goes out, thus lightening the task of the waitress. The Sunday evening supper is practically universal, as it gives the maids their heaviest work in the early part of the day and lessens the labor of the afternoon and evening. In the household where three women servants are employed, it is the custom to have but one out at a time, except on Sundays. More or less planning is required to divide the work satisfactorily under these circumstances, and the method in which the division is accomplished must be decided by the features of each case. Whatever the peculiarities of the position, they must be made plain to the maid when she is engaged, and not left at random to be decided upon later.

The arrangements once made, it must be understood that the rules formed are not to be lightly broken, either by mistress or maid. The employée is to know that she can count positively on a certain day a week, and the mistress must submit to great personal inconvenience sooner than vary from this rule. If, for instance, it is more agreeable for her to entertain guests on Thursday than on Wednesday, and the former is the maid's evening out, the mistress should waive her own preferences and convenience sooner than break in upon the maid's outing. The same principle should be followed by the maid. Her day out is agreed upon to be this or that. She should not feel that she can change it to suit herself, merely by requesting the indulgence of her mistress.

In other matters about the household there should be a fixed routine, and this should be understood from the outset. Meals will be served at certain hours, the maid will be expected to have them on time and the family to be prompt at the table. Such system as this does much towards simplifying the work of a household and gives a maid a feeling of stability that helps her to do her work to better advantage. She knows what she has to do in the line of work and what to depend upon in the way of time, and as a consequence the wheels of the home move more smoothly.

Such a hard-and-fast rule as this cannot prevail, perhaps, in every household. Take the case of a physician, for instance, of a newspaper man, of some business-men. It is almost out of the question for them to conform to an immutable regulation. If a doctor has been up all night with a patient, it is rank absurdity to say that he must be on hand in the morning for an eight-o'clock breakfast, or that if a commuter loses his train he must stop in town and get his dinner sooner than derange the times and seasons of the domestic economy. In such cases it is well to remember that the house is made for the family and not the family for the house. But instances like these are exceptions, and do not affect the general application of the rule.

On the other hand, it may be urged that there are happy and, in the main, well-conducted homes where a different principle is followed. In these the establishment is considered more as the home and less as a piece of machinery. Concessions are rendered to the preferences of the servants when they wish to vary their days out, and they in turn are ready to accommodate themselves to the wishes of their employers when a change of holidays seems desirable. Such liberties as these it is not safe to advise. They are the exceptions, and, in the long run, the stricter plan will probably prove more satisfactory to all concerned.

At the time of engaging the maid, the mistress should make stipulations as to the minuti? of caps, aprons, broad collars and cuffs, and the like. In some parts of the country there are maids who object to anything that seems to suggest a livery or uniform, and, if there are protests to be made and met, the process should be disposed of at the start.

Many mistresses and maids fail to grasp the fact that the engagement between them is in the nature of a legal contract. Mistress and maid are equals in the eyes of the law, and an agreement is as binding upon one as upon the other. It should be perfectly understood at the beginning for what term the maid is engaged and at what rates. In some places it is the custom to pay by the week, and the servant is then engaged by that term. In other localities she is engaged and paid by the month, although she is frequently taken at first on a week's trial, with the understanding that, if she gives satisfaction and is suited with the place, she is to continue her services by the month. When the latter period is the term of engagement, it is understood that the employer is expected to give not less than a week's notice of discharge to a maid, and that the latter should announce a week before her month is up her intention of leaving. Should the mistress prefer, she can give a week's wages in lieu of a week's notice, but the former method is in more general use.

When a servant is engaged by the week, two or three days' notice is demanded on either side. The "month's notice" with which English books have made us familiar is not common here, unless the servant has been for a long time in the place. Immorality, drunkenness, dishonesty, and absolute refusal to obey orders are sufficient causes for dismissing a servant without warning or wages; but this is an extreme measure, and should be resorted to only in circumstances of great provocation. Even then, complications are often avoided by paying a servant something, if not all of what is due. The servant who leaves without warning in the middle of her term is not legally entitled to her wages, but in this case, also, trouble is usually saved by paying her up to date.

Among the stipulations incident to the engagement of a maid, it is well to make mention of breakages. This may not be needful when hiring a cook, but it is a safeguard when engaging a waitress or even a general housework servant. Inquiries should be put as to the maid's carefulness with china, and there should be an agreement that the maid is responsible for breakages except in cases of unavoidable accident. Such a proviso as this may deter some maids from taking a place, but the careful girl is not likely to object to the rule, and the mistress would probably be unfortunate should she engage a maid who resented such a regulation.

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