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   Chapter 6 CERTAIN PROBLEMS OF SERVICE

The Expert Maid-Servant By Christine Terhune Herrick Characters: 14753

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The tendency to introduce the wearing of livery into domestic service has grown within the past few years. There are still many protests against it, and writers are found who declare the cap and apron of the housemaid a badge of servitude. But the growth of the livery has been universal, and implies no more degradation in one relation of life than in another. The public servant, whether he be policeman or street-cleaner or motorman or car conductor or what you will, takes his uniform as a matter of course. The shop-girl, who often prides herself on belonging to a higher social class than the "living-out girl," does not feel disgraced if in the big department store where she works she is expected to conform to the rules of the establishment and don a black gown and a white collar. The trained nurse does not feel it an indignity to wear a cap. In truth, there is a great deal of nonsense talked about the livery of the servant-girl. I have known sensible young women-at least they were sensible in everything else-who would flatly refuse to wear a pretty and becoming cap, and would give up the chance of a good place sooner than put one on.

The girl who surveys matters with an unprejudiced view will recognize a pretty little cap as an uncommonly becoming adjunct to her dress. She will also appreciate the fact that she looks much neater with her flying locks tucked back under a cap than she would with the stray tresses wandering over a forehead that is heated by brisk work. Rightly considered, the cap is no mark of servitude, and has a reason for its existence in the added neatness and freshness it imparts to the working-girl's garb.

This, indeed, is the whole object of the livery. When the maid is at work she should be dressed in a manner that is suitable for her employment. In the morning when she is to be busy with her housework, in and out of the kitchen, handling a broom and dust-cloth, her dress should be a neat print. In houses where the mistress provides the working-frocks of the maids, as is sometimes done, she can have these frocks made all in one piece, but in the majority of homes, where but one or two maids are kept, they dress themselves. Under these circumstances they cannot be expected to conform to any especial color or style, and will probably wear shirtwaists and skirts. It is a pity if the skirts are dark woollen goods, because these gather dust and retain the odors of cookery, but a large apron will protect the skirt, and washing is saved to the maid if her whole gown is not of a light material. She is wise if she wears a large sweeping-cap in the morning when she is busy at work that is likely to make dust, but this can be exchanged for a smaller cap when the rougher parts of her labor are out of the way.

For the afternoon, when it is feasible, the maid, whether she be the maid-of-all-work who discharges the functions of both cook and waitress, or the servant who is waitress and parlor-maid, should, if correctly dressed, wear a black frock with white collar and cuffs, and a white bib apron. The latter may be a little more elaborately trimmed than that she has on in the morning. In fact, with a morning apron she may dispense with the bib altogether and wear only a plain, large apron. Some mistresses demand the broad collar, although the cuffs may be omitted. I say "when it is feasible" the maid should make this change, because it is not always the most convenient thing in the world for the maid who has to do the cooking of the dinner before she serves it to be in her black frock all the afternoon. She may look neat in her gingham waist and skirt, and then, when she gets everything in order for the dinner, she may slip away to her room for a minute and get into the black waist. The waitress who has no kitchen work is usually expected to have on her black waist soon after luncheon in order to be ready to answer the bell properly dressed. The absolutely correct custom demands that she should be in this garb before luncheon is served, but this rule is not followed in the average household.

There are many obstacles in the way of strict enforcement of various regulations which are insisted upon as essential by those who endeavor to make the social by-laws. To such rules the majority of housekeepers would be glad to conform if they could. Like Lady Teazle, they would be only too happy if roses grew under their feet and they could gather strawberries all the year round. But domestic exigencies forbid many indulgences, and the wise woman is she who adapts herself to things as they are and does not make herself wretched over non-essentials. When a woman keeps but one maid to do the work of a household of half a dozen members, she cannot hope to have her establishment conducted as it would be with a force of three or four maids. She may very properly insist upon certain niceties of serving and waiting, but if she does this she must make up for it in other ways. For instance, the woman who demands candles for her dinner-table instead of gas must not expect the maid who does all the work of the house to have time to keep the candlesticks in order. The care of the flowers that brighten the table must also come upon the mistress. She must take this sort of thing for granted as much as she does the necessity for relying upon her own efforts in the preparation of her more delicate desserts and salads. Such efforts are the price she pays for wishing to live in a certain fashion, and, since she has made her choice, she has no right to be dissatisfied with it. Plainer modes of life and ultimate salvation are not incompatible, but if she prefers the added daintiness to the lighter labor it devolves upon her to do the additional work necessarily implied by the touches of elegance.

I have spoken of the habit of some mistresses of providing the maids' working-dress. This is done in large establishments where a certain livery is required, and in other homes, where the mistress feels it worth while, she supplies the black frock to be worn in the afternoon. Whether this is done or not it is customary for the mistress to provide the caps and white aprons worn by her maids, and the collars and cuffs, if she insists upon the latter. These belong to the mistress, and are not taken away by the maid when she leaves.

The laundering of these articles is generally paid for by the mistress. That is, if the washing is put out or some one comes in to do it, the aprons are included in the family washing instead of being done by the maid herself with her own washing. In the average family, where two or three servants are employed, each does her own washing and has a fixed time for it, unless some other arrangement is made between the mistress and the servant. In some cases the mistress provides also colored aprons for the maid to wear at her heavy work, but this is not obligatory. There is not the same reason for this that there is for the mistress's purchasing the livery. It is taken for granted that the maid has enough clothing of her own to enable her to look decent about the house. If, however, the mistress has her decided preferences in favor of the maid dressing herself in a special fashion, it is her business to provide the raiment in which the maid is required to appear. Often it will be found that the maid has adapted herself to her work

and has purchased for herself neat black waists or frocks to wear in the afternoon. In this case the mistress is saved just so much expense and may esteem herself fortunate, but she has no right to demand that the maid shall supply herself with such a garb at her own expense.

The social relations of servants is a matter with which some mistresses exercise themselves over-much, while others, perhaps, give too little attention to it. According to the ideas of some persons, the affairs of a maid outside of working hours concern no one but herself. So long as she conforms to certain rules of the household, her coming and going, her associates and habits, are no one's business but her own, unless they interfere with the proper performance of her work. In a way this is entirely true, and a mistress has no more right to pry into the affairs of her maid than the maid has to be overcurious about the business of the mistress. But there is something to be said on the other side. Look at it in as matter-of-fact fashion as one will, relations of domestic service are different from any other business association. The mistress and maid do not only meet in the morning and part again at night, after having been together simply in the way of their work during the day; they eat and sleep under the same roof. Often they work side by side for an hour at a time. They see each other in bodily and mental dishabille. They are by way of asking or granting little kindly services that were never nominated in the bond. Without bringing too much sentiment into the relation, it may yet be asserted that it is next to impossible for them to meet on purely business terms.

When this is admitted it opens the way for something more. Not familiarity or interference, but a kindly and friendly interest. This interest grows to be something very like a sense of responsibility if the maid is a young girl far removed-as she often is-from the family and associations amid which she was reared. The ties that used to hold her have been loosened, and it would be no wonder if in the feeling of irresponsibility that comes with novel freedom she should occasionally make a mistake which she afterwards has to repent more or less bitterly. In one sense it is none of the mistress's business. She is not her maid-servant's keeper. Yet she could hardly help reproaching herself if she thought that a kindly word, a query that showed her interest, might have spared the girl a blunder, even if this did not amount to wrong-doing.

So, if the mistress can do it, she should try to establish some sort of an entente with her maid. It can hardly be an entente cordiale, perhaps, until they have been together long enough to have broken down the little class antagonism that generally exists at first between mistress and maid and to convince the latter of the good-will of the former. It does not take much trouble to bring about this state of affairs. An interest in the girl's family, a question or two as to whether she has any of her own people on this side of the water, an inquiry as to her friends-not in a manner that seems to imply a mere curiosity or patronage, but in a fashion that shows a genuine friendliness is prompting the queries. The assurance of the maid that she may feel free to have her friends come to see her, a pleasant word of greeting to these if they come and the mistress happens to meet them, all do their part towards making the maid sure that her employer is in a measure her friend.

When it comes to the question of "followers"-that vexed question in so many households-the mistress is wise if she pursues the straightest course. In the first place, she should recognize the fact that the maid-of-all-work should be permitted to have her men friends come to call on her. She did not enter a nunnery when she went into domestic service. She is a human being, and she has the right to friends among the opposite sex-just as good a right as the daughter of madam herself. Bearing this in mind, the employer should allow "followers" subject to the same rules which she would enforce with her own daughters. The young men should come at a suitable hour and go at a suitable hour. They should no more be granted permission to linger around the kitchen when the objects of their attention are busy with the daily toil than should the callers of mademoiselle be welcomed when she is at her music lesson or occupied with her language teacher. To do the followers justice, they do not often attempt it, nor do the maids encourage it. Of course, there are the stock jokes about the policeman on the beat and the milkman and the butcher's boy, but none of these-except the policeman-has sufficient leisure to spend much time in the kitchen or the front area during working hours. Even if there is violation of this rule once in a while-well, we have all had little occurrences of the same kind in our lives. Our chance meetings and partings out of canonical hours did not take place in the front area, perhaps, but that was because our employments did not lead either of us there.

The responsibility of the mistress does not go so far as to make it necessary for her to inquire into the antecedents of the young men who visit in her kitchen as she would into those of the men callers in the drawing-room. That is outside of her province. Yet she may let the maid know that she feels an interest in her admirers and friends, and such an interest is likely to be appreciated.

Again I feel I must defend myself against a charge of sentimentality. But I have seen these experiments tried with success. I do not mean by this that the maids were models of unending devotion and fidelity. We seldom find this sort of thing without flaw among our chosen associates. But I have known instances where the casual friendliness of the mistress was repaid tenfold in times of sickness or trouble by offices which could not be compensated for in money. And it was done freely and gladly, with no thought of anything out of the ordinary, with no hint that sacrifices were being made.

"Yes," says some one, "and those very maids will talk you over behind your back."

Quite true, dear madam. As the majority of us discuss not only our maids but our own familiar friends behind their backs-as they do us when our backs are turned. We are all of us as ready to resent criticism as we are to offer it. When we find the habits of high life below-stairs, it behooves us to ask ourselves what sort of an example along those lines we had set the maid-servants within our gates.

Without hope of any reward, except that of the comfortable sensation we have when we have attempted to do the decent thing, let us try to make our maids feel at home in our houses. If it is possible, they should have a place in which to meet their friends. Where there is space, it is becoming more and more the custom to provide a sitting-room for the servants in which their visitors can be received. To many housekeepers such an arrangement as this would be impossible. In such cases there should at least be an effort to render the kitchen as pleasant as the circumstances will permit. It may be clean and neat, there may be a couple of chairs that are tolerably comfortable, and any little attempt the maid may wish to make to add to the attractiveness of the apartment should be encouraged.

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