Bridget, Mary, Hannah, and John: Who Were the Bartow Servants?

In the nineteenth century, a lot of people lived in the Bartow mansion, but not all of them were named Bartow. As anyone who has watched Downtown Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs knows, that’s because the household included live-in servants.

Taking the Census

Francis William Edmonds (American, 1806–1863). Taking the Census, 1854. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in honor of John K. Howat and Lewis I. Sharp, 2006 2006.457. http://www.metmuseum.org/. From 1850 to 1863, genre painter Francis William Edmonds lived a few miles from the Bartow estate in the village of Bronxville. This scene depicts a census taker recording the family’s details while the father ponders the number of people in the household. A female servant leans on the chair as several children hide.

Servant turnover was high in the nineteenth century, so the Bartows probably employed dozens of people during their fifty or so years on this property. We will probably never know anything about most of their employees, but luckily the census can tell us a bit about who lived and worked in the house at certain times. Genealogy buffs know that the 1850 enumeration was the first to provide details about the entire household, such as name, age, place of birth, and occupation. So let’s start there, when on August 13, 1850, the enumerator, Bartow neighbor Robert Bolton Jr., recorded five Irish-born servants in the mansion—four women and one man: Frances Flanningham, 50; Jane Haring, 34; Margaret Coffee, 23; Hannah Kallaha (Callahan?), 20; and the gardener, William Murray, 26, who probably doubled as the coachman, as was sometimes the practice. The women’s occupations were not noted, and only Hannah and William could read and write.

Ten years later, in 1860, the staff had changed. There were now six employees: Mary Berrigan, 26, cook; Julia Berrigan, 21, chambermaid; Mary Covert (or Covat), 25, domestic; Bridget Connor, 35, laundress; Matthew Hellen, 55, gardener; and John Crowin (or Cloure), 30, coachman. All were Irish-born except Mary Covert, who was born in New York but probably had Irish parents. Bridget, the laundress, and Matthew, the gardener, were illiterate.

Bartowfamily detail

Bartow family members with a servant (at left). Detail from an albumen print, ca. 1870. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

The last year we will look at is 1870, when most of the Bartows’ grown children and five of their grandchildren were living in the house, and Maria Bartow, now a widow, employed seven people: Kate Marshall, 22; Eliza Trainer, 35; Annie Regan, 26; Hannah Nazle, 12; and three men who were probably brothers, John Riley, 22; Matthew Riley, 31; and James Riley, 29. All the women and John Riley are described as “domestic servants,” and the other two men are “laborers.” Twelve-year-old Hannah was born in Germany, but the rest were born in Ireland. Eliza and John were illiterate, and Kate could read but not write.

HW1871P509956 Harpers June 1871

Land-Ho!—Scene on Board an Emigrant Ship. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, June 1871

So, the census indicates that almost all of the Bartows’ servants were born in Ireland; most were in their twenties and thirties; and some were illiterate. The Great Famine brought hard times to Ireland in the 1840s, and the effects continued for years. Families starved, farms suffered, and many desperate people left the country for a better life. Emigrants to the United States—including many unmarried women—experienced an uncomfortable transatlantic sea voyage to find low-paying jobs in a foreign country. Newspaper advertisements for positions in domestic service in New York City during the 1850s and ’60s offer wages from about five to nine dollars per month. In 1862–63, the Bartows’ annual income was $2,500, and their real estate holdings were valued in 1860 at $80,000.

Help Wanted ad 1.23.1862 NY Herald

Help wanted advertisements from the New York Herald, January 23, 1862

Roman Catholic Irish immigrants frequently experienced bias in Protestant America, and mistresses and their Irish servants also endured class and culture clashes. Numerous contemporaneous sources complain about “Bridget’s” clumsiness, impertinence, and lack of common sense. Some employers even placed help wanted ads specifying Protestant, German, Scottish, or English applicants. In 1864, the author of “Your Humble Servant” griped in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “The main-stay, then, of our domestic establishments is the Irish female peasant. She it is who is both the necessity and plague of our homes. As we can not dispense with her strong arms, we have to endure her ignorance, her uncouth manners, her varying caprices, and her rude tongue.” However, he wrote that the “character of servants would be greatly elevated if they were treated more like fellow creatures and less like beasts of burden.” The author also asked: “Bridget, it is true, can seldom read or write, but why should not an effort be made to teach her?” Similar sentiments also occur throughout T. S. Arthur’s 1854 moralistic book Trials and Confessions of an American Housekeeper. In “Two Ways with Domestics,” one woman makes unreasonable and ill-tempered demands on a never-ending stream of domestic help, whom she calls idle, dirty, ill-natured, and saucy. Her friend’s servants are cheerful and accommodating, and she believes that “four-fifths of the bad domestics are made so by injudicious treatment. . . . Instead of being borne with, instructed, and treated with consideration, they are scolded, driven, and found fault with.”

In 1838, when the Bartows were apparently living in an older house on the property, their live-in tutor Augustus Moore wrote a lively firsthand account of life on the estate in a letter to his sister. He enthused:

They live in first style I assure you. Have servants and waiters in abundance. One waits upon the table and another upon something else. If I want a drink of water I merely call on a waiter. If my boots want blackening just tell the negro boy, if you ride out a servant is ready to open the gates on your return and yet there is none of that stiffness or affected greatness that you find around the would-be gentry of N.E. [New England]. Mr. & Mrs. B. are very free, social and kind and I am treated not only respectfully but kindly.

This is the only record we have of an African-American working on the estate, but there may have been others. In addition, it is likely that the Bartows hired some local people with no need to live at the mansion.

Chambermaid

Illustration from Life in New York In Doors and Out of Doors by William Burns, 1853

Servant life meant hard work and long hours, day after day after day. There were not many shortcuts. Today, it only takes one look at the labor-intensive instructions in a nineteenth-century household manual to inspire wide-eyed amazement. Chambermaids like Julia Berrigan had to empty chamber pots, replenish hot water for the bedchambers, tend fires and lamps, and perform numerous other tasks throughout the house. According to Mrs. E. F. Haskell’s Household Encyclopedia (1861):

The chambermaid is also generally the housemaid; she is expected to make up the beds, do all the other part of the chamber-work, sweep and dust the parlors, wipe the paint, etc. . . . If the cook or laundrymaid waits at breakfast, she should, while this meal is being served, air the chambers, shake up the beds, carry down the slops, and wash the chamber crockery.

The CookThe WasherwomenSometimes the chambermaid was also the “waitress” at meals. It is unknown which servant helped Mrs. Bartow care for her many children, but period newspaper ads show that chambermaids sometimes filled this role. The cook’s job required good organizational skills, stamina, and a thorough knowledge of food preparation. The Bartows’ cook Mary Berrigan, for example, was in charge of preparing three punctual meals a day for eight family members, six servants, and perhaps others. She also had to maintain the cookstove fire, bake bread, and wash dishes. Laundress Bridget Connor washed, starched, and ironed large quantities of table and bed linens, undergarments, men’s shirts, and other items in a house without running water or electricity. Housekeeping expert Mrs. Haskell recommended that the laundrymaid “bring in, the evening before washing, as much water as her extra tubs, etc., will conveniently contain” and that “she should rise very early.”

Buggy with coachman 1850s

Illustration from The New York Coach-Maker’s Magazine, Vol. 1, June 1858 to May 1859

The male servants had demanding jobs as coachman, gardener, and general laborers. John Crowin, the coachman in 1860, would have cut a fine figure in his livery when driving the Bartow family to church, on errands, to pay calls, and attend evening parties. But his job was not all about the clothes and going out for drives. Although he probably had the help of a stable hand, the coachman had horses, carriages, and tack to look after. According to the U.S. Tax Assessment List, the Bartows owned two carriages, a buggy, a spring wagon, and six horses in 1863. Finally, gardeners William Murray and Matthew Hellen had to care for the estate’s large landscaped property in the days before leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and other modern equipment. And in the winter, the conservatory (now the Orangerie) demanded their attention.

Detail with gardener

Members of the Frederick Prime family with a gardener (at left with shovel) at Edgewood, their country estate in New Rochelle, 1860s. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

117785pv

Arnold Moses. Attic Bedroom, Bartow Mansion, November 17, 1936. Photograph for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. This attic room was used as a caretaker’s bedroom before World War II. In 1936, the year in which this photo was taken, the mansion was Mayor LaGuardia’s “summer city hall.”

DSC_4571[1]

The coachman would have slept in the carriage house, and although the census reports do not record a stable boy like the one seen here, perhaps a youth from a local farm helped with the horses and carriages.

When bedtime finally arrived, female servants slept in the third-floor attic, which has evidence of heat sources for cold months. In warm weather, clerestory windows and a roof hatch provided ventilation. The coachman would have lodged in the carriage house, and the other male servants also probably slept in outbuildings. During working hours, the basement must have been abuzz with activity. Today, a warren of rooms—with fireplaces, hallways, windows, doors, a cistern, and what appears to have been the servants’ dining room—provides evidence of what life was like below stairs. On Sundays, servants who wanted to attend mass probably walked four miles to St. Raymond’s Church, which dates from the 1840s.

Basement plan

Basement plan from Principles of Domestic Science by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1870. This scheme is a good indication of servant work areas in the Bartow basement.

The many personal stories of people who lived and worked on the Bartow estate are lost in time. If only these walls could talk . . .

Margaret Highland, Historian

Thanks to generous donors at our December fundraiser, the clerestory windows in the attic have been repaired. This was the first step toward creating an exciting new interpretive space for the servants’ living quarters. Stay tuned!

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