One summer day in 1867, Catharine Burns, “a poor servant girl,” boarded the Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn while lugging a valise full of her clothing, according to the New York Herald (September 11, 1867). She was on her way to start a new job, or so she thought. William Smith, who had claimed “he had a good place at service for her on Staten Island,” met her when she reached the Manhattan side of the East River and “took charge of her baggage.” But on their way to the Staten Island ferry, “he gave her the slip and ran away with her clothing,” which was valued at forty dollars, an amount equal to about four or five months’ worth of wages. This would have been a huge loss for the unfortunate Catharine, who was later able to identify the culprit in his jail cell. Did her suitcase contain well-worn dresses? Some new clothes for a new job? A bit of special finery?
Legions of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants spent most of their waking hours in practical work dresses and aprons as they scrubbed floors, tended fires, plucked chickens, ironed tablecloths, emptied chamber pots, and took care of children. But what else do we know about their clothing? Did these women also dress up in the latest styles? Did fashion play a role in what society called “the servant question”? What stories can their clothing tell?
Irish immigrants poured into the United States looking for a better life during the potato famine of the 1840s and in the decades that followed. Young women who worked as domestic servants were given the generic name of “Bridget” (or “Biddy,” the diminutive form), a term that was often laden with anti-Irish sentiment. These girls usually came from rural areas and were young, unmarried, Roman Catholic, and sometimes illiterate, which placed them near the bottom of American society. They worked as chambermaids, “waitresses” (waiting at table), cooks, nursemaids, and laundresses.
Employers regularly placed newspaper advertisements for “a neat and tidy girl,” which implies that—since this requirement had to be specified—not all domestic employees were fastidious about their appearance. “There is nothing so sets off an establishment as neat and appropriately dressed servants, and yet they are seldom found even in the most magnificent of our houses,” gripes the author of “Your Humble Servant,” an article about Irish domestics published in the June 1864 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. But savvy servants looking for work were aware that good grooming and appropriate attire would help them find the best positions. “Wanted—A SITUATION BY A RESPECTABLE young woman, who is neat and tidy in her person, to do chamberwork and waiting, or as chambermaid and to do fine washing and ironing,” a servant girl looking for a job announced in the New York Herald, on October 18, 1859.
Calico and gingham were practical options for good, simple work dresses. “Plain, dark calico dresses, two gingham lawns [a dress made of a fine linen or cotton fabric woven in checks, plaids, or stripes] . . . and dark gingham aprons” are mentioned as suitable attire for a servant in “Six Months in the Kitchen,” a story published in the July 1861 issue of The Ladies’ Repository: A Monthly Periodical Devoted to Literature and Religion. Some employers wanted their domestics to wear caps. “Your Humble Servant” describes a housekeeper who “keeps a supply of white caps and gingham dresses, and makes it a condition on hiring a waiting-maid or nurse[maid] that she should put her head into the one and her body into the other.” However, the writer bemoans, “all her attempts upon Bridget have failed. She prefers shaking to the wind her frowsy locks reeking with castor-oil and bergamot and bobbing about, her hoops hung with rags, to wearing ‘a cotton night-cap and a common gingham frock.’”
Servants’ clothing was still a thorn in the sides of employers almost thirty years later when The Biddy Club: And How Its Members . . . Grappled with the Troublous Servant Question was published in 1888. This book presents a series of fictional discussions among a group of employers—each one with a different point of view—about how to manage a variety of servant-related issues. Mrs. Hughes, a character who is described as a paradigm of good sense, “‛had been much annoyed by their poor dressing’” so she required her servants to wear “‛a calico gown made with full skirt and plain waist. Each girl had three of these suits, and wore one mornings with gingham aprons, and another afternoons with white aprons, white surplice or collar, and cap.’” “‛Could you get your girls to wear caps? I have had some trouble about that,’” another woman asks her. ‛Some girls did not object at all; others did,’” replied Mrs. Hughes. “‛But Mr. Hughes and I were both so annoyed by finding an occasional misplaced hair that I made a rule that the cook must wear a close cap whenever she was on duty.’”
Meanwhile, employers were not the only ones thinking about clothes, and a fashion revolution was brewing below stairs. Servants, of course, had had an interest in fashion long before Irish immigrants took over the domestic drudgery of American homes. In “Madeline Malcolm” (Atlantic Tales, 1833), Eliza Leslie describes two well-to-do friends in Philadelphia who disguise themselves as servants: “The two young ladies did not know, or did not recollect, that when real servant-girls go to the theatre, they generally dress as well as they can and take pains to appear to the best advantage. The clothes that Madeline had selected were quite too dirty and shabby for the occasion.”
Servants’ finery was a hot topic in the nineteenth century. In “Homes—American and English” (The Family Herald, 1860), a British journalist comments that American servants, “Being strongly infected with the national bad taste for being over-dressed, they are, when walking the streets, scarcely to be distinguished from their employers.” Similarly, in the words of “Your Humble Servant,” “Bridget” is “as fond of fine feathers as her mistress and often carries a twelve-month’s wages on her back. She will spend all her money for a silk dress, a lace collar, a velvet hat, and a flashy parasol. . . . Indoors and on duty, she is as slattern as a beggar; outside on a Sunday or a holiday, she is as fine a lady as her mistress and might readily be mistaken for her.” “American Dress” (Putnam’s Magazine, April 1870) even attributes an increase in clothing sales to the phenomenon. “As every woman is a lady—as Biddy, the Irish maid, dresses as nearly as she can like her mistress . . .—the trade in fashions is brisk beyond all conception.”
Employers were clearly concerned about their domestics’ love of fashion. In a lively debate, the ladies in The Biddy Club express strong opinions on the matter. “‛If a girl comes to you all dressed in cheap and gaudy finery, you don’t want her. Even if she’s dressed soberly, but with clothes beyond her means and station—imitation seal-skin cloak, kid gloves, or anything of that kind—you don’t, as a general thing, want her,’” one woman warns disapprovingly. But others are more tolerant. “‛Oh, I never trouble myself about their dress, so they do their work and look well,’” said the woman dubbed the “Imitation Millionaire.” “‛I don’t think that’s any of our business,’ remarks another participant. “‛I do,’” a fellow club member protests, “‛but I don’t know just what to do about it. I’m often bothered by having my cook put more white skirts into the wash than I do, and I’ve known her to spend a long time ironing fancy lace collars.’”
A love of clothes even resulted in crimes by and against domestic servants. In 1836, for example, Margaret Reynolds, “a good looking girl,” “was tried [in court] for stealing from a fellow servant a quantity of clothing” (New York Herald, March 3, 1836). And we have already read about Catharine Burns, the servant girl who lost her apparel to a con artist. The monetary value of Catharine’s loss, however, paled in comparison to that of three well-paid servants working at the Sinclair House, a hotel that once stood on Broadway and Eighth Street. On June 16, 1867, the Herald reported that Hannah Harrison had forgotten to blow out the candle on a wash stand before falling asleep. Fortunately, no one was injured in the resulting fire, and there was minimal damage to the building, but the three women’s belongings went up in flames. “The greatest loss occurred in burning servants’ clothing. Mary Melville, the head chambermaid alleges her loss to be $1000. Fanny McGovern, the cook, lost about $300. Hannah Harrison lost about $150.”
The British caricaturist John Leech (1817–1864) satirized the idea of servants putting on airs—which he called “servantgalism”—in his humorous illustrations for Punch in the 1850s. The derisive term made its way across the Atlantic, where tensions between servants and employers often ran high. On October 18, 1862, the New York Times reported in “Servantgalism—A Domestic Sues Her Mistress for Slander” that Eliza Malone was suing her employers, Elizabeth and Benjamin M. Stillwell of Thirty-Fourth Street, for two thousand dollars in damages after Mrs. Stillwell had accused Eliza of stealing a pair of diamond earrings and Mr. Stillwell fired her. The plaintiff claimed “to have suffered great damage to her character for honesty and her standing among the servant girls in the neighborhood.” Eliza was obviously innocent of thievery in the affair of the diamonds since the slander case was allowed to proceed in court. She had every right to be outraged.
Did some employers fear that their position in the social hierarchy was threatened by servants dressing in fine clothes? Discouraging employees’ taste for fashion could be seen as a way to suppress upward mobility and keep the lower classes (and immigrants) in their place. In addition, the issue was sometimes a moral one. “Household Reform: A British Plan to Reform the Sumptuary Excesses of the Kitchen”—which ran in the Chicago Tribune on February 5, 1868—reports on an opinion piece by “A Clergyman’s Wife” that had recently been published in the Pall Mall Gazette. The zealous British authoress wants to “stem the tide of sin” by creating a uniform—or livery—for female servants, whose current style of dressing, she says, is “disgraceful” and immoral. “In consequence of the reckless expenditure of women upon their dress,” she cautions ominously, “husbands become drunkards, and quarrels, and even murder, too commonly follow. It is lamented by numbers of masters and mistresses that the dress of female servants is in general quite unbecoming their status in life.” Even murder!
This extreme point of view provoked a backlash from the Tribune, whose American commentator observed that “no doubt, the servants nowadays spend their money upon a style of dress which makes them look none the better, and the practice is to be deplored for more important reasons than the pangs of a mistress on beholding her housemaids dressed like her daughters. But something equally deplorable is the sort of ignorance amongst the ‘upper classes’ which accounts for notions like the livery league of our [British] correspondent.” An essay in Modern Women and What Is Said of Them (1868) also disagrees with the clergyman’s wife. Extravagant dress, the author argues, is the fault of employers, not their servants. “A neat and simple style must come from above, and not from below. . . . When ‘ladies of position and fortune’ cease to lavish their thousands on millinery, their copyists in the nursery and kitchen will cease to spend their wages on a similar object. . . . The chief incentive to showy dress among the ‘lower orders of females’ is unquestionably a desire to ape the extravagance of their betters. Remove that incentive, and the evil which a ‘Clergyman’s Wife’ so forcibly deplores will soon cure itself.”
Servant dress was part of a larger dialogue. Employers constantly complained about the lack of competent domestic help. Servants complained about their mistresses and wanted better working conditions. Flora McDonald Thompson summed up what was known as “the servant question” in an article published in the March 1900 issue of The Cosmopolitan: “What shall we do with our ‘hired girls?’” and “What shall our ‘hired girls’ do with us?” The topic hummed through parlors, on the street, and in the kitchen and scullery.
Many Irish immigrants were young women exploring the modest freedom that came with earning their own money. And they often lived in cities where shopping for—and wearing—new clothing would have been fun. More importantly, however, fashion was a means of asserting their independence from menial jobs, impoverished backgrounds, and low social status. Hard work, ambition, and—yes—dressing up improved the domestic servant’s chances of moving up in the world.
Margaret Adams Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian