The Servant Problem, September 1903

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The Servant Problem

We are told many times that the great achievement of the present moment lies in the application of science and of industrial arts to the processes of actual living. Each month the popular as well as the technical magazines call public attention to the radical inventions and developments in sanitation, in engineering and manufacturing due to the incorporation of the results of scientific research into technical methods. If we ask a manufacturer why the American product in his line stands so high in the commercial world, he will at once tell us that it is due to the American ingenuity and readiness to use the latest inventions and suggestions.

It is, however, worthy of comment that in all this widespread writing and patriotic boasting, reference is seldom made to the advance in the administration of the household nor to the readiness of the American housekeeper to avail herself of the wonderful inventions going forward in applied science, and this, in spite of the fact that an increasing number of American housekeepers are college women, and have had advantages of training in courses of science and economics. It is difficult to satisfactorily explain their conservative attitude, although it may be possible to throw light upon it, by comparing the position of these women to that held by men years ago when the inventions of the industrial revolution first invaded manufacturing processes.


We realize vaguely that all great industrial changes have come about in spite of vigorous opposition sometimes on the part of the workmen who were displaced by the newly invented machinery, sometimes by those whose capital was invested in the old regime, and always by thousands of people found in every class who clung to tradition and precedent, because they were firmly convinced that the moral life of the nation was so enwrapped in old customs as to be endangered by any radical change. In looking back over this opposition we see that the two former classes who considered their personal interest before the public good illustrate once more the dictum that selfishness is always the chief obstacle to progress, not indeed conscious selfishness, but that absorption in personal affairs which entail an inability to distinguish relative values or to see the difference between the transient and the essential. Not only are these first objectors unconscious of wrong-doing, which is true of almost all selfish people, but many times they claim great credit for their conduct on the ground that only by this opposition can they support their families or protect the helpless. The defense of the hand weavers who smashed the steam power machinery first brought into the English textile mills, was based upon the indisputable fact that it took the bread from the mouths of their wives and children, and is curiously like [page 2] the argument of the street car company, resisting a loss of franchise based upon a change of motive power, on the ground of protecting the investments of widows and orphans, or the argument of those who lose by the larger organizations of capital into combinations and trusts, and who cite the sad plight of the displaced man and make no mention of the advantage accruing to the general consumer.


But more dangerous and subtle still is the defense of the larger class of people who block progress with a right good will and who firmly believe that they are serving the Lord thereby. History is full of examples, from the good churchman who broke the spirit of Galileo, to the farmers who believed the railroads for the carrying off of their crops to be an invention of the devil. When we get a combination of these two kinds of motives, the subconscious inertia and selfishness holding to the old, combined with a veritable conviction that the proposed changes are fraught with moral danger, we encounter something well-nigh impregnable. There is doubtless some evidence that it is only because these two trends of historic opposition have become curiously combined in the minds of contemporary housekeepers, that the household has so firmly withstood the beneficent changes and healing innovations which applied science and economics would long ago have brought about, could they have worked naturally and unimpeded.

Curiously enough the opposition to changes and readjustment is made in the name of the sanctity and traditions of the home, whereas a genuine understanding of the historic development of the home and its ancient origin would at once bring "vaster and more courageous counsels." All timidity would disappear if we realized that the home stretches back to the most primitive cave; that it has not only survived but developed through a thousand changes; that it is so necessary a part of human life and growth that it is able to survive a thousand changes more, and that but one thing can endanger the life of a living and vigorous organism, and that it is lack of the power of adaption to its environment, to the changing demands made upon it. The women who are too timid to adjust the home to newer conditions and discoveries, who insist that it must survive by dint of isolation and of holding to past ideals, are really those of little faith. They are the skeptics concerning the sacredness of the home, although they parade as its defenders. That the past has inhibitive power only over those in whom moral growth has ceased, is as true of those who contend that the morality of family life must follow only the old lines, as of other timid moralists.

On the other hand, that small body of women who attempt to bring the household into harmony with the industrial conditions and the social ideals that prevail today in the larger world outside the home, who believe that the home cannot escape a social test and must embody more than personal relationships to a given center, are really the women who are saving the home and are exhibiting faith in its future.


Without this opposition on the part of the larger number of housekeepers to industrial changes, there is little doubt that household adjustment would proceed along three lines; in fact, that it is now so proceeding, but with great difficulty and vexation of spirit owing to the lack of conscious co-operation on the part of intelligent housekeepers. The three lines of adjustment easily discernable are:

First, the preparation of constantly more food materials in factories and the organization of outside labor for work formerly performed by domestic employees.

Second, contemporaneous with the [page 3] steady though gradual change from private to public industry in the work of preparing food, is the reaction toward de-centralization and the making of at least smaller personal effects and house furnishings in the spirit of the arts and crafts movement.

Third, the attempt on the part of domestic employees themselves to force the issue, first by staying away, and secondly by demanding shorter hours and constantly more free time.

When we consider the first line, it is at once obvious that it embodies the general result of the centralization of industry into factories and the subdivision of labor, but that these changes are taking place without much conscientious or even conscious help from the women who are at the heads of households. The enterprises are being largely pushed by business men with a purely commercial motive, and consist in the preparation of foods and food materials in factories and in the organization of laundries, window-cleaning companies, firms for housecleaning by compressed air and many other contrivances. As instances we need only to recall the lists of breakfast foods, many of which may be served without cooking, the preserved soups and meats, the canned fruits and vegetables, the infinite variety of biscuits and health foods which every day make it easier to provide at least a nutritious meal without the aid of a cook.

To go through a well-equipped modern laundry is to see a factory filled with machinery of most complicated invention, a single garment may be put through a score of washing and ironing processes before it is finally mended and folded by a neat woman in cap and apron. The carpet cleaner, the clean towel supply and other similar commercial enterprises are all succeeding because they are supplying genuine needs. They are, however, succeeding on the commercial basis and almost all of them sadly need standardizing by that class of consumers who embody the best traditions of cleanliness and comfort.

The heating of towns from a general heating plant is daily becoming more popular, and it seems only question of time until it shall become as general as the central electric lighting plant. All these enterprises take more labor out of the household and free the time of the housekeeper, with little effort on her part. She herself seems to have often failed in this realm of business enterprise when she has entered into it, and with her meager business training that was perhaps to be expected, but it is to be regretted that as she grudgingly used more and more prepared foods, she has done so little toward insisting upon a standard in savor and nutritive value, or even of cleanliness of preparation. In other words, she has not as yet been an intelligent consumer, although an active critic of those articles which she herself formerly prepared.


The lack of intelligent consumption and the consequent variety of demand has had much to do with the failure of various attempts to adjust housekeeping on collective lines. A club of women in an Iowa town where it seemed impossible to procure domestic employees, at one time undertook the beginning of collective housekeeping, conducting the experiment upon the usual business basis that they might not be confused with the difficulties of learning to co-operate at the same moment when they were modifying their household arrangements. It was discovered that out of the group of forty club women, twenty-six patronized the same butcher. After many meetings and much discussion twenty of these patrons finally agreed to buy from their butcher stock for mutton broth every Monday, beef stock on every Tuesday, beef already roasted for a Thursday dinner, baked turkey or chicken for a Sunday dinner, quite as they already bought from him [page 4] fish on Friday, boiled ham, dried beef, and other "prepared meats" at other times. This plan would take the preparation of meats out of the house itself, and the butcher with the help of his capable German wife declared himself quite as willing to provide soup stock as to provide soup bones, "provided that enough ladies wanted to buy it, to make it worth while."

Two sisters were found in the town who earned a precarious living by selling homemade bread and rolls. It was proposed by these twenty club women that if the butcher plan succeeded they would next give their patronage en bloc to the bread women, reserving as in the case of the butcher the right to set the standard, in return for eliminating the element of risk from the business. On the same basis these club women who hoped in time to standardize the town laundry, and further contemplated engaging the three or four rather inefficient char-women of the town, providing them with kits of tools and giving them regular employment, so that each of the twenty houses might have at least one thorough cleaning each week. It was argued that with the preparation of meats and breads outside the house, that with efficient laundry work and heavy cleaning done, coupled with the fact that courses of domestic science had been introduced into the public schools which would presumably interest their little daughters in many of the minor duties of household service, she would indeed be a "shiftless" club woman who could not manage her household very comfortably without the aid of a domestic.

And yet this perfectly reasonable plan fell through in the butcher stage of the experiment, although it implied the minimum of cooperation, for each woman would of course settle her own bills with the butcher, baker and char-woman without any more consultation with her neighbors than the present system implies, and agreed to purchase no definite amount but only to bestow her entire patronage so long as the products were entirely satisfactory to the group. The women simply dropped off, "found it hard to make the change," and gave other perfectly irrational and incoherent reasons for discontinuing the experiment. If any one of the twenty women had gotten up in the club and had given reasons as incoherent as that for "The decline of the Roman empire," for "The moral value of George Eliot's novels," or any other club topic, she would have been considered quite disgraced and ill prepared. The experiment of course really failed because there was no common standard of food values among the women. The woman who gave up because she did "not care for mutton broth every Monday" probably gave her family no soup at all on Monday, because "it is so tedious to prepare, and the fire must be kept up, whether you want to go out or not."

To quote from a report issued from the school of housekeeping in 1892 by a fellow from the Boston branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae: "When 'standards of food' have been recognized by many persons, when the individual family is willing to disregard individual preferences and tastes and admit that the choice of food rests on certain fundamental principles, it will be possible for cooperate experiments in the purchase and preparation of food to succeed as they cannot without common agreement and standards."


To attain this, however, means a long road of educational training upon which even the club women are only entering. They have as yet done little toward careful research or vigorous reconstruction of this situation which so vexes their individual souls. Another paper prepared from the school of housekeeping in Boston upon Standards of Living as Reflected in Woman's Club, comes to the conclusion that the club [page 5] standards are largely social and intellectual and seldom include any conscious recognition of standards of living; that the popular demand seems to be for food served in an attractive and palatable manner without regard to its nutritive value. The paper expresses a hope, however, that as many club women have interested themselves in the sanitary measures of their towns, this may in time lead to an interest in home economics. If one were not so accustomed to the fact that life constantly presents a lack of logic, this would seem a very indirect method, although one remembers that college women have taken almost every other subject for their theses and have studied science in many fields before considering its application to household affairs: that it is only during the last decade that the universities are offering well-considered courses along this line, and that only the latest exhibit by the women's collegiate association has to do with household matters. It will take much cooperative study and experiment before even educated women set apart a definite amount of the family income for food, considering its value in relation to the age, physical condition and occupation of the members of the household. Yet all this is implied before the housekeeper may be said to be living in accord with the industrial production of the times.


It is possible that the second line of adjustment, which was loosely designated as the arts and crafts motive, may afford help before conscious study does, the former having the advantage of appealing to the constructive instinct and to the old tradition of "beautifying the home." But even this impulse, although it grows rapidly, is almost sub-conscious in its effect upon the household problem. The writer recalls a town in central Illinois in which four families living in attractive houses on the most attractive residence street, have for months taken their meals at a boarding house situated in the same block. These houses in common with many others were heated from a public steam plant and also furnished with electric light. The laundry work of the four families was "sent out," the cleaning done by the weekly visits of a former domestic, so that the time of the women was absolutely free after an hour's housework in the morning.

The writer was able to know something of the personal tastes and occupations of the women in two of the families. One family consisted of a man and his wife in the prime of life, and a grown-up daughter; the other, a man afflicted with rheumatism, a wife showing traces of invalidism, two grown-up daughters, and a son of twelve. All of the young ladies had been carefully educated, and one of them after her graduation from a good boarding school in a neighboring city had had two years in an art institute, where she had learned to paint extremely well. Her sister showed some skill as a wood carver. These girls were interested in many things -– literature, philanthropy, music, golf, college athletics, and arts and crafts exhibit which was being planned in the town, and were able intelligently to discuss all of them with the passing visitor; but any talk concerning food values, a remote suggestion that a carefully selected diet might be better for a rheumatic patient than the somewhat hit-or-miss menu of the boarding house table, where the southern training of the cook struggled with the New England traditions of the landlady, were met with a silence so absolute that the visitor felt that she had been guilty of an impertinence. Yet there was no reason why these girls of cultivated minds and many interests could not have been interested in foods and food preparation if some proper foundation had had been laid for any such interest. The three young ladies discussed an art exhibit in the visitor's hearing, laying the artistic productions upon the disused dining room table. A suggestion that the same art and craft [page 6] interest might be extended to the preparation of charming and successful breakfasts for the family, that it would be interesting to discuss the length of time and amount of skill embodied in a meal, that the little electric stoves were "great fun," was finally received with favor because of an incidental reference to the training table at college. The athletic suggestion formed the basis for a long conversation upon the simple kindergarten principle "of proceeding from the known to the unknown."

Afterward one of the college women remarked: "Perhaps the little girls who are growing up now will care for that sort of thing. I don't believe we ever can."

And yet in spite of this youthful dogmatism every town in America contains a growing number of women who find great pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction in following lines of handicraft in textiles, in metals, in pottery, in furniture, which offer activity for muscle and brain and can be carried on without interfering with their family life, and which in time will modify the more strenuous line of household duties. These women who are reviving handicrafts on the broadest educational and artistic lines gladly avail themselves of labor-saving devices in the drudgery of housekeeping, and would be the first to assent to the fine formulation made by Miss Caroline Hunt that: "Work which meets universal needs or any work that is liable to lapse into drudgery is best done by machinery on a large scale, and with all possible labor-saving devices; work which meets special needs and which man loves to do, is best done by hand and on a small scale." In the general impulse toward a more normal life which shall include a certain amount of genuine physical labor, may we not hope that that residuum of labor which must always remain to be done in the household, shall in time gather to itself the pleasure and dignity which self-expression and comparison of will always give?


In connection with the third line of adjustment, which might with propriety be called the line of mal-adjustment, a review of the history of domestic service in a fairly prosperous American family begins with the colonial period, when the daughters of the neighboring farmers came in to "help" during the busy season. This was followed by the Irish immigrant, when almost every kitchen had its Nora or Bridget, while the mistress of the household retained the sweeping and dusting and the Saturday baking. Then came the halcyon days of German "second girls" and cooks, followed by the Swedes, the successive waves of immigration supplying the demand for domestic service, and gradually obliterating the fact that as the women became more familiar with American customs they, as well as their men folk, entered into more skilled and lucrative positions. In these last years immigration is heaviest from south Italy, and later consists in ever increasing numbers of Russian, Polish, and [Romanian] Jews, none of whom have to any appreciable extent entered into domestic service. The Italian girls are married between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, and to live in any house in town other than that of her father, seems to any Italian girl quite incomprehensible. The strength of the family tie, the need for "kosher" foods, the celebration of religious festivities, the readiness with, which she takes up the sewing trades in which her father and brother are already largely engaged, makes domestic service, a rare occupation for the daughters of recent Jewish immigrants. Moreover, these two classes of immigrants have been quickly absorbed, as indeed all working people are, by the increasing demand for the labor of young girls and children in factory and workshops. The paucity of the material for domestic service is therefore revealed at last and manifests itself in two directions [page 7] –- "unreasonable demands" on the part of those who remain, and the negative result of the lack of supply. The issue is chiefly made clear by the "non-resistant" method, as it were, or to speak more accurately, by the "non-appearance" method. Perhaps it is the prevalence of this method which accounts for the exasperation to be detected in the situation. The well-known Swedish formula, "I think I leave today," is quite as inexplicable as it is final, and its very simplicity makes it hard to bear.


At the last Lake Placid conference it was contended that future historical review may show that the girls who are today in domestic service are the really progressive women of the age, who are blindly fighting against conditions which limit their freedom. They are demanding avenues of self-expression outside their work, and that this struggle from conditions detrimental to their highest life is the ever recurring story of the emancipation of first one class and then another. It was further contended that in this effort to become sufficiently educated and able to understand the needs of an educated employer from an independent standpoint, they are really doing the community a great service, and did they but receive cooperation instead of opposition, the whole position of domestic service would lose its social ostracism and attract a more intelligent class of women. And yet this effort, perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of historic development and democratic tradition, receives little help from the employing housekeeper, and there is no room for doubt that the mass of them would be content with the old regime if it only ran smoothly. They not only fail to make conscious effort to readjust their household affairs, but they complain bitterly when they are overwhelmed by the increasing difficulties experienced in procuring and retaining domestic employees. The underlying causes of the difficulty remain a mystery to most of them, although some light could be thrown upon it by a [perusal] of the immigration bureau report. That the issue has not yet been forced is due to the fact that in her direst extremity the housekeeper has found it possible to shelter her timidity and ineffectiveness by two resorts which the very situation itself affords.


The first is lack of publicity, for we must not forget that in spite of its obnoxious features, in the long run publicity always makes for a higher morality and standard of efficiency. It would be indeed a very disloyal child or mean-spirited husband who would relate to the cold world that he had had "lumpy oatmeal" or "beastly coffee" for breakfast, or indeed mention it to the housekeeper herself, when it is plain to see that she is doing her best and is full of affectionate distress and solicitude. But her daughter who goes from the breakfast table to her high school is found out by forty of her companions whose opinions she highly values, if her problem in algebra comes out inaccurately, and she gets little credit that it is "almost right," or that she meant well and loved her teacher. The husband who goes to business is pretty well "sized up" by the other business men of the street and has the constant tonic of public opinion. The housekeeper at home may have compunctions concerning the oatmeal and may resolve to have it better, but depends largely upon her individual strength of will whether the resolution does or does not affect the actual oatmeal.


The second refuge which the housekeeper seeks from the necessity of vigorous effort and change, is along the line of personal devotion: she strives to make up to her family by kindness and indulgence her lack of efficiency and failure as a housekeeper, and many times panders to their personal tastes rather than ministers to their reasonable needs -– [page 8] a situation that Mrs Stetson has so vividly portrayed in her Women and Economics. Both of these positions react upon the domestic employee, who naturally lacks the stimulus which family affection gives to the employer, and has no definite standard of work and reasonable requirements to take its place. A good domestic is many times described solely from the family standpoint, in terms of loyalty and devotion. It is part of the regrettable tendency to judge the family by its successful isolation from the larger interests of the community, and quite as this tendency is responsible for the preparation of food along the line of family tradition rather than the line of adaption to occupation, so the loyal servant attitude substitutes the test of self-indulgence for that of efficient living.

The problems of food and shelter must in every age be considered in relation to all other mechanical and industrial life, quite as the family morality and intellectual life must finally depend for its vitality upon its relation to the spiritual and intellectual resources of the rest of the community. Fullness of life can be secured for the family as for the individual only when it embodies a demand for like opportunity for all other individuals, even including those engaged in its service, and brings us back at last to the ever-recurring problems of democracy.