George Goodwin Kilburne, Governess with two girls- 1873
Having servants was a status symbol in the Victorian era. Many households with a domestic servant only had one, who was expected to perform all of the tasks described in my last post. She cooked, cleaned, cared for children, stoked the fires, served meals, took callers, and served at the beck and call of the family. Domestic servants in these situations felt that it was too much work, and understandably so. Additionally, being the only servant could cause these domestics to feel incredibly lonely. Servants constantly searched for better household situations. More servants in a household meant a greater division of labor, which meant a more manageable workload for each servant. A position at the Gibson House, where there were sever servants, might have been quite coveted because there was an adequate division of labor.
The downside to being in a home with multiple servants was that there might not be adequate living space for everyone. Living quarters might be above the kitchen or in the attic, meaning the space would be extremely hot in the summer, and extremely cold in the winter. Kitchens were often dark and gloomy, with little sunlight. At least one domestic servant in New England described living above an attic with three other servants, and inadequate sanitary conditions. Nursemaids often didn’t have their own room, and instead had to sleep in the same room as the children they cared for. Conditions like these might have also driven a servant to look for a better position.
The Gibson House’s servant quarters were much more comfortable than many of the period. Five of the servants lived on the fifth floor of the house, which has four bedrooms. The heat from the central ventilation shaft probably didn’t reach up to the fifth floor, but two of the rooms had fireplaces. There’s also a bathroom on that floor. The governess had her own room next to the nursery on the fourth floor. The kitchen, where the servants would have taken their meals and spent much of their free time, can be dark and gloomy, but it does have several windows for ventilation and light to enter the room.So it seems that in terms of accommodations and workload, a position at the Gibson House was probably better than most available to domestic servants at the time. But we must also consider what the Gibsons were like as employers, since one of the most important factors in the quality of life of a domestic servant was the family on eworked for.
We don’t really know how the Gibson family and their domestic servants interacted with each other. We do know the family became close with at least one servant. A part of Rosamond’s memoirs gives a small insight into the family’s relationship with a governess, probably Flora Duval:
“The children had many friends and happy days, as the times were simple and there were no crowds to interfere with their games. Roger Bradlee (son of Frederick W. Bradlee), who was just [Rosamond’s daughter] Ethel’s age and lived in our block, was her constant playmate from their babyhood, partly because their nurses were intimate friends. Ethel’s nurse[?; word missing], who was known as “Nan,” was like one of the family and lived with us for eighteen years. When she eventually married, [Rosamond’s son] Charlie, whom she had also taken care of, gave her away, though he was only about fifteen at the time.”
by: Katie Schinabeck, Former Museum Guide
Jerome, Steve. Below Stairs 1890-1900: American Society in the New Century 1890-1920
Lynch-Brennan, Margaret. The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930.
Warren, Rosamond Gibson. Recollections of My Life For My Children. Meador Press, 1939.
Cassell's Household Guide, New and Revise Ed., Vol 4, 1880s. Found at http://www.victorianlondon.org/cassells/cassells-23.htm