Domestic Servants: Seen, but Rarely Heard

American Athena will consider the relationships between women of varied ethnicities, religions, and social and economic backgrounds. I’m especially interested in those women who worked as domestic servants because of their close relationships with the middle class women who attended the female schools in Jacksonville. Finding that information, however, is not easy. During the nineteenth century, domestic servants tended to be young, single, uneducated women without significant economic resources. They rarely kept diaries or letters describing their experiences, and within the writings of their employers, domestic servants only appear when inconvenienced.

The papers of Ethel Sturges Dummer, housed at the Schlesinger Library, contain extensive correspondence with her three single sisters-in-law: Grace, May, and Katie. Ethel was married to their brother, Frank. A Beardstown native, IC alum, and successful banker in Chicago, Frank generously supported his three sisters from their father’s death in 1878 until his own death in 1928. They were educated women, as Grace attended the Jacksonville Female Academy while May and Katie attended the Young Ladies’ Athenaeum. Both Grace and May taught for short periods at the Athenaeum during the 1870s, but for most of their adult lives, they depended on monthly allowances, annuities, and investments from Frank to “keep house” at 711 West College Avenue.

All three sisters frequently wrote to Frank and Ethel, keeping them apprised of the busy social scene in Jacksonville, and their activities with the Jacksonville Art Association and Sorosis. As rich as these letters are, however, Grace, May, and Katie exercised considerable restraint when discussing sensitive issues, occasionally asking Frank to burn correspondence they believed too revealing of their family’s dysfunction (primarily their collective disappointment in their youngest brother, Harry). The sisters never discuss their decision not to marry and Frank never once expressed resentment for having to support his family. Our only hint comes from a September 1925 letter from Frank to Harry, in which Frank wrote, “Our sisters looked for perfection and never found it. A partial failure in marriage seems to me better than no marriage.”

Still, Grace, May, and Katie asserted their authority over all matters domestic, often criticizing Harry’s wife, Katie Smith Dummer, for her deficiencies at both housekeeping and motherhood. In April 1885, May wrote to Frank that their sister-in-law, Katie “is the most unreasonable, babyish woman in the world, and I am afraid will always be a dead weight on Harry. She certainly is very delicate, but after you have made all allowances for ill health, there is a great deal left that you can no have patience with. Of course we never find fault with his wife to Harry, but it disturbs us to see him made such a perfect slave and to see him look so worn and haggard.” The sisters often cared for their niece, Phebe (Harry and Katie’s daughter), sensing that the girl’s mother did not have the energy to do so.

As three single women, they certainly had the skill and wherewithal to “keep house” for themselves. Nonetheless, as woman of status, they consistently employed one or two “girls” to do much of the domestic labor. Nearly every letter contains detailed reports about the sisters’ health, of lack thereof. It is difficult to say whether the sisters were truly sickly, or fashionably ill, as many middle class women of the nineteenth century often were. In July 1886, Harry wrote to Frank that he hoped their sister, Katie, would try the “mind cure” to get over her malaise, and that May “doesn’t seem to get over her ailments at all.” Either way, they demanded extra help around the house.

When writing about domestic servants, the sisters rarely used names or spoke of their employees beyond their appearance, ethnicity, and skill. In March 1884, Katie wrote to Frank that she was much relieved to have “a nice little girl, about equal to Bridget and in some respects superior. We were without a girl for nearly six weeks and it wasn’t so very hard but I was glad when we got one.” It wasn’t that the sisters couldn’t manage a home, but they preferred lighter work. During those six weeks without “Bridget,” Katie exposed her baking stills when she wrote that just before a dinner party: “I had whipped some cream and put it out on the back porch to keep it cold until dinner. When May came home at noon, she found a strange cat feasting on it and it was half gone. I had just time to do some more before dinner.”

A year later, with Harry, his wife, Katie, and their daughter Phebe living with them, May reported: “Our housekeeping runs smoothly even with our larger family as mother has a stronger girl (a stout German) than we have had for a long time, though Mother will insist on doing the cooking herself. Mother went to a lunch party yesterday at Mrs. Woods where there were about twenty-five ladies. We intend to have another company of thirty this week similar to the one week before last.”

Its no wonder the “stout German” was necessary, with all that entertaining. But most reports on domestic servants came up only when the sisters were inconvenienced by their absence. In January 1887, two months following the death of their mother, May wrote to Frank that their “girl,” Mary, took a two week vacation to attend the wedding of her cousin in Mt. Sterling, Illinois. May wrote, “We girls have had for the last four days a new experience.” Before Mary left, she tried to find a substitute but to no avail. “We have had everything to do,” May lamented. “You cannot imagine how we have missed mother who was always equal to the emergency. We expect a girl in the morning so I hope our trivial strains are at an end.”

Mary’s absence came up in letters from all three sisters over those two weeks. On January 15, 1887, Grace provided a glimpse into Mary’s daily work when she wrote that without domestic help, “May and I had plenty to do as you can imagine. It was especially trying as the thermometer was sixteen and eighteen degrees below zero and everything in the kitchen frozen solid. The cistern water gone and the well broken.”

Before the days of laborsaving appliances, prepared foods, and wrinkle-free clothing, domestic labor was incredibly taxing and required all hands on deck. Yet the Dummer sisters indicate that such work was well below their status. They spent their time calling on friends, going to events and meetings, performing light household chores or ornamental work, and obsessively attending to their health. For them, education led not to professions or even simple employment, but a life of worried leisure. Had it not been for Frank’s success in banking and his generosity, the sisters would have been consigned to a life of poverty, perhaps doing the domestic labor they so loathed.

Time and time again, I return to my question about, “What happens in a community where women are educated?” I am disheartened by the disparities that educated women perpetuated. At Illinois College today, we focus so much of our teaching on trying to break down barriers created by differences in race, religion, gender, sexuality, and economic status, but that was clearly not the case in the nineteenth century. My historian brain knows and understand this… but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept it.

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