Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Butler Did It!

Since most of us don’t have servants, it’s sometimes tough to picture what people in service in the grand houses of the past actually did all day. If you've read my post on the housemaid’s job, you may have concluded that the upper servants had a far easier time of it. And that’s true, though it depends on how large the household actually was.

In the grandest of houses, the head of the staff would be a house steward who was in charge of hiring and firing servants and paying the tradesman’s bills, but in the merely grand houses, those duties would be split between the butler – assisted perhaps by an under-butler – and the housekeeper.

While the housekeeper is (naturally) in charge of the house, the butler is in charge of the dining room – including protecting, polishing, and counting the silver and maintaining the wine cellar – and overseeing all the male servants. If there was no valet to wait on the master of the house, the butler took care of his clothing and dressing room.

While the pattern of a butler’s day varied greatly depending on the size of the household and the activities of the family, here’s a pretty normal pattern for the butler in a medium-sized house:

It is the butler’s duty to set the breakfast table, bring up the food and drink, wait on table, and clear after the family has finished – a pattern which is repeated at luncheon, dinner, and with the evening tea tray just before bedtime. After each meal he supervises the cleaning of all the silver, china, glasses, and serving dishes and makes sure they are put away in their proper places.

Between meals, he takes up his other duties. He take care of the master's clothes, laying out what he'll need next, cleaning or brushing or mending, and straightening the dressing room. He checks the wine cellar, tending to any wines which may be off in taste or color, or bottling wines which were delivered in casks. He polishes the silver (no tarnish-proof strips in those days!), and he’s on duty to answer the door from morning till night. After the household has retired, he makes sure all the menservants have gone to bed, then locks up the doors and windows before (finally!) retiring himself.

By the Victorian era, when paying calls over tea became a standard afternoon activity, the butler had it a bit easier. The fashion for Victorian ladies was to have a very attractive parlormaid who would answer the door and wait on the ladies and their afternoon callers at tea time. Since the butler was not required, he could rest for an hour.

Pay during the Regency period? From 30 to 80 pounds sterling per year – depending on the size of the family and the household staff. But he also received his master’s cast-off clothes, as well as the leftover pieces of the wax candles, once they were too short to burn! 

Sources: The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams, published 1825
Etiquette, by Emily Post, published 1922