“The Woman Came To Do Laundry…”: Depression-Era Domestic Servants in Greater Hartford, Connecticut
by Melissa Josefiak.
“Had woman for cleaning and laundry…she wasn’t much good,” writes housewife Ida Robbins in her diary, October 15, 1931.1 Matter-of-fact, detached and impersonal towards her domestic servant, Robbins’ tone reveals the thoughts of the lady of the house. The “woman” does not merit a name, but the quality of her work is assessed. The unnamed woman was one of dozens of day workers hired by Mrs. Robbins during the 1920s and ’30s to help clean, cook and do laundry for her upper-class household in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In many ways, this household employee may have shared a typical lifestyle and career path of Greater Hartford’s domestic servants during the Depression.
The roles of domestic servants in the US developed through four distinct periods: the Colonial era; the Revolution to 1850; 1850 to World War I; and from WWI to the present time.
During the first period, servants were supplied from the classes of indentured servants, African slaves and Native Americans. Although paid white servants existed during this era, they were treated little better than their indentured counterparts.
The second period, from Revolution to 1850, was considered the short lived “golden age” of servitude. The spirit of independence and democracy affected all classes, at least in the Northeast. Slavery was slowly being abolished in the Northern states and indentured servitude was rare. Although never equal to their employers, domestics shared a fairly comfortable relationship with them and were referred to as “help”. Livery, or the wearing of uniforms to indicate servant status, was not common and the gulf between the master and servant was not as great as it would come to be in future years. Domestics during this period were largely rural, poor and native born, living in the same community as their masters.2
This second phase of servitude ended around 1850 when the first large waves of immigrants arrived on US shores, mainly Irish, escaping the potato famines of 1847-9. Domestic positions were filled by these new immigrants who, their employers felt, did not merit the relative egalitarian treatment of previous generations. Irish servitude was a dual-edged sword. The Irish were seen as inferior because they took these manual positions so quickly and the inferiority of the servant class was intensified by the phenomenon that so many servants were Irish.3 From a local perspective, more than forty percent of the domestic servants in Hartford in 1880 were Irish.4
Concurrently, during the third phase of domestics, 1850-WWI, the gulf between employer and employee widened. The word “servant” returned to replace “help” and servants’ quarters and servants’ entries in homes were built purposely to keep the classes apart. New waves of immigrants kept filling these lowly positions at a high turnover rate preventing a skilled class of servants from developing. Once they had gotten a foothold in the US, immigrants moved into occupations with better conditions such as factory work. Also, young single girls stayed in domestic work until they were married, preferring never to return to this type of labor.5
During the final phase of the history of domestics, the turn of the twentieth century wrought many changes in middle class houses. Improved technology in sweepers, electric appliances and services took much of the drudgery out of housework and made it more tolerable for middle class housewives to do their own cleaning and cooking. At the same time, a general relaxing in social formality and entertaining reduced the need for servants. Commercial bakeries and laundries made it possible to outsource those labor-intensive tasks.6
Moreover, WWI inspired feelings of personal freedom and less rigidity of the classes. Live-in servitude was incongruous with the tone of the period and many domestics were eager to find a job with regular hours as opposed to answering their employers’ beck and call. As the booming economy of the roaring twenties provided new occupational opportunities, traditional domestics fled from their employers and headed into factories and pink collar business positions, such as clerks and secretaries.7
After WWI, black women supplanted white women as the majority of domestics in the Northeast. Recruited by employment agencies, thousands of black women migrated to the North where they could be employed as day help. Reflecting a national trend of reduced dependency on servants and the shortening of the work day, live-out day help became the norm during the final period of the development of the domestic, WWI to the present.8 Social historian Susan Strasser simplifies the phenomenon, “Bridget, the stereotyped full-time, live-in servant of the 19th century, left the scene, replaced by Beulah, the part-time black maid of the 20th.”9
During this stage, domestic positions were mainly filled by married, older women who performed “maid of all work” roles and whose daughters also entered domestic service. Domestic positions were dominated by immigrant and black women. Black women were habitually closed out of better paying factory, shop or pink collar jobs that were only filled by white women, so blacks had no choice but to work in these low, manual jobs. They were stuck in this social stratum or “ghettoized” as social historian Judith Rollins refers to it, with little opportunity for improvement.10
Upper class women had always complained of “the servant problem”, the need for reliable, affordable servants. Affordable ones were undesirable, because they were believed to be lazy or incompetent and trained ones would inevitably move on to other positions in search of better pay. Immigration quotas after WWI reduced the unskilled labor supply and the roaring economy of the ’20s tempted many poor white women to factory, shop and office work, who may otherwise have looked for employment in domestic service. Thus, as the demand exceeded the supply for domestic help, wages went up and fewer households could afford servants under the old system.11
A common compromise was to replace live-in servants with day help or “dailies”, hiring someone for task oriented jobs, paid at an hourly wage, when employers were not obligated to feed and clothe. According to historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the average housewife, post-WWI, “…managed more machines than she did people.”12 Cowan refers to a “proletarianization” of housework in which comfortable middle class women were doing much of their own housework, with day hel
p coming in to take care of
the more arduous tasks. Of course, truly wealthy families who could always afford live-in servants still did. At the same time, the Depression ameliorated the “servant problem” by forcing desperate women into service for low wages.13
Within this final phase of the history of domestics, especially during the 1930s, poor living conditions and low social status were common. Servants were left with the “extra” part of the house that the family did not want to occupy: the attic; basement, lean-to, etc. They were expected to be on call before the family was up and after it was asleep. The standard time off was one afternoon a week and one day for every two weeks, on average. However, this schedule was subject to change if the family had a party or extenuating circumstances arose. Some families restricted the social lives of their servants because they didn’t want strange people in their home nor did they want their servants to entertain young men, get married and leave them. In contrast to this restricted lifestyle, the alternative for unskilled women was to pursue factory work. Although manual and dirty labor, just like domestic service, factory work had a reasonable beginning and end to the day and a woman’s time off was her own.14
An unglamorous lifestyle, domestic servitude was a position to be avoided at all costs, and servants themselves discouraged their daughters from entering that profession. Servants hated wearing livery and being called by their first names – it emphasized the gulf between employer and employee. Many domestics also felt that single men of the same wage earning level looked down upon women in the servant class and it was difficult for them to socialize and get married when they were perceived as second class citizens.15
It was a position from which women sought an escape as quickly as possible via a better paying shop or factory position or possibly marriage. The ability to control one’s workday with definite hours, the possibility of unionizing, occupational advancement and, especially, the control of one’s personal freedom was considered more attractive than domestic service. Cowan wryly comments, “The dark satanic mills did not look nearly so dark or nearly so satanic to young women who knew what it was like to work in some of America’s dark satanic kitchens.”16 It was no wonder that the profession had such a high turnover rate.
The new 20th century concept of extreme hygiene kept the servant busy all the time scrubbing and cleaning, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. For example, a typical upper-middle class family between WWI and the 1940s would employ one full-time person for day help and another person who would come in for one day a week for the arduous tasks such as laundry.17
In addition to daily duties, such as washing dishes, and weekly duties, such as dusting, the day help was expected to have additional “do when you can duties” such as polishing silver and waxing linoleum floors. When asked about their favorite (or least hated) duties, domestics ranked their specific tasks. The best position and most gratifying job was that of cooking, because it required skilled labor. Next came serving and light cleaning. At the bottom was washing clothes and dishes. The worst jobs fell to those who lived in or were regular employees.18
Hours were the main contention between employee and employer. Early to rise and late to bed – the day would start at 7-8am for day help and continue until the dinner dishes were washed. In the course of the day, many domestics were “on call” which meant that they had a brief rest period when their assigned tasks were done, but were expected to be in attendance for small items that the mistress needed. Some householders would only pay their domestics for one hour of work for every two hours they were “on call”, since they were not being productive.19
Much job sharing occurred among domestics. For example, a skilled, titled position, such as cook, would still be expected to do some washing up or light cleaning. Baking was a hot, sweltering job, if one did not outsource it. Washing, even with a machine, was heavy work – especially the ironing and line drying aspects. Chatty meals at the employer’s dinner table would prolong the clearing and dish washing tasks, so that it might have been 12-14 hours before a domestic could return to her home. Despite the long hours, domestics would only benefit from one meal a day from their employers.20
The Depression of the 1930s worsened many conditions for the domestic servant. Desperate women, forced into domestic service because of the poor economy, took day help positions for low wages. One sample wage was given at $1 – $1.50 a week for fulltime day help. Informal networks of employers would set their own local rate and then stick to it – so that there would be no competition and they could retain their servants.21 Being “in business for themselves” so to speak, domestics were not successful with organizing or unionizing and they definitely did not benefit from the New Deal initiatives that standardized many industries.22 Wages depended on the benevolence of the housewife and the desperation of the employer; service was non-regulated. Day help was actually paid lower than live-in help because householders were not responsible for feeding and clothing their domestics.23
Many domestics even into the 1930s compared their jobs to slavery. Domestics were often not treated as people independent of their employers, did the hardest tasks and experienced unlimited working hours, even for day help. Naturally, the slavery connection was more pronounced between white employers and black domestics.24
Livery was not common in the 1920s and ’30s, except in the most prestigious households. Advertising of the period portrayed domestics as young, single women, “housewives in training”. In reality, most of them were adult women, often with families. In the 1930s, at least one third of domestics were heads of their own households.25 Among some of the complaints about service was that it was lonely, drudge-like work. Women often resented having their free time controlled and having to entertain their friends solely in the kitchen. Many women left to become laundresses — same wages, same physical labor, but the women had regular days off and were in control of their own business.
The story of Greater Hartford’s domestics in the 1930s parallels many of these national trends. However, source material on this topic is problematic. Many of the domestics were illiterate or did not speak English, and thus did not leave letters or memoirs. Also, the state’s collections of oral histories do not contain any specifically pertaining to household employees. Therefore, if the domestics could not speak for themselves, then it was necessary to seek out the sources that were in contact with them, namely contemporary reformers, employment agencies and the words of their employers. Using statistics, labor reports, trade union publications, city directories and newspapers, a clearer picture of the state’s domestics takes shape.
Labor statistics are readily available for many aspects of women in the labor force throughout the 20th century. However, numbers for domestic service are few and far between in these compilations. Their exclusion speaks volumes about the low im
portance of domestic service. Official publications produced by the National Industrial Conference Board provide statistics and abstracts for nearly every conceivable profession except domestic service.26 For a profession that was the largest employer of women during the 1930s, it evidently was not worthy enough to be tracked and quantified.27 By not including domestic service as a regular and quantifiable occupation, the reports reinforced the profession’s low status in the job market as well as the individuals who worked within it.
As the 1930s were a time of active unionization, domestics could not suitably organize themselves to create an effective union. This was due to many reasons, such as the isolation that kept them in their employer’s homes prevented them from daily socialization with other domestics, their limited time off was a deterrent to spending leisure time at union meetings, their diverse ethnic backgrounds created obstacles in arriving at common ground, and being in business for themselves, so to speak, they lacked the organizational structure or hierarchy necessary to disseminate ideas or develop organized plans.28
Reviewing contemporary newspaper classifieds for domestics reveals that the 1930s were a time of transition and desperation. In contrast to the numerous, small individual ads of previous decades, the advertising of the 1930s is more concentrated and restrained.29 Pre-stock market crash issues of The Hartford Courant classifieds of 1928 contain large ads for employment agencies that concentrate on domestics, in addition to several individual ones.30
In examining later issues from the depths of the Depression in 1935, no agencies take larger ads and only a few have paid for individual ones. The Depression has hit hard in other ways as the possibility of having a job outweighs the low pay, “HOUSEKEEPER – Family of Four – Young Woman preferred, state references, age, religion and lowest wages”. Another advertisement is heart-wrenching in its simplicity, “WOMAN – Wants day’s work or bundle of washing.” 31
Nearing the end of the Depression, a return to larger ads placed by employment agencies and more individual advertisements resurfaces, promising new hires good prospects and attractive wages. For instance, the General Employment Service, (the “House of Professional Services”) advocated that its placement officer, Bert Chevalier, “…has 30-40 excellent domestic positions open at top wages in some of West Hartford’s finest homes.”32 After reading the Employment Agencies brief, one is cautious reading such promising ads.
Racial and ethnic prejudice is rampant in the ads, regardless of the year: “GIRL – White, for seasonal work and to wait at table” and “White Girl – For General houseworker, no cooking or heavy laundry”.33 Even those women who placed individual ads advocating their services, made their ethnic background perfectly clear as to better their chances: “MIDDLE AGED – American Widow would like position as housekeeper. Mrs. Bagshaw” and “General Housework – or housekeeper by English woman for business people or elderly couple.”34 After perusing the classified ads, one can easily imagine the frustration of African-American or immigrant women seeking a decent domestic situation in Greater Hartford.
Although the words of the domestics are not readily available, those of their employers are more accessible. Examining the diaries of Ida Robbins, an upper-middle class Wethersfield woman, reveal several of the patterns seen in Connecticut’s and national domestics. Living in the same 12-room house as her daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Howard Dunham, Robbins benefited from day help for the smooth running of the household.
The women hired by Dunham and Robbins can be grouped into three categories. The first were the skilled laborers, Mrs. McSweeney and her niece Nellie, who were hired for cooking and serving at fancy dinner parties on select occasions. The maids, hired on a long term basis for dusting and cleaning are referred to by first name, among them are “Margaret”, “Beda” and “Clara”. The women who were hired for the laundry, heavy cleaning or ironing are simply noted as “the woman” or “the girl”; the most common phrase in the diaries that refers to domestics is simply, “the woman came to do the washing”.35 Either the family could not keep good help for very long or Robbins did not take enough interest in their individuality to mention them by name.
The domestics clearly worked in tandem with the ladies of the house. Dunham cleaned her own rooms and the bathroom and Robbins complained of “fatigue” from washing dishes. However, the heavy work, especially the laundry, was allocated to the domestics. Beyond names, there are very few references to ethnicity or race. Only once did Robbins refer to “the Polish girl” and she never referenced race, so it is not clear if the household was hiring African-Americans according to national patterns.36
Although it is unclear as to what were the methods of hiring, it was quick and efficient. The turnover rate was high (for three days in April 1929, three separate names are mentioned), but Robbins never complained of a “servant problem”. They were steadily supplied with new hires, perhaps a contract with an agency was used so that they were not short on staff. It would seem unlikely that individual newspaper advertisements or personal referrals could have supplied them with so many people.37
Although she does not take notice of all the individual women, Robbins often refers to their quality. Such comments as “…accomplished quite a little…” to “…she was very good…” and finally “…thought best not to leave Margaret [the new maid] alone…” reveal her assessments of the new hires.38
Robbins’ diaries reflect the transitions in domestic service. Her several references to “had woman today to do cleaning and ironing” and “had woman all day” reinforce the idea of detached supervision that so many employers had with their servants, a style remaining from the 19th century. However, she and her daughter also work alongside the regular “maids of all work”, in a new style of middle class housecleaning, in which employer and employee share responsibilities.
Through evaluation of the historical sources available, one can see the ways in which Greater Hartford’s domestics of the 1930s reflected most of the patterns of the domestics across the country during this time period. A time of great transition, the Depression forced many women into service that had avoided it previously. Low wages, poor working conditions and abuses within the profession were common on the national front, as they were in Greater Hartford. The lack of unionization within domestic service was a local issue as well as a national one. Ethnic and racial prejudice was common in hiring domestics and Connecticut was no different. However, despite the effects of the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north during the 1920s and ’30s, Connecticut did not follow the national pattern in which blacks dominated domestic service. An interesting and complex subject, the story of Greater Hartford’s domest
ics provides some much needed insight to the simple diary entry, “Had woman to do the laundry…”39
“Sadie’s Servant Room Blues”: 1920s Domestic Work in Song
The struggles of domestic workers were
sometimes recorded in songs like Hattie Burleson’s 1928 “Sadie’s Servant
Room Blues,” a musical version of common complaints of domestic workers
about long hours, low pay, and lack of privacy. Listen to the audio.
This article is excerpted from a graduate paper. The complete article is available here.
Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
Brown, Jean Collier, Brief on Household Employment in Relation to Trade Union Organization.
New York: The Women’s Bureau and the Young Women’s Christian Association, 1938.
Connecticut Department of Labor and Factory Inspections, Household Employment in Hartford,
Waterbury and Litchfield, Connecticut. Hartford, Connecticut: Connecticut Department of Labor in Cooperation with the Young Women’s Christian Association of Hartford,1936.
Connecticut Department of Labor and Factory Inspections, Private Employment Agencies.
Hartford, Connecticut: Connecticut Department of Labor and Factory Inspections, 1937.
Greater Harford Directories. Hartford: The Price & Lee Company, 1928-1940.
The Hartford Courant, 1928-1940.
The Hartford Times, 1904-1910.
Hourwich, Isaac A., “The Social-Economic Classes of the Population of the United States: II,” in The Journal of Political Economy, 19, no. 4, (April, 1911), 309-337.
Kohler, Max J., “Some Aspects of the Immigration Problem,” in The American Economic Review, 4, no. 1, (March, 1914), 93-108.
Life and Labor Bulletin. Chicago: The National Women’s Trade Union League, complete
The Maids: A Documentary. Written produced and directed by Muriel Jackson. 28 min. New York: Women Make Movies, 1985. videocassette.
Manning, Caroline, The Immigrant Woman and Her Job. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1930.
National Industrial Conference Board, Salary and Wage Policy in the Depression. New York:
National Industrial Conference Board, Inc., 1932.
National Industrial Conference Board, Wages, Hours and Employment in the United States, 1914-1936. New York: National Industrial Conference Board, Inc., 1936.
National Industrial Conference Board, Women Workers and the Labor Supply. New York: National Industrial Conference Board, Inc., 1936.
Persons, C. E., “Women’s Work and Wages in the United States,” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 29, no. 2, (February, 1915), 201-234.
Pruette, Lorine, Women Workers Through the Depression. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1934.
Robbins, Ida Adams, Diaries of 1920, 1928, 1931, 1934, Robbins Diaries, Hurlbut-Dunham Collection, Wethersfield Historical Society, Wethersfield.
United States Bureau of the Census, Census of the Population (1930), Connecticut, microfilm. North Salt Lake, Utah: Heritage Quest, 2002.
Charles, Ruth A., Immigrant Women’s Lives. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.
Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. United States of America: Basic Books, 1983.
Dublin, Thomas, Transforming Women’s Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Dudden, Faye E., “Experts and Servant: The National Council on Household Employment and The Decline of Domestic Service in the Twentieth Century,” in The Journal of Social History, 20, issue 2, (Winter, 1986), 175-199.
Dudden, Faye E., Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth Century America. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983.
Forty, Adrian, Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
Katzman, David M., Seven Days A Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Palmer, Phyllis, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Rollins, Judith, Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.
Strasser, Susan, Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
Sutherland, Daniel E., Americans and Their Servants: Domestic Service in the United States From 1800 to 1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1981.
Van Raaphorst, Donna L., Union Maids Not Wanted: Organizing Domestic Workers, 1870-1940. New York: Prager, 1988.
1 Robbins, Ida Adams, 15 October, 1931. Robbins Diaries, Hurlbut-Dunham Collection, Wethersfield Historical Society, Wethersfield.
2 Rollins, Judith, Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985), 48-50.
3 Rollins, 51-3.
4 Katzman, David M., Seven Days A Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 66-7.
5 Rollins, 53.
6 Rollins, 53.
7 Rollins, 54.
8 Rollins, 53-4.
9 Strasser, Susan, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 178.
10 Rollins, 54-6.
11 Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (United States of America: Basic Books, 1983), 122-3.
12 Cowan, 174.
13 Cowan, 180.
14 Cowan, 123-4.
15 Cowan, 125-6.
16 Cowan, 124.
17 Katzman, 116-8.
18 Palmer, Phyllis, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 68-71.
19 Palmer, 69, 75-9.
20 Palmer, 80-1.
21 Palmer, 95.
22 Palmer, 71.
23 Katzman, 72-4.
24 Palmer, 73.
25 Palmer, 85-6.
26 National Industrial Conference Board, Salary and Wage Policy in the Depression (New York: National Industrial Conference Board, Incorporated), 19, 42-9, 76-7, 104. National Industrial Conference Board, Wages, Hours and Employment in the United States, 1914-1936 (New York: National Industrial Conference Board Incorporated, 1936), 67-73, 89-94, 112, 133-9.
27 National Industrial Conference Board, Women Workers and the Labor Supply (New York: National Industrial Conference Board Incorporated, 1936), 174.
28 Brown, Jean Collier, Brief on Household Employment in Relation to Trade Organization (New York: The Women’s Bureau and the Young Women’s Christian Association, 1938), 13.
29 The Hartford Times, 2 April, 1904.
30 The Hartford Courant, 1 & 2 December, 1928. It should be noted that the punctuation and capitalization in the classifieds is uneven at best and the quotations reflect those anomalies.
31 Hartford Courant, 11 August, 1935.
32 Hartford Courant, 11 October, 1939.
33 Hartford Courant, 2 December, 1928, and 1 October, 1939.
34 Hartford Courant, 19 August, 1935 and 1 December, 1928.
35 Robbins, Ida Adams, 17
April, 1929, 20, August, 1931, 5 February, 1934, and 25 April, 1931, Robbins Diaries, Hurlbut-Dunham Collection, Wethersfield Historical Society, Wethersfield. Four of Ida Robbins’ diaries are extant at Wethersfield Historical Society, including the years 1920, 1929, 1931 and 1934. The author gratefully acknowledges the efforts of the unnamed individual who transcribed all four volumes.
36 Robbins, 25 April, 1929.
37 Robbins, 25-7 April, 1934.
38 Robbins, 13 February, 1934, and 15 February, 1929.
39 Robbins, 16 September, 1934.