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The Continental Monthly, Vol. 6, No 3, September 1864 Devoted To Literature And National Policy

by Various

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Not of those affairs which are domestic in a broad, national sense; not of any of our home institutions, 'peculiar' or otherwise; not of politics in any shape, nor of railroads and canals, nor of interstate relations, reconstructions, amnesty; not even of the omnivorous question, The War, do I propose to treat under the head of 'Our Domestic Affairs;' but of a subject which, though scarcely ever discussed except flippantly, and with unworthy levity, in that broad arena of public journalism in which almost every other conceivable topic is discussed, is yet second to none, if not absolutely first of all in its bearings upon our domestic happiness. I refer to the question of domestic service in our households.

The only plausible explanation of the singular fact that this important subject is not more frequently discussed in public is, undoubtedly, to be found in its very magnitude. Men and women whose 'mission' it is to enlighten and instruct the people, abound in every walk of morals. Religion, science, ethics, and every department of social economy but this, have their 'reformers.' Before the great problem, How shall the evils which attend our domestic service be removed? the stoutest-hearted reformer stands appalled. These evils are so multiform and all-pervading, they strike their roots so strongly, and ramify so extensively, that they defy the attempt to eradicate them; and they are thus left to flourish and increase. We have plenty of groans over these evils, but scarcely ever a thoughtful consideration of their cause, or an attempt worth noting to remove or mitigate them.

This is surely cowardly and wrong. This great question, which is really so engrossing that it is more talked of in the family circle than any other—this profound and intricate problem, upon the solution of which the comfort, happiness, and thrift of every household in the land depend more than upon almost any other—surely demands the most careful study, and the deepest solicitude of the reformer and philanthropist. The subject just now is receiving considerable attention in England, and the journals and periodicals of that country have recently teemed with articles setting forth the miseries with which English households are afflicted, owing to the want of good servants. But, unfortunately, from none of these has the writer been able to extract much assistance in preparing an answer to the only practical question: How are the evils of domestic service to be remedied? I quote, however, an extract from a recent article in The Victoria Magazine, in order to show how far the complaints made in England of the shortcomings of servants run parallel with those of our own housekeepers. It is to be noted that the writer confessedly holds a brief for the servants. If the facts are fairly stated, the relation between a servant in an English family and her employer differs widely from the like relation with us;

'The prizes in domestic service are few, the blanks many. Ladies think only of the prizes. Needlewomen and factory girls, when they turn their attention to domestic service, see the hardworked, underfed scrub lacking the one condition which goes far to alleviate the hardest lot, that of personal liberty. People who have never known what it is to be subject to the caprices of a petty tyrant, scarcely appreciate this alleviation at its true value. They expatiate upon the light labors, the abundance, the freedom from anxiety which characterize the lot of servants in good places, with an unction worthy of Southern slaveholders. What more any woman can want they cannot understand. They think it nothing that a servant has not, from week to week, and month to month, a moment that she can call her own, a single hour of the day or night, of which she can say, 'This is mine, and no one has a right to prescribe what I shall do with it'—that, in most cases, she has no recognized right to invite any one to come and see her, and therefore can have no full and satisfying sense of home—that many mistresses go so far as to claim the regulation of her dress—that even in mature age and by the kindest employers she is treated more as a child to be taken care of than as a responsible, grown-up woman, able to think and judge for herself. These are substantial drawbacks to the lot of the pampered menial.... These complaints of the readiness of servants to leave their places are based on the assumption that they are under obligations to their employers. In many cases, no doubt, they are, though probably least so where gratitude is most expected. But, at any rate, employers are also under obligations to them. When one thinks of all servants do for us, and how little, comparatively, we do for them, it appears that the demand for gratitude might come more appropriately from the other side. It is an old saying that we value in others the virtues which are convenient to ourselves, and this is curiously illustrated in the popular ideal of a good servant. In the master's estimate besides the indispensable physical qualification of vigorous health—diligence, punctuality, cleverness, readiness to oblige, and rigid honesty, of a certain sort, are essentials.'

We would look long through our laundries and kitchens for the 'hardworked, underfed scrub' of the above extract; and the 'servant who has not from week to week, and month to month, a moment that she can call her own, a single hour of the day or night, of which she can say, This is mine,' etc., does not belong to so numerous a class that her sorrows in this respect invoke commiseration in the public journals....