Ah, having a lady’s maid. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Someone to pamper you and pick up your discarded silk shawls and rub your temples with lavender water when you have a headache…what’s not to love?
Ahem. I have to admit that the thought of having a lady’s maid (also called an abigail after a character in a 1616 play by Beaumont and Fletcher–by way of the Bible–though that term died out not long into the 19th century) rather spooks me. I’m a neat person by nature and don’t need anyone tidying up after me…but then again, I also don’t wear a corset or hoops and don’t have to change my clothes five times a day (yes, five…we’ll get to that shortly). If you were a young (or even not so young) lady in fashionable society, having a maid was a necessity, not a luxury.
So what did ladies’ maids do for their employers?
According to The Complete Servant, written in 1825 by Samuel and Sarah Adams (who had come up the servant ranks from the lowest to end their careers as butler and housekeeper, respectively), “the business of the lady’s-maid is extremely simple, and but little varied…her education should be superior to that of the ordinary class of females….she should be cheerful and submissive…her character should be remarkable for industry and moderation,–her manners and deportment, for modesty and humility–and her dress, for neatness, simplicity, and frugality.”
A lady’s maid first duty revolved around getting her mistress dressed, re-dressed, and undressed each day. This was no small task; think about the multiple layers of clothing women wore throughout the century, and think about how many changes were required each day–a morning gown or walking dress for mornings at home or errand running, perhaps changing to a carriage dress or visiting dress for afternoon calls, followed perhaps by a change to a riding habit if one planned on a jaunt to Rotten Row, followed by a dinner dress, opera dress, or ball gown depending on one’s evening plans…none of which had zippers or elastic or anything else that makes changes clothes a much simpler prospect today.
Once her mistress was dressed, the maid would check the clothes she’d changed out of to see if cleaning or repairs were required, then would put them away (and, um…no dress-hangers till late in the century, so dresses had to be carefully folded). In the morning a lady’s maid woke her mistress, brought her hot water for washing, slipped away for breakfast while her mistress perhaps lingered over a cup of tea in bed, then returned to get her dressed and ready for the morning’s activities (clothes and hair–a good lady’s maid was not only handy with her needle, but had to be au courant with the latest hairstyles and know what would look good on her lady). She would tidy her mistress’s belongings, clean her brushes and organize her dressing table and put away her nightclothes, then occupy herself with mending or dressmaking between being called to help with other changes through the day, which included staying up as late as necessary to put her mistress to be after balls or parties. She also supervised the housemaids’ cleaning of her mistress’s room, packed her trunks when she traveled, cleaned and kept safe her jewelry, washed her fine linen and lace, and served as nurse when she was ill. And if her mistress had pets, guess who got to walk, feed, and bathe them?
What did ladies’ maids earn? The Smiths in 1825 state that 18 to 25 guineas per year was a standard salary; by 1895, according to The Duties of Servants, she might earn 20-35 pounds per annum (not all that different!) Of course she received room and board and possibly a dress allowance; traditionally, a lady’s maid might also expect to receive at least some of her employer’s cast-off clothing (except, perhaps, for the especially expensive dresses). These might be worn, dispatched off to family members for remaking, or sold to second hand clothing shops for a tidy profit to salt away for old age. The nice thing about being employed as a lady’s maid was the potential job security; if a maid and her employer got along well, she could expect to be employed for life and probably receive a handsome retirement gift or bequest in her mistress’s will. But I can also see that an unpleasant employer could have been quite a nightmare…