Lara Vapnek, “Desires for Distance: White Working-Class Women’s Rejection of Domestic Service in the late 19th-century United States”
“Desires for Distance: White Working-Class Women’s Rejection of Domestic Service in the late 19th-century United States”
Lara Vapnek, St. John’s University [PDF]
This paper examines several moments when the intimacy entailed in domestic service became a political issue. The first, and most sustained series of examples comes from post-Civil War Boston, where native-born, white working-class women characterized domestic service as an unacceptable compromise of their independence as American citizens. Female leaders of the post-Civil War labor reform movement such as Jennie Collins and Aurora Phelps developed this rejection into a broader critique of class relations. Their metaphors of “wage slavery” invite us to consider how gender, racial, and ethnic identities were constituted through the performance (or non-performance) of paid domestic labor. The second part of this paper considers how these issues played out during the remainder of the nineteenth century in working-class women’s continued associations of service and slavery, and in growing anxieties about ethnic and racial mixing in middle-class households. Together, the various pieces of this essay suggest how the category of intimate labor might reframe our understanding of the history of paid domestic labor in the United States.
In large northern and midwestern cities, the departure of native-born, white working-class women from domestic service accelerated after the Civil War. As middleclass and elite housewives complained of their difficulty finding “good help,” workingclass women issued a scathing critique of domestic service, defending their decisions to take in outwork, or to go out to work in garment factories, as a step toward independence.
In a privately printed investigation of Boston’s working women from 1869, the New England Women’s Club, bemoaned the fact that most working women preferred to be “slaves to the unproductive needle,” rather than sacrifice their autonomy by going out to work as cook or a maid in someone else’s household. Analyzing municipal and state records, and conducting personal interviews, the middle-class clubwomen discovered “poor girls” who preferred to struggle “under a weight of debt and poverty” rather than work as servants. To the surprise of the investigators, who were from the employing class, women from the working class spoke with pride at the fact that they had “never had to live out yet.” More shocking still, some working-class women chose prostitution rather than domestic service as a means of preserving their independence. 
While middle-class women’s labor reformers and advocates of women’s rights used the prostitute to symbolize the dangers of women’s financial dependence on men, some working-class women used the trade to gain higher wages than they could earn from either service or sewing and to free themselves from the oppressive conditions of living and working in someone else’s household. Despite popular literary and artistic depictions of prostitutes as free-floating symbols of urban anomie, the physician William Sanger, who undertook a comprehensive study of prostitutes incarcerated on Blackwell’s Island in New York City, discovered that almost half of the women had children and one-third were single mothers.  On a purely practical basis, prostitution offered women high pay and flexible hours, making it an attractive choice for women with children, or other dependent relatives who required their care.  For single women, who complained of their sexual vulnerability as live-in servants, sex work in boarding houses or in brothels offered some measure of control over the terms of their sexual encounters.  Thus, some women judged the brief physical intimacy of prostitution to be preferable to the ongoing loss of privacy suffered by servants. 
Some wage earning women contrasted the freedom due all American citizens with the “slavery” entailed in service. Jennie Collins a Boston labor activist, who had worked as a mill girl in Lowell in the 1840s, a household servant in Boston in the 1850s, linked native-born white women’s increasing rejection of domestic service with the American Revolutionary tradition, quoting Patrick Henry’s famous motto, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  According to Collins, even the textile mill, with its tightly regimented workday and its legions of rules, offered a greater degree of independence than living and working in someone else’s household. In the wealthy home where she had worked, servants were not even allowed to “go out and buy a spool of thread until their appointed afternoon or evening.”  Thus control over leisure time emerged as a major issue in women’s refusal to work as live-in servants.
Aurora Phelps, a friend of Jennie Collins, also viewed service as an unacceptable compromise of autonomy. Phelps advocated “Garden Homesteads,” as a means of making working women more independent by granting them arable land close to Boston where they could build their own homes and become self-supporting. Prior to becoming a land reformer and a labor activist, Phelps worked as a seamstress, a domestic servant, and a private nurse. In presenting her petition for Garden Homesteads to Massachusetts state legislators, she was asked why women chose to labor as poorly paid outworkers rather than go out to service. She answered by complaining that women who went out to work as servants were “treated as strangers and aliens.”  Her answer may have reflected the changing ethnic composition of the domestic workforce, or the changing nature of domestic work itself.
While household helpers in antebellum New England tended to be neighbors or young relatives, by the 1840s, they were increasingly likely to be Irish immigrants. Young Irish women fleeing the potato famine (which began in 1845) often migrated alone, leaving behind parents and siblings in desperate poverty. The assurance of steady work, combined with employers’ provision of room and board, appealed to Irish women who felt a strong obligation to save money to send back home and to contribute to the Catholic Church. While Collins calculated the sole benefit of domestic service as having enough to eat, food and shelter may have been enough to recommend the occupation to women who had faced starvation during the famine. This first generation of Irish immigrants placed family loyalty above personal independence.  Some German women entered service, too, but those who did not speak English were considered less desirable household workers. German women were more likely to migrate with their families, which made them less likely to work as servants.  For mistresses seeking pliant household workers, however, the fix from immigrant labor proved temporary. As Catherine Beecher, a leading purveyor of domestic advice complained in 1869, “the Irish and the German servants . . . become more or less infected with the spirit of democracy” and soon were as difficult to manage as native-born Americans. 
Native-born women such as Collins and Phelps rejected service not just because they associated it with Irish immigrants but also because the nature of the occupation had changed. If their mothers or grandmothers had worked as servants, they would have worked alongside their female employers as “helps” in household production. As the manufacturing of household goods such as cloth, soap, and candles moved out of households and into factories, the nature of paid domestic labor changed from assisting in production to insuring the comfort of the employing family, a set of tasks for which there was no objective measure or training.  Despite these changes, domestic work mimicked the unpaid labor women did for their families, in that it involved cooking, caring, and cleaning for others.
While the character of domestic work shifted away from household production, the occupation retained its feminine associations; most commentators believed that that it came more “naturally” to women than any other form of paid labor. Domestic service paid women a wage for labor that most did for free for their own families, but many women seemed willing to settle for lower wages in order to achieve greater control of their time off from work. Work as a live-in servant reproduced many of the negative aspects of family life for young women including surveillance, constant labor, and lack of autonomy. Although the job paid cash wages and promised servants a place to live and enough to eat, it did not offer any of the benefits of family life, such as mutual care or emotional warmth. Even the promise of adequate food often went unfulfilled. As Aurora Phelps testified, for many servants, “the very food was grudged to them and hunger was kept off by buying outside.” 
During the Gilded Age, radical members of the working class associated the growing demand for servants with the growth of a pretentious and parasitic middle class that snubbed its nose at manual labor. A song titled “The Bell Goes A-ringing for Sai-rah,” published in the American Workman, a Boston labor reform paper, complained of overwork, low pay, and stingy rations. The singer introduced herself as “the gener-al slave round the corner,” with a wage of “a hundred a year.” While her employer, a man who worked in an office downtown, earned “a thousand,” the servant found her “own sugar and beer.” Sarah described herself as “lady’s maid, housemaid, and cook,” explaining “I do everything, honor, no joking; I scarcely have time to draw a breath, For she’ll ring if the fire wants poking.” 
Jennie Collins and Aurora Phelps were able to criticize domestic service because they had other ways to support themselves. During the Civil War, Collins worked as a vest-maker for a large downtown firm, and Phelps took a position as a hospital nurse. Neither of these jobs would have been available to an African American woman living in Boston during this period. By 1860, just one-third of the city’s native-born white women worked as servants, in contrast to seventy-eight percent of foreign-born white women (most of whom were Irish), and eighty-seven percent of African American women. 
While Irish women took domestic jobs because they wanted to save money to send back home, African American women took domestic jobs simply because they could obtain no other work. While white female workers became more class-conscious during the war, this consciousness did not extend to addressing racial inequality. In fact, the substitution of white working-class women for slave women in labor reform discourses invoked the degradation of women of color only to erase them as real people with their own experiences of exploitation and resistance. African American women existed on the margins of labor reform as symbols of degraded womanhood, rather than as participants in postwar efforts to improve, or even transform, women’s economic conditions.
Although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not fundamentally change the racial segregation of the labor market in the industrializing cities north of the Mason-Dixon line. As “A Colored Woman” explained in a letter to the Philadelphia Morning Post in 1871: “When respectable women of color answer an advertisement for a dressmaker, . . . they are invariably refused, or offered a place to cook or scrub, or do housework; and when application is made at manufactories immediately after having seen an advertisement for operators or finishers, they meet with the same reply.” Black women who refused to work as domestics were left to “eke out a scanty livelihood sewing at home.”  An African American woman from Rhode Island complained that “colored females” were “compelled to accept the meanest drudgeries or starve,” being excluded from places where native-born white women could find work, like “the milliner, the dressmaker, tailor, or dry good store.”  African American women faced significant obstacles in moving out of domestic positions until the twentieth century, even then, associations of service and blackness would be naturalized in commercial products such as Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, or Uncle Ben’s rice.
From the 1860s through the 1880s, the power of the idea of white working women as wage slaves lay in its seemingly self-evident contradictions: northern white women should not be slaves, especially in a nation that had waged a bloody war to abolish the “peculiar institution.”  Charges of wage slavery continued to resonate with American workers in subsequent decades. As “Prisoners of Poverty,” and “City Slave Girls,” two social investigations of wage-earning women produced during the 1880s implied, women who had no choice but to earn money or to starve could hardly be considered free. In both of those investigations, however, working-class women singled out domestic service as an especially oppressive form of wage labor.
In “Prisoners of Poverty,” Helen Campbell, a founder of the middle-class consumers’ movement, probed the reasons why native-born white women in New York City were leaving positions as domestic servants in favor of jobs in the garment industry or in retail stores. Campbell’s stories, which first appeared in the New York Tribune in 1886, were part of a wave of investigations seeking to understand the social ramifications of capitalist development. While the founders of the U.S. had imagined the nation as a republic in which all white men would possess the means for economic independence, by the 1880s, the U.S., like Europe, seemed to be developing a more entrenched class system, characterized by a permanent class of wage-earners, many of them women and children. While Campbell is better-known for exposing the poor conditions of female needlewomen, she was equally concerned by the lack of native-born, white women willing to work as servants. 
In New York City, domestic service had become closely identified with Irish immigrants by the 1880s, even though nearly half of the domestic labor force remained native-born (the vast majority white, since the city’s African American population remained small).  Campbell inquired closely as to the reasons why native-born women were no longer willing to work as household employés. Some rejected the job as fit only for “common, uneducated Irish.” Even women without these nativist sentiments seemed hostile to the idea of domestic service. As one Irish-American woman, whose mother had worked as a cook explained, “We came to this country to better ourselves, and it’s not bettering to have anybody ordering you around.” Like other women who rejected service, she found the transfer of domestic work from a familial context to a commercial context distasteful adding, “You can do things at home for them as belongs to you that somehow it seems different to do for strangers.”  By rejecting domestic service, this woman affirmed her American identity and distinguished herself from the new immigrants who continued to pour into the occupation.
As in Boston, women in New York described the intimacy of live-in service as problematic. They simultaneously felt lonely and lacked privacy. A young woman whom Campbell found working in a stationary store, described her year spent as a servant as “awful lonesomeness” that “got to feel sort of crushing at last.” The requirement that women live-in not only separated them from friends and family members, it discouraged male suitors, who may have been unwilling to subject themselves to the rules of women’s employers, who generally allowed their employés only one night out per week, and forbade them from entertaining male visitors who were not relatives. While domestic service had once been seen as good preparation for marriage, most women of the women whom Campbell interviewed agreed that workingclass men had no interest in a woman who worked in someone else’s kitchen.  Indeed, the intimacy of domestic work may have compromised women’s respectability, especially given the common charges of lecherous male employers.
In a prejudiced and myopic analysis of the problem, Campbell accused working-class American women of leaving bourgeois women like herself at the mercy of the “tenement house Irish” who lacked both “modesty” and “decency.”  Ironically, the widespread migration of Irish women to the U.S. to work as servants prompted a parallel sense of crisis in Ireland, where social commentators worried about the loss of young women, who preferred to “slave and scrub and stifle in American cities” rather than work as servants in their home country.  The “servant crisis” complained of by Campbell and numerous other social commentators must be recognized primarily as anxiety about incorporating workers from different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds into their households. Campbell concluded with proposals for making domestic service more like other kinds of wage work, with clearly defined responsibilities, and limited hours, in the hopes that this would draw American-born women back to the occupation.  Domestic reformers in Boston, New York, and Chicago would develop these ideas further in the early twentieth century.
“City Slave Girls,” a series stories that ran in the Chicago Times in August of 1888, reveals how the language of white slavery continued to resonate with white working-class women more than thirty years after the Civil War had ended. As in Boston and New York, white women objected strongly to the intimacy of living in someone else’s household as a servant. Nell Cusack, the undercover reporter who wrote the stories at the center of “City Slave Girls,” focused on conditions in garment factories and department stores. She did not investigate domestic service, since peering into the labor relations in bourgeois homes would have been considered a breech of privacy and decorum. However, many working-class women who had worked as servants wrote letters to the editor of the paper responding to various recommendations that female wage-earners solve the problem of their industrial exploitation by returning to the domestic work they were “born” to do, instead of taking “men’s” jobs so that they could have “their evenings to gad about.” 
Some of the women who wrote in to the Times appropriated the metaphor of wage-slavery to characterize the conditions of live-in servants, using the metaphor of “city slave girls,” in quite a different way than the editors had intended. It was one thing to compare the lords of the loom with the lords of the lash, and quite another to compare “Pater Familias” (as one conservative correspondent had signed his name) to Simon Legree, the sadistic slave master in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and yet that is exactly what some working-class women who wrote in to the Times did. As “L.M.H.” explained: “Sensitive girls born with some natural independence can not endure the constant slavery that ‘going out to service’ means.” While she admitted that sewing girls might be “slaves” until the workday ended, they were better off than servants, who were “‘slaves’ during the whole twenty-four hours.”  Again, the issue of separate living arrangements emerged as a means of limiting employers’ access to their employees at all hours.
Nell Cusack’s stories of “City Slave Girls,” and the letters-to-the-editor they elicited were picked up and reprinted in newspapers across the country. S. P. Porter, who had been (and perhaps still was) a domestic servant in Indianapolis, stripped off any remaining gloss on the subject of domestic service. She described the job as “a slave’s life—long hours, late and early seven days in the week, bossed and ordered around as niggers before the war.” Her language associated blackness with demeaning work and excluded African American women from the entitlement to fair treatment she claimed for white women. Porter praised “American girls” for refusing to tolerate such “degradation.” She linked these women’s rejection of domestic service with wider struggles for freedom, warning that domestic service, like slavery, was destined for extinction.  Porter’s letter gave voice to a racial undercurrent running through the whole story, which evoked blackness as a negative state, associated with slavery, but gave no consideration to the actual (although small) population of African American women living and working in Chicago, mostly in domestic positions. 
The next day, the Times published an editorial regretting the unfortunate association of servitude with slavery, and with “the ownership by one of the superior races of one of the inferior races.” Unfortunately, the editors of the paper admitted, the term “servant” did seem “revolting to our conception of independence, which is especially dear to the heart of every American.” Perhaps this offensive nomenclature explained why, in turn, “American, English, Irish, German, and Scandinavian girls have shown a disinclination to engage in domestic service.” The editors of the Times went on to warn: “Unless some change is made the prospect is that the only persons who will accept situations for domestic housework will soon be blacks and natives of the south of Europe.”  Thus, the editorial expressed anxiety about incorporating members of different racial and ethnic groups into white, middle-class households. The association of civilization with whiteness and racial separation would soon be on display at the World’s Fair (held in Chicago in 1892), and in the growing body of state laws segregating “the races” in public accommodations throughout the South. 
W.E.B. DuBois analyzed the racial formation of the domestic labor market in his path breaking sociological investigation, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). DuBois presented the history of service and race as inextricably intertwined. During slavery, African Americans had worked as servants, and many continued in the occupation once free. In the industrialized northeast, those white people who entered into service were now more likely to be immigrants than native-born. “Thus,” according to DuBois, “by long experience the United States has come to associate domestic service with some inferiority in race or training.” As far as he could tell from his own interviews with men and women in Philadelphia, African Americans were no more enthusiastic about domestic service than European or native-born white Americans, but they stayed in the occupation because they had few other reliable options for employment. However, DuBois noted that segregation was creeping into domestic employment. In the wealthy households surrounding Rittenhouse square, preference for British rather than African American butlers and nursemaids had become pronounced, undercutting a steady source of income for some African American families. 
Again, the intimacy of domestic work became an issue, although now employers expressed concern over maintaining the racial “purity” of their homes by excluding those deemed ethnically or racially different. In the early 1900s, members of Boston’s Domestic Reform League, whose lineage stretched back to the New England Women’s Club, reported difficulty placing African Americans in domestic positions.  One “colored butler” interviewed by the DRL claimed that he had been unable to find a job after answering no fewer than 200 advertisements for work. “These Boston people beat me,” he said, “They will have mass meetings and raise money to help Mr. Washington educate ‘niggers’ down South, but they will let a decent Northerner starve before they will give him a chance to earn an honest living.” The butler was on his way back to New York, where he had a better chance of finding a job.  While scholars of domestic service have argued that African American women pioneered a shift toward day labor in the early 1900s, they may have overlooked the anxieties about racial and ethnic intimacy that made employers more willing to contract with servants on a daily basis.  The butler’s testimony draws our attention to the differential intimacy expected of servants according to race and gender, a subject that deserves greater investigation.
In conclusion, the analytical concept of intimate labor invites us to think about the history of domestic service in new ways. From the testimony of former servants, the physical closeness and lack of privacy of live-in work emerges as a major point of contention, as does the ability to have a family life of one’s own. By applying the language of white slavery and wage slavery to domestic service, white working-class women expressed their determination for greater independence, and to separate themselves from the immigrant and African American workers who increasingly populated the occupation. While wealthy white employers resorted to uniforms and elaborate rules to differentiate themselves from their domestic help, we might also begin to consider to what degree the turn-of-the-twentieth century trend toward segregation affected household labor relations. 
1 NEWC Papers, SL, Folder 88, Report of the Committee on Needlewomen, April 12, 1869, Printed for Private Distribution (Boston: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1869), 19. In fact, a slight majority of women who became prostitutes had previously worked as domestic servants; see Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920 (New York: Norton, 1992), 290–91.
2 William W. Sanger, The History of Prostitution: Its Extent, Causes, and Effects Throughout the World (New York: American Medical Press, 1895), 491–92.
3 Barbara Meil Hobson, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 96–97; Gilfoyle, City of Eros, 290; Hill, Sister’s Keeper, 84.
4 Ruth Rosen, Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1982).
5 Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex (New York: Norton, 1992), 287.
6 Jennie Collins, Nature’s Aristocracy; or, Battles and Wounds in Times of Peace (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1871), 105.
7 Collins, Nature’s Aristocracy, 103–04. Helen L. Sumner, History of Women in Industry in the United States (Washington, G.P.O.: 1910), 183.
8 “The Working Women in Council,” American Workman, May 1869.
9 Hasia R. Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), xiv, 71, 81, 90, 93, 94. Carol Lasser, “The Domestic Balance of Power: Relations Between Mistress and Maid in Nineteenth Century New England,” in History of Women in the U.S., ed. Nancy F. Cott, vol. 4, 123–24.
10 Stanley Nadel, Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in New York City, 1845–1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 76, 192, note 60.
11 Quoted in Lasser, “Mistress and Maid,” 125.
12 Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 156-163.
13 “The Working Women in Council,” American Workman, May 1869.
14 “The Bell Goes A-ringing for Sai-rah,” American Workman, 5 June 1869.
15 Thomas Dublin, Transforming Women’s Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 158–59.
16 National Standard, November 11, 1871, in The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, vol. 2, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), 281.
17 Quoted in Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam, 1985), 69.
18 Gunther Peck, “White Slavery and Whiteness: A Transnational View of the Sources of Working-Class Radicalism and Racism,” Labor, vol. 1, issue 2 (June 2004): 41–63. Scholarly study of “whiteness,” as initiated by David Roediger in Wages of Whiteness, has recently come under critical scrutiny: Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historian’s Imagination,” and responses by James Barrett, David Brody, Barbara Fields, Eric Foner,
Victoria Hattam, and Adolph Reed; Peter Kolchin, ILWCH, vol. 60 (October 2001): 3-32; Peter Kolchin, “Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America,” Journal of American History, vol. 89, no. 1 (June 2002), 154-173. See also Dana Frank, “White Working-Class Women and the Race Question,” ILWCH, vol. 54 (Fall 1998): 88-102.
19 I discuss Campbell more extensively in “The Politics of Women’s Work in the United State, 1865-1909 (Ph.D. diss, Columbia University, 2000), 132-146.
20 The Tenth Census breaks down occupations only by nativity, not by race, it counted about 20,000 native-born servants, and 24,000 born in Ireland. Table XXXVI, 892.
21 Helen Campbell, Prisoners of Poverty: Women Wage Workers, Their Trades and Their Lives (Boston: Roberts, 1887; reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970), 225-226.
22 Campbell, Prisoners of Poverty, 228-229.
23 Campbell, Prisoners of Poverty, 236.
24 Quoted in David M. Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 69.
25 Campbell, Prisoners of Poverty, 239–41.
26 D.R., “Girls Out of their Proper Sphere,” Chicago Times, August 5, 1888.
27 L.M.H., “Too Deep for Shallow Remedies,” Chicago Times, August 5, 1888.
28 S.P. Porter, “Reform in the Kitchen,” Chicago Times, August 11, 1888.
29 At this time, less than 15,000 African Americans resided in Chicago, a city whose population was nearly 1.2 million. African Americans would not begin moving to Chicago in significant numbers until the1890s. James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 127–29.
30 “Domestic Service,” Chicago Times, August 12, 1888. Mary E. Breedy, “The Kitchen Drudge,” Chicago Times, September 1, 1888.
31 Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Race in the U.S., 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 31-41. Barbara Young Welke, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), ch. 9.
32 W. E. B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899, reprint 1996), 136-137, 141.
33 Unidentified clipping from the Bulletin of the Domestic Reform League, May, 1905, Women’s Educational and Industrial Union clippings, volume 7.
34 Clipping from the Bulletin, May 1905, WEIU Clippings, vol. 7.
35 David M. Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 72. Elizabeth Clarke-Lewis, Living in, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1994), ch. 5.
36 Clarke-Lewis describes these mores in Living In, Living Out.