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Served and Servant Spaces

The 20th century saw the sun set on the servanted opulence of the Edwardian high summer and reluctant householders faced the challenge of adaptation. The masses, however, welcomed the march of progress, explains Lucy Lethbridge

During the 1920s, postwar Britain saw an almost unprecedented building boom, a forest of villas, mansion blocks and service flats. London, wrote one commentator, ‘witnessed the greatest amount of rebuilding all over the metropolis that has ever taken place within so short a period of time since the Great Fire of London’. It was the Second World War that finally put an end to traditional domestic service but nonetheless, the new dwellings of the 1920s were designed for a future without ‘help’: they had central heating, electricity, stainless-steel kitchens and eat-in kitchens.

‘We are all busy now making the world anew,’ wrote Randal Phillips, the author of The Servantless House, in 1924. It would take longer than Phillips anticipated to create a new world − economic depression forced girls back into service in the interwar years in vast numbers − but the servanted opulence of the Edwardian era was disappearing and reluctant householders faced the challenge of adaptation.

Designers, architects and writers rallied to the call: in 1920, the Daily Mail, which had run the Ideal Home Exhibitions since 1908, offered £300 as a first prize in a competition to design a one-servant, coal-less house, costing no more than £2,500. The winning entry was a substantial five-bedroom villa which included a maid’s room but which also had electric plugs on the landing for vacuum cleaners and polishers. The house had no polished surfaces or hard angles to attract dust; there were sleek fitted radiators and smut-free electric fires. There was also a primitive dishwasher − a wooden rack in which dishes were sprayed messily with a rubber hose.

Electricity was hailed as the domestic liberator of recently enfranchised middle-class women. No longer need they suffer from recalcitrant maids who needed constant supervision: messy human relationships could be replaced by toasters, irons, egg warmers and trouser presses. Sometimes (a solution favoured by most women) you could have both a maid and an electrical gadget. In fact, most advertisements show devices operated by a pert maid. The adoption of technology was often eccentric: one woman reported working in a house where the employer refused to have vacuum cleaners but where the maids sped round the rooms on motorised coal-scuttles.

A low maintenance aesthetic emerged. Randal Phillips recommended japanning in dull black the brass furniture of the door to obviate the need for polishing and advised ‘scumbling’ interior paintwork to conceal dirt. For the smaller house, suggested innovations were American-style kitchen-diners, hostess trolleys, serving hatches and hotplates, and floors of easy-wipe linoleum.

These innovations were viewed with contempt by traditionalists − surely no single object has aroused more snobbish derision than the hostess trolley. The imaginary paradise of co-dependency exemplified by the English country house had sunk deep into the national psyche. Domestic service was viewed as social order. The households of previous centuries had been flexible and sprawling, full of hangers-on, dependants and retinues.

By the mid-19th century, the home had become a shrine to the nuclear family, increasingly accommodating two communities under the same roof. Houses were built with servants’ entrances and basement steps; old houses were given new wings with a maze of long corridors, back stairs and cunningly designed hidden doorways. The background drudgery of the home became invisible: oiled cogs of a well-run machine. Labour was cheap − and what was the point of installing running water if you had help to lay a fire, to heat it, and bring it to you in a jug early in the morning?

It was not as if the upper classes had always disliked labour-saving technologies: in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, many were keen to install gas and other innovations. It was when these technologies percolated down to the middle classes that they became viewed as déclassé. By 1900, the comfort of the new was distinctly nouveau riche. The grandest homes boasted long cold corridors, open fires − and many used chamberpots in the 1930s when flush lavatories were widespread. Candles assumed a ‘flattering glow’ suitable for dinner parties, as American economist Thorstein Veblen observed in the 1890s, when gas lamps became associated with trade showrooms.

The American journalist Elizabeth Banks, going undercover as a housemaid in London, spent hours scraping candle wax off parquet floors because her employer disdained gas or electricity. The idea that human domestic labour was morally superior to machines runs alongside the cult of the natural, the home-made, the artisanal: it is a perception of authenticity and therefore of virtue. Labour-saving devices carried a whiff of the clerkly suburban classes and their taste for tinned food.

So the suburban house most effectively reflects the changes of the age in the mid 20th century − although most maintained the ideal that domestic labour was outsourced: manufacturers gave vacuum cleaners names such as the ‘Daisy’ and the ‘Mary Ann’ to suggest the maid who may (but increasingly may not) have been using them. Homes gradually opened up − losing the labyrinth of small rooms that had once divided houses into ‘front of house’ and ‘below stairs’ and creating spaces with dual functions: eating in the kitchen became more common; the ‘play room’ moved downstairs from the nursery to the living area.

Hallways in middle- and upper-class homes had once been mediated by servants trained to spot the difference between a debt collector and a gentleman: with the decline of the rituals of afternoon calls, the narrow hallway became an awkward space, often filled with family clobber. By the 1950s, unexpected social developments had further eroded the nature of the ‘drawing room’ or in smaller homes the ‘parlour’ or ‘front room’, the space previously used for entertaining callers. Across the classes, these spaces were colonised for family life − most specifically, for watching TV: ‘We moved to the front’, recalled a factory worker in the 1950s. In middle-class homes, family members talked more openly to one another, no longer inhibited by a servant listening at the door.

Post-Second-World-War social housing was equipped with all modern conveniences as a matter of course, a source of wonderment to its inhabitants. Former housemaid Joyce Storey was on the list for a pre-fab in Grimsby: it was: ‘the desire and love of my life’. Charlady Winifred Foley wrote that her new council flat had a fridge, central heating, an electric oven: it was far better equipped than her employers’ homes, most of which still had cast-iron ranges in dingy basement kitchens viewed with incomprehension by foreign visitors.

While the suburban house weathered the storm of the Second World War, the lives of the stately homes largely collapsed without the fleets of servants that had underpinned them. Mollie Panter-Downes, wartime London correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote a short story that captures their final gasp: Dossie, ancient retainer in a large house, mourns falling standards; her employer even offers her a trolley for dishes that would once have been carried by a fleet of footmen. To her employer’s son, she is a pitiful anachronism: ‘He was aware that Dossie was watching him anxiously, the old woman’s eyes seemed to implore him to play their game for a little while longer, to pretend that things were just as they used to be, that their world could still be saved’.

But it was over for good. The age of convenience had arrived.

Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-Century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge, Bloomsbury

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