Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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@ElizaBTweetin: April 8, 1872: Good Help is Hard to Find!

Posted on April 12, 2013

The perennial complaint of the upper-class 19th century housewife was the difficulty of finding, and keeping, good help. While large establishments hired multiple servants, Mrs. Wheaton apparently hired only one woman to work in the house (several men were hired to work the farm).  The “maid-of-all-work”, usually required to cook, wash dishes, dust, scrub floors, wash and mend clothes, serve at table, and generally be available to serve the whims of her employer, was potentially on-call twenty-four hours a day, yet was paid very little for her labor. For a glimpse into the back-breaking nature of 19th Century housekeeping, see: “Housework in late 19th Century America” on Digital History.

Arthur Munby, a Victorian civil servant, and his working-class lover/wife, pictured, in a posed photograph; credit: Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Mrs. Wheaton’s female help had a relatively “easy” time, for there were no children to look after, the laundry was sent to the town’s Irish washerwoman Peggy Fitzgerald, male farm workers were boarded out, and Eliza acted as her own “housekeeper”, responsible for the supplies and accounts. Mrs. Wheaton’s pride of ownership in her lovely home meant that she and her companion Mrs. Eliza Knight Beane (so many Elizas in this story!) also assisted with “lighter” housekeeping duties, such as dusting, sweeping, baking, and making preserves.  If no one else was available, Eliza even churned, worked, and formed the butter from her small dairy herd.

Despite the “easy” workload, Mrs. Wheaton couldn’t avoid the problem of staff turnover.

During the 19th Century, female servants typically remained in a household for less than 18 months. If young, she usually left to marry; if older, dissatisfaction with the work (workdays were typically fourteen to seventeen hours), the location (Norton was almost as remote in 1872 as it is now), or the “situation” (the servant’s lived in a small room off the kitchen) led to frequent changes. Later diary entries will reveal that Eliza Wheaton expected a degree of religious fervor in her servants, even though most were Catholic Irish immigrants, and was disappointed if they “lapsed”. While Mrs. Wheaton appears to have been relatively generous with time off, allowing her servant to ride and to attend church, a servant had only a few hours of free time each week.

This week’s entries reveal such a period of change.  Mrs. Wheaton’s favorite servant, Rose “Rosey” McCabe, had just left the household to marry Patrick Cronan and move to North Dighton.  Margaret “Maggie” Magner, arrived on April 8 from Webster, MA.  Between her arrival on April 8 and the end of December (38.5 weeks), Maggie was paid $125.90 in cash, or $3.14 per week, not far off from the 1890 national average of $3.25, plus room and board.

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