From the Stacks: How To Go Downstairs

One of the fascinations of the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey is its depiction of the highly-structured world of the servants living below stairs. The Walter Havighurst Special Collections hold some volumes that describe the real world behind the fictional lives of the Downton servants.

The Footman: His Duties and How to Perform Them (Houlston’s Industrial Library No. 16) London: W. Foulsham [ca. 1880], and Household Work; or, The Duties of Female Servants … (Finchley Manuals of Industry, No. 3) London: J. Masters, 1863, are examples of guides published for those learning to work in the serving class. They describe the duties expected in these positions, give advice on how to perform them, and offer moral encouragement. These primary resources – materials contemporary to their topic – offer us insight in the training and expectations of those employed in domestic service. The footman is instructed in cleaning boot-tops, preserving knives and forks from rust, brushing clothes, the duties of a valet, preparing razor strops, and waiting at table – breakfast, luncheon, dinner and tea – among other things. The female servants are taught how to carry out the various duties of maid-of-all-work, house-maid, and laundry-maid. Whether you need to know how to light a fire, clean a brass door-plate, take ink-stains out of mahogany, arrange a tea table, destroy black beetles, wash a variety of clothes or clean white kid gloves – among many, many other responsibilities – the answers are here.

Servants were not limited to the great houses of England. In 1897 American progressive historian Lucy Maynard Salmon (left), founder of the history department at Vasser College, published the first academic study of American servants based on surveys she distributed to employers and employees. Her Domestic Service (New York: Macmillan, 1897) provides a wealth of historical and statistical material, identifies social and economic benefits and problems, and suggests remedies to the challenges of domestic service. The first edition is available in Special Collections.


And finally, from 1941, Household Workers (New York: Harper) encourages teenage girls and boys to consider the many benefits of entering domestic service as a career. This volume in the Picture Fact Books series, which describes a variety of careers, promotes the advantages and opportunities of domestic service as an alternative to the standard careers available for women at the time – secretary, nurse or teacher – and points out the earning potential of cooking for men as well as women. Did it make a convincing case? Perhaps it didn’t matter. The U.S. declaration of war at the end of the year changed the career plans of many men and women.

If you’re curious about the lives of Bates and Anna and Carson and Mrs. Hughes and the rest of the Downton staff, their vanished world is well represented in the Special Collections stacks.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives