The Gilded Age About 1880 to 1920 Post Civil War Gilded is defined as a thin layer of gold over a base metal. Term was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warren in 1873 meaning that the society in that time looked nice from an outsiders point of view, however the actual society was not all that great.
The Average Gilded Age Servant While they were now not enslaved, African Americans dominated the amount of servants in the South during this time. Many people found them dependable and willing to work. The people who hired them found the idea of African Americans working for them very normal, because they were most likely raised by African Americans.1
The Average Gilded Age Servant (Cont.) Servants were to be very quiet while they work. They needed to seem almost invisible.2 Houses were designed so that the servants would occupy all the areas of the house that involved housework while the family and guests would stay in all the areas designed for display, comfort, intimacy, etc. without having to step foot into the work areas.3 The servants of a Gilded Age family would normally travel with the family on vacations or to other houses owned by that family.4
Reasons for Wanting a Servant in the Gilded Age… Symbol of Status- Told how much money you have. If you have 30 servants, you must be considerably rich.5 At this time, new technologies such as indoor plumbing and electricity were coming along that made cleaning a house, especially a large house, even harder.6 This time also brought on increasing standards of hygiene which, again, made cleaning a house a more difficult chore. 7
Views on being a Servant While most women servants found the work comfortable and familiar, they said that they would rather their daughters strive for better careers.8 The servants could clean the house, but they were not allowed unrestricted access to the house which caused them to feel as though they did not have very much freedom.9 Being a servant was considered healthier than some other low status jobs such as a chimney sweep. 10
The Biltmore Estate George W. Vanderbilt II loved the scenery so much that he wanted to build a home in the mountains of Western North Carolina.11 The house was finished in 1895 and was occupied by the Vanderbilts until 1930s when the house was open to the public. 12 The Estate had 250 rooms.13 G. W. Vanderbilt lived alone in the house for three years before he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser and brought her to the house.14
Servants of the Vanderbilts The Vanderbilts normally kept around 30 permanent domestic staff members at a time. They hired additional staff for special occasions.15 Such Staff served as housekeepers, parlor maids, chamber maids, ladies’ maids, laundresses, kitchen maids, butlers and under butlers, valets, houseboys, chef and cooks under him, a coachman and his wife which would stay in the servant quarters of the house and stable hands which were housed separately at the stable.16
Tasks of Biltmore Servants17 Housekeeper- Kept the house in order. This servant would be under the direct order of Edith Vanderbilt. It was said that each morning, Edith and the housekeeper would meet in the Oak Sitting Room to talk about what the plans for that day were going to be.
Tasks of Biltmore Servants18 Parlor Maids, Chamber Maids, Kitchen Maids- All of these maids were responsible for keeping their respective areas clean and up to expectations. Ladies’ Maids- Responsible for caring for every ladies every need. For example, she would help the women get dressed in the morning.
Tasks of Biltmore Servants19 Laundress- This servant took care of the family’s clothes. They would tailor the clothes to fit the family member. Butlers and Under Butlers- They took care of the family’s every need. They are normally in charge of wines and tables. Valets- They are like the butler. They take care of the family’s personal needs.
Tasks of Biltmore Servants20 A chef and the cooks under him- They cook all the meals for the family and guests. A coachman- This servant would take the family places and would take care of the horses. Stable hands- they took care of the barn and the animals.
Servants’ Quarters at Biltmore21 The Servants’ Quarters were models of modern hygiene. They, unlike most other servants, had indoor plumbing. Each had a room to themselves. In fact, out of about 100 bedrooms in the Biltmore house, a good fraction of the rooms were for the servants. Each room had a comfy bed, a few pieces of furniture, and some other items that make for a homey feeling.
The Vanderbilts and their Servants22 While most servants might be ignored or mistreated, the Biltmore servants were for the most part treated fairly by the Vanderbilts. The following is an example of their treatment: Essie Smith was a teenager when she began working at Biltmore, and she was intimidated by its opulence. On her first day as a server, she walked into the house’s grand banquet hall and, startled by the vastness of the room, dropped the tray of monogrammed china she was carrying. George, a professorial figure with dark hair and a slightly curved moustache, rose from his chair as his guests looked on, their eyes begging: What on earth are you going to say about this distraction? But he didn’t say anything. Instead, “he got down on his hands and knees and helped her pick up the shards before saying, ‘Come see me in the morning,’” Holmes says. Smith assumed she was going to be fired. Instead, she was promoted to chambermaid, so she wouldn’t have to carry such heavy dishes.
The Vanderbilts and their Servants In her lifetime, Edith Vanderbilt was able to establish The School for the Domestic Science in 1901. This school trained young African American women in professional housekeeping.23 Edith was also the head of a panel of judges who gave out ribbons for domestic excellence.24
The Vanderbilts and their Servants25 While the Vanderbilts seemed like the most amazing bosses, there were times when this was doubted. For example, on November 6th 1907, it was reported that the teamsters and coachmen had gone on strike and left the estate. Apparently, they had asked for a raise and were denied. The next day, it was reported that they were hungry which is to say that they were not fed enough. They reportedly said that they would buy their own food elsewhere even though the closest town was Asheville (8 to 10 miles away). This was the reason for asking for the raise. In the end, they quit and George V. just hired some more teamsters and coachmen who worked under the same circumstances.
Endnotes 1-O'Leary, Elizabeth L. From Morning to Night: domestic service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2003. 1-123. Print. 2-O’Leary. 3-O’Leary. 4-O’Leary. 5-O’Leary. 6-O’Leary. 7-O’Leary. 8-Katzman, David M. Seven Days a Week: women and domestic service in industrializing America. New York : Oxford University Press, 1978. 1-72. Print. 9-Katzman. 10-Katzman. 11-Your Guide to Biltmore House. 12-Guide. 13-Guide. 14-Guide. 15-Chase, Nan K.. Asheville: A History. McFarland & Company, Inc. Jefferson, NC. 70-71. Print. 16-Chase. 17-Guide. 18-Guide. 19-Guide. 20-Guide. 21-Guide. 22-Henion, Leigh Ann. “Biltmore Insider’s Tour”. Our State: North Carolina. March 2010. 23-Alexander, Bill. Around Biltmore Village. Arcadia Publishing, 2008. 58. Print. 24- Chase. 25- “Strikers were hungry, they told Vanderbilt”. New York Times. 1906 November 7. pg. 9.
Pictures Oak Sitting Room Edith's Car Kitchen Servant's Room