The Maid of All Work

From time to time I will post interesting articles from early issues of the Dauphin Herald to examine what pioneers of Canada’s western province, Manitoba, read and found interesting themselves. Specifically I will look at articles that target women of the age. The first article I will post is from a quaint series entitled, “School for Housewives” by Marion Hartland who published a number of books for women as well as a number of syndicated articles such as this one published across Canada and the USA. The Maid of All Work was published in the Dauphin Herald on 22 Oct 1908.

I stumbled across this series of articles last year as I browsed copies of the Dauphin Herald for weekly information from the town of Fork River. I became interested in what Marion Harland (Mary Virginia Terhune) had to say on how housewives should run their home in the early 1900s. I wonder how many women of Dauphin and beyond followed Marion’s advise and I am curious on how many house servants were employed in Dauphin.

School for Housewives – The Maid of All Work

Some one has aptly called the general housework servant a “Pooh-Bah in petticoats.” All branches of household toll are included in her province.

This does not mean, however, that she discharges them all. When she is engaged she doubtless agrees to do cooking, chamberwork, waiting on table and very likely washing and ironing as well. Sometimes she does all these things, but it is usually when she is very competent and the family is very small. Gone are the old days when one maid was considered sufficient for a good-sized family. This is a period of specialization, and we must have a maid for nearly every variety of work. The higher wages these specialists command make it an object with the general housework servant to seek promotion from her solitary state as soon as possible.

Whether it be the result of this same specialization or an outcome of more elaborate methods of living, there is no doubt that a good maid-of-all-work is hard to find and to keep it goes without saying that her wages have gone up, like everything else. The fact that she does not pay rent or food or fuel bills does not militate against her demanding more pay for the same work that as done ten years ago at a smaller wage.

None the less, since a competent maid is a rarity, it behooves the possessor of one to consider her so far as she can. The average mistress accepts it as a matter of course that she should lend a hand in the cookery on Monday and Tuesday, besides washing the dishes and making the beds. On other days she probably does the dusting and assumes small duties about the house. Yet, while she is ready to take a share of the work she should have it clearly understood with the maid that certain duties fall upon the servant’s shoulders and that when the mistress performs them she does it not of merit on the maid’s part, but of free grace on that of the employer.

Because the woman who have remained general housework servants until middle age are generally either not competent for higher work or are so “set in their ways” as to be difficult to manage, it is sometimes well for the mistress who has the time and the strength to take a young and comparatively inexperience girl and train her to her hand. I know there is a strong probability that so soon as she is of a real value in the household she will seek another home where she will get higher wages; but she would be likely to do that anyhow. And there is always a chance that she may have either the common sense or the loyalty to stand by her first employer.

The maid engaged with the understanding, always to be borne in mind in such conditions, that she is “to turn her hand to anything,” the mistress should set about training her in the way she means to have her follow steadily. When the new servant has become accustomed to her work and to the ways of the house, she may introduce variation, but for the time it is better that she should adhere to a fixed schedule.

A regular hour of rising should be one of the first rules laid down by the mistress, and it should be early. In a house where breakfast is at 7:30 or 8, 6 is none too early an hour for the maid to rise. This gives her time to take half an hour for dressing and brings her downstairs by 6:30. In a house where a coal or wood range is used, her first duty will be to start the fire, fill the kettle, put it on to boil and place the cereal over the fire. These two duties may be done if gas is used as fuel, and gives the maid more time for her other work. In winter she may have to go down to the furnace, open the draughts and put on fresh coal.

The next step is to go into the living rooms and open them to air; after that the front hall may be brushed off and a touch given to the front steps and the sidewalk, unless there is an outside man engaged to do this. The dining room and drawing room may also be brushed up, if they need it, and the furniture straightened – dusting done, too, if this is one of the maid’s duties. In any case, the dining room should be put in spotless order for the morning meal.

When the maid is brisk about her duties, all this can be done before it is time for her to put the kettle over. Should the cereal be one needing long cooking, it should have been se over a low flame when the maid first came downstairs.

The amount of work a maid can do before breakfast depends, as a matter of course, upon the kind of breakfast to be prepared. In households where thee is a simple meal of fruit, cereal, bacon and eggs, toast and coffee, her work is comparatively light, but in a home where hot bread must be made, potatoes and meat cooked, she can hardly be expected to get through with much before the morning meal.

In households where only one maid is employed she is not expected to do any waiting at breakfast beyond removing the plates as they are used. By the time the family reach the last stage of the breakfast she should either eat her own breakfast or go to the upstairs work. If the beds have been stripped to air by their occupants on rising, the task of getting the rooms in order is taken in hand. Beds may be made, the furniture put in order, the floor gone over with a carpet sweeper, soiled water emptied, the utensils cleaned. This too, is the time to put the bathroom in order.

In a good-sized family this care of the bedrooms generally devolves upon the women of the household. In this case the maid can set to work putting her kitchen to rights, washing the dishes used in preparing the breakfast, looking over the pantry to see what supplies are needed and the like. By the time the family has finished eating the maid is ready to come in and clear the table, take the dishes to the kitchen, arrange and darken the dining room and after this to wash the dishes. When this is done, if she has not had time to finish her upstairs work properly, she should go back to it. Before she leaves the kitchen she should rinse out her dish towels and put them over to boil.

By this time, or earlier, the mistress should have come in to see what there is in the larder and to decide about the meals for the day. This is the time when she sees that the refrigerator is clean and if there are left-overs which should be used at once.

The general work of the house should be divided up on the different days, so that there will not be a hard pull one day and a lazy time another. Monday and Tuesday are taken for granted for washing and ironing, if the ironing hangs over into Wednesday, it may be necessary to crowd most of the sweeping and cleaning into the last of the week; but when the laundry work is out of the way by Tuesday night, part of the sweeping may be done on Wednesday – the dining room or parlor, rather than the upstairs rooms, since there is usually some baking to be done on Wednesday, and it is well for the maid to have work which will not take her too far from her kitchen.

Thursday’s work may be silver cleaning, brass polishing and window washing. The maid’s weekly or fortnightly “afternoon out” usually falls on Thursday unless special arrangements are made otherwise. Friday is the day to do the upstairs sweeping and cleaning, and Saturday brings in baking, odds and ends and general preparation for Sunday.

The week’s work having been outlined, let us look again at the daily vocations. The midday luncheon, at which the table is spread as at breakfast, is one which requires little waiting. The mistress should endeavor so to plan the work that there will be no heavy or dirty work to be done in the afternoon. If the maid and mistress agree in judicious discharge of the daily duties, there is no reason why the afternoon should not be comparatively free, or filled only with light tasks, until the time comes to make the dinner ready.

At dinner time the maid is expected to do more waiting than at either of the preceding meals. She is not to stay in the room after the dishes are passed, but she should be ready to come at sound of the bell. Her work after dinner is practically the same as that after the other meals. If she is forehanded about her work and washes the dishes of one course while the subsequent course is eaten she can get through her work early, and after she has turned down the beds, the evening will be her own. I wish I could say she would be likely to do this, but having managed to induce but one maid to follow this course in all my housekeeping career, I cannot speak encouragingly on the matter.

There are as many different kinds of maids as there are mistresses, and one can never tell how either will turn out until after trial has been made. When a maid-of-all-work is competent and willing, I really believe that it is easier living than with two maids or more. But as I have said, a maid of that sort is far off and hard to find. When she is once secured, it is worth her employer’s while to pay a good price and make some concessions to keep her.

Marion Harland

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