`Ruffled' Mistresses and `Discontented' Maids: Respectability and the Case of Domestic Service, 1880-1914
Fahrni, Magda, Labour/Le Travail
Magda Fahrni, "`Ruffled' Mistresses and `Discontented' Maids: Respectability and the Case of Domestic Service, 1880-1914," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 69-97.
IN 1887, ELLEN DAY began work as a domestic servant in Brampton, Ontario. Her mistress, Mariette Holtby, described the 21-year-old English immigrant as an "earnest christian girl and will manage my house very nicely." Holtby "anticipate[d] making a good servant of Ellen. Of course she has very much to learn." Yet Day, prone to staying "out late at night repeatedly" with the Salvation Army, soon lost her position. She would, Holtby claimed, "have received kindness and watchfull care from me--but she has given ocasion [sic] for us to doubt her respectibility--going with company as she has done." (1)
Jeannie Caldwell, born in Scotland to "most respectable people," came to Canada in 1905 at the age of 21. Over the next two years, using the names Jennie Caldwell, Jennie Sinclair, and Dorothy Walker, she worked as a shop-clerk and as a servant in Toronto, Barrie, and Hamilton. On at least three occasions, she was convicted of theft and spent time in the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Women and the Barrie Gaol. In June 1907 she was deported to Scotland as an "undesirable immigrant." As one Canadian declared to the minister of justice, Caldwell was "a dangerous woman, because she poses as a domestic servant, and being capable and of good address, she readily gets employment, when she immediately proceeds to lay her hands on anything of value and decamps." (2)
The particular fates of Ellen Day and Jeannie Caldwell were not necessarily "typical" of those of most domestic servants in Canada between 1880 and 1914. Their stories, however, do illustrate many of the peculiar tensions of the occupation and of the mistress-servant relationship. They also hint at the complexities of the concept of respectability, and at the range of behaviour considered "disreputable" for young working-class women. An examination of domestic service in turn-of-the-century Canada (3) exposes both the convergences and the disparities between bourgeois and working-class visions of respectability. (4) It highlights, moreover, respectability's gendered nature. Finally, it demonstrates that the dichotomy posited between the respectable and the disreputable was extremely tenuous. On the one hand, service was essential to the elaboration of a respectable bourgeois lifestyle, and was considered a suitable occupation for working women. Yet in a society where dominant notions of respectability largely excluded the poor and often the immigrant, servants were dubious intruders into the bourgeois domain. Unlike other members of the working class, they could not be ignored, deplored, or left at the workplace. The fact that they were crucial to the smooth functioning of propertied respectability necessitated, rather, that they be taken directly into the bourgeois home and hearth. Domestic service, then, was a unique spatial process that transgressed the physical segregation of the classes perceived and defended in late-19th-century Canada. (5) In so doing, it strained an equally rigid ideological separation between the respectable and the disreputable. Ultimately, respectability is better seen as a project than as a permanent condition. As a lived state-of-being, respectability, in its various forms, was often elusive.
By the late 19th century, domestic service was primarily female (6) and employed more women than any other wage-earning occupation in Canada. (7) Servants were almost always single; as most "lived in," few employers would hire women with husbands or children. Working-class conceptions of respectability, moreover, discouraged domestics from continuing paid labour after marriage. As the author of "The Scrub Woman" queried in Toronto's Toiler in 1903, "I saw the golden circle/ Upon her finger there;/ I wondered where her husband was/ While she worked for her dollar's share. …