`Ruffled' Mistresses and `Discontented' Maids: Respectability and the Case of Domestic Service, 1880-1914

By Fahrni, Magda | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

`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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

`Ruffled' Mistresses and `Discontented' Maids: Respectability and the Case of Domestic Service, 1880-1914
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?