Understanding Domestic Service through Oral History and the Census: The Case of Grand Falls, Newfoundland

Article excerpt

This paper highlights some of the methodological, ethical, and interpretive issues that emerged in researching the self-definition of women who migrated from coastal communities to work as domestic servants in a Newfoundland mill town in the 1920s and 1930s. It considers the ways in which manuscript census data and oral history -- the two main sources used in the research -- are comparable sources if we understand them to be products of human interaction, shaped by relationships of inequality between men and women, between women of different socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds (i.e., enumerator and enumerated, or researcher and researched), and by the specific historical circumstances of their creation.


Though the work of recent Canadian feminist, working-class, and social historians has revealed a great deal about the lives and experiences of previously neglected individuals and groups, our understanding of certain areas remains vague and incomplete. One area about which we have an insufficient understanding concerns the work and migration experiences of domestic servants, who by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were primarily female and represented the largest job group of women wage earners. In 1891, around 41 per cent of all wage earning women worked as domestics in Canada, a percentage that dropped to around 18 per cent in 1921, rising again during the 1930s.(1) The case studies by Canadian women's historians such Marilyn Barber and Varpu Lindstrom Best, writing of domestic service in the 1980s, have demonstrated that most of these domestics were single workingclass women, many of them immigrants from Britain and continental Europe (35 per cent in 1911), and others migrated from Canada's rural regions to urban centres where they found situations.(2) This research also provided some initial insight into the variety of domestics' work experiences. While live-in domestics were generally isolated in the household, lacked worker protection, earned low wages, and were vulnerable to exploitation, their working conditions, wages, and experiences varied regionally and along ethnic lines. Equally important, the number of domestics in relation to the entire female workforce also varied regionally, depending on factors such as supply and demand and the availability of alternative forms of wage work for women.

Notably, more Canadian and American feminist scholars have explored domestic service in the contemporary period than they have in historical terms.(3) These scholars, who are primarily social scientists, have generally written of domestics through the lens of immigration. At root of their interpretations has been a concern with the fact that despite transformations in the labour market, changing gender ideologies, capitalist restructuring, and the women's movement, domestic service has persisted into the present as women's work and continues to encompass relations of domination and subordination in many aspects of public policy, legislation, and in human relationships. A number of case studies by sociologists and anthropologists writing of paid domestic work in an international context, also in the contemporary period, have shown that it is no longer possible to assume a universal pattern for domestic service; it has followed, and continues to follow, the flow of capital and labour in a global economy.(4) Few Canadian historians of women's work have examined closely any regional variation in patterns of domestic employment historically, and one area that deserves much more attention is the self-definition of former domestics who performed this work in the decades between World War I and World War II.

Since my research centres on understanding domestic servants' work and migration experiences in Newfoundland in the interwar years through the use of two fairly traditional sources, the census and oral history, it is necessary to explain briefly why there has been a gap in the feminist historical literature on domestic servants. …


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