Domestic Servants

domestic service

domestic service, work performed in a household by someone who is not a member of the family. It was performed by slaves in many early civilizations, e.g., in Greece and Rome. Under the feudal system the work was done by serfs. The guild system required indentured apprentices to perform household duties while learning a trade. With the disappearance of feudalism and guilds, servants were recruited from free wage earners. Domestic service came to be regarded as an unattractive occupation because of the long hours, low wages, poor living conditions, low social status, and dependence on the personal habits of the employer. In the colonies of North America, domestic service was performed by transported convicts, bond servants who sold themselves into service for stated periods to pay their passage, Native Americans, and black slaves. After the American Revolution indentured servants were largely replaced, except in the South, by free labor. Growing numbers of upper middle-class families in the late 19th and early 20th cent. increased the demand for domestic servants, which was largely met by immigrants. Immigration quotas established in 1921 cut down this supply, and the demand for servants was subsequently reduced by the use of labor-saving devices. As the growing number of working women has created an increased need for child-care workers, many families have turned to professionals for such services. The number of domestics has declined from a peak of 2.4 million in 1940 to 795,000 in 1997. In 1950 the old-age insurance system was expanded to include household employees who were regularly employed, and in the social security amendments of 1954 old-age and survivors' insurance were extended to domestic servants regardless of work regularity. In Great Britain domestic workers are covered by national health and unemployment insurance schemes.

See D. Katzman, Seven Days a Week (1981); L. Martin, The Servant Problem (1985); P. Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Domestic Servants: Selected full-text books and articles

Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940 By Sarah Deutsch Oxford University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Work or Worse: Desexualized Space, Domestic Service, and Class"
Continental and Colonial Servants in Eighteenth Century England By J. Jean Hecht; Vera Brown Holmes; Sidney R. Packard; Leona C. Gabel Dept. of History of Smith College, 1954
Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987 By Lawrence Stone Oxford University Press, 1990
Librarian's tip: "Servants and Masters" begins on p. 211 and "Servants in Court" begins on p. 220
Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers By Nicole Constable Cornell University Press, 1997
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