The Science of Service

By Puckrein, Gary | American Visions, October-November 1998 | Go to article overview

The Science of Service


Puckrein, Gary, American Visions


African Americans were used as domestics from the beginning of slavery in the North. In 1638, a man named Samuel Maverick had several black domestics working in his house on Noddles Island, Mass. Fifty years later, a French traveler, Antoine Court, wrote about slaves in Boston, noting that "there is not a house in Boston, however small may be its means, that has not one or two [blacks]." By the 18th century, it was a matter of status to have black domestics. The principal families of Norwich, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury, Conn., employed blacks as house servants, and the same is true of Boston, Hanover and Newbury, Mass. In Narragansett County and Providence, R.I., no prominent household was complete without its retinue of black servants.

This subject has not been widely explored by scholars, but domestic service, particularly in the homes of the affluent, required it high level of refinement, integrity and sophistication to communicate the stature of the household to society at large. Servants -- and their deportment -- were seen as in outward manifestation of how a master or mistress governed his or her house. By insisting on "proper" service, whites encouraged in their servants the internalization of certain social norms, which these domestics then promoted in their own families, communities and business associations by their carriage.

In 1827, a black butler named Robert Roberts wrote the most remarkable book by an American -- The House Servant's Directory (Munroe and Francis). It is one of the first books written by an African American and printed by a commercial publisher in the United States, according to Peter Berg, the head of special collections at Michigan State University. The directory -- which is actually a manual for butlers and waiters -- generated wide interest, prompting a second edition in 1828 and a third in 1843.

Little is known about its author, who was born in 1780. He claimed experience "as a house servant for some of the first families in England. France and America." in 1825, he entered the employ of Christopher Gore, a governor of and U.S. senator from Massachusetts. At Gore Place, his home in Waltham, Gore entertained many of the leading citizens of his day, including President James Monroe, Daniel Webster, John Trumbull, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

It was while serving is a butler for Gore that Roberts published The House Servant's Directory, which provides valuable insights into was expected of domestic servants. …

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