Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain

By MacKay, Lynn | The Historian, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain


MacKay, Lynn, The Historian


Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain. By Lucy Delap. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 260. $125.00.)

In this book the author explores the nature and role of domestic service seen from the perspectives of both servants and servant-keepers in twentieth-century Britain. She argues that service has been a "foundational narrative" in determining how the British see themselves and the past and that, contrary to common assumptions, service did not die out after the end of World War II (2). Lucy Delap focuses on three generations reaching adulthood from the Edwardian era through the years during and after World War II. She insists that service be understood as more than drudgery and exploitation, that it "was central to core elements of twentieth-century British society--to the class, ethnicity, and gender elements of personal subjectivities and identities," and that it was crucial in imagining forms of modernity during the century (236). To this end, Delap employs a range of sources: diaries and letters, government reports, newspaper accounts, comic papers, trade union records, court cases, and oral history interviews all feature in the book.

The first three chapters of the book explore the experiences of young women who became servants and their emotional investments in the trade, the ways mistresses tried to establish their authority and to manage their servants, and the role played by children. Delap also examines the material and symbolic impact of the "servantless home" with its modern labor-saving devices. She concludes that the transformation of the home was partial and that "the structuring absence of servants" was often the source of deep anxiety and continued to influence the middle-class home into the 1960s (21). …

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