Saturday, 8 December 2012

"Four New Aprons and a Box of Bonbons" : what to give a servant at Christmas?

What was Christmas like for servants in the past? Did employers show festive goodwill to their employees and did they celebrate together? Or did family festivities simply mean more work for 'the help'?

We can start to  think about Christmas  from the servant's perspective by thinking about gift exchanges. In the 1900's employers differed greatly in their attitudes towards gift-giving. For many, Christmas was an opportunity to provide their staff with necessities like aprons, or materials to sew new uniforms for the coming year. For instance, one woman who worked as a scullery maid in the inter-war years recalls her mistress giving her the material to make a new apron:
I was told "The lady is coming down to give you her Christmas gift." I said, "That'll be nice." So down she comes with these parcels, brown paper and string. She said, "Good morning." I said, "Good morning, my lady." She said, "I wish you a Happy Christmas." "I wish you the same, my lady." So she said, "This is for you." It was material to make an overall. That horrible, I couldn't believe it. What an insult. (1)
In what sense is a new uniform a 'gift'? Well, on the one hand, servants usually paid for their own uniforms so receiving them at Christmas did at least save the expense. On the other hand, how might you feel if your boss handed you a gift-wrapped ink cartridge or mouse mat? In other words, is such a 'gift' really just a different form of wage? Such a question might not matter in an environment where work is clearly distinguished as such, but a live-in servant spending Christmas away from her own family might have keenly felt the need for a more personal connection with her employer.

Some employers, however, did tried to move away from such pragmatic 'gifts'. In the Christmas 1906 edition of the Ladies' Home Journal, Frances A. Kellor reminds readers that:
The holiday season is the time of all others when the helper is prone to have a sense of separateness or to feel that she is not a real part of the household, but a mere spectator of joys in which she has no share whatever. The resulting feeling of loneliness is particularly trying and difficult to endure in the holiday atmosphere of anothers home. (2)
Christmas should also be an opportunity, Keller says, to "make the helper feel that her employer's home is hers."

Ladies' Home Journal, Christmas edition 1906

In response, her readers recall gifts they have given their servants. Some respondents merge utilitarian concerns while treating their staff; one reader explains how she gave her maid "four new aprons and a box of bonbons", while another explains how she gives her "helpers" money, but makes the  gesture seem more "Christmassy" by putting the money "inside a tiny purse or a pretty handkerchief" so that it is distinguished from "monthly wages".

Other employers go further. A "woman of wide experience in domestic matters" states that the woman "who selects a purely utilitarian gift for her helper makes a grave mistake ... something in the nature of a little luxury is much more acceptable." A good number of these women employ servants from outside America and so give gifts which tie in with native traditions, such as  "Scotch heather" and "German Christmas confections". This reader's moving story similarly speaks of the geographical displacements involved in domestic work:
Our helpers are two sisters, and we naturally came to know their family. We found there two brothers and five sisters alone in America and we wanted to help them keep together. Christmas seemed a good time. For two years we gave them a dinner and use of the parlour floor for the evening. But on the third Christmas when we arranged a 'cobweb party' the hearty handshake we got afterward gave us a key to future entertaining. Another pretty occasion was when we helped them to arrange a Christmas such as they have in their own country.
From the scullery maid's mistress who happily presented her employee with a new apron, to the Ladies' Home Journal respondents who go to great lengths to make sure their staff feel at home during the Christmas period, there were clearly a variety of gift-giving practices across the twentieth century. What this variety suggests is the unique position of the domestic worker, who can understand herself and be understood as a  family member, as an employee or as a strange mixture of both positions.

(1) Quoted in Jane L. Hegstrom, "Reminiscences of Below Stairs: English Female Domestic Servants Between the Two World  Wars," Women's Studies 36 (2007), 15-33, 27.
(2) Frances A. Kellor, "The Housewife at Christmas," Ladies' Home Journal 24 (December 1906). Accessed online via URL< > (17/12/2012).