Where were the servants?!

In my recent supervision, my supervisors (@SashaHandley and @HistoryHannahB) asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. Those of you that know them will understand that this is not an unusual occurrence, despite my best efforts. This particular question, however, has haunted me – partly because I can’t answer it, and partly because I don’t know how to go about finding the answer. It arose as part of a discussion around the chapter I am currently writing on family and childbirth, specifically, the individuals that populated birthrooms in the eighteenth century. The question was this:

“Where were the servants?”

Um.

Good question.

Where WERE they?

My research relies heavily upon personal accounts of birth and the various events and rituals that surrounded it, and I can’t think of a single instance where a daily servant has been mentioned. Frances Irwin talked of her Nurse, who stepped into the breach and delivered her child when the midwife was detained, but Nurses weren’t really servants. Not in the traditional sense of the term, anyway. They were employed for a short period of time, to assist with the birth and the lying-in. As such, their duties were clearly defined. Their relationship to their employer differed to that between daily servants and their mistress.

The principle of Occam’s razor would suggest that the servants simply weren’t there, but I can’t believe that. In a large proportion of cases, the relationship between mistress and servant was intimate, at least in terms of physical proximity and knowledge if not emotionally. Depending upon the social status of both employer and employee, a servant would have changed and washed bed linen, dressed her employer, brought her food and drink, helped her with her work. She may even have shared a bed chamber with her. Is it realistic to believe that she would be excluded from the household, or banished to the kitchen while the birth took place? Or is it more likely that she would be required to assist: to make caudle, to change and launder sheets, prepare clothes and compresses? Would she care for older children? Who emptied the water? Who disposed of the pallet bed upon which the birth may have taken place? Who brought logs for the fire? Even if caudle was prepared by the birthroom attendants, who procured the ingredients? Who brought them to the birthroom when they were required? For poor women, these jobs may have been done by the friends and neighbours that attended the birth, but would this still have been the case in houses where help was employed? I simply can’t believe that daily servants weren’t involved in the process of a birth.

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So. Why can’t I find them?

One explanation is that they were invisible. The jobs that they undertook were not mentioned in letters and diaries because it was assumed that they would be done. If this was the case, however, I would expect to find instances in which servants had not performed appropriately, or had performed particularly exceptionally during a birth and (so far) I haven’t.

Is it connected to social status? Very poor women would not have employed daily servants. Middling and elite women would have had lots of servants, and were used to seeing (or deliberately not-seeing) them therefore may not mention their actions in their writings. The women that I would expect to find writing about their servants would be those who employed only one or two, and who shared living and working space with them. Women of this status are under-represented in my research, though not totally absent. Yet I have still to find any reference to servants in the birthroom, though daily servants are occasionally mentioned.

Perhaps it is due to source survival. Despite my best efforts, accounts of an actual delivery (excluding those written by medical men) are difficult to find. Perhaps, by the time women were sufficiently recovered to provide me with written sources again (after their lying-in was completed) the servants had returned to their usual duties. As with my first point, however, if it was simply about source survival I would still expect to find an occasional mention of good/bad servant behaviour during the birth.

Age may have had an impact, as my research suggests that knowledge about birth was strictly confined to married women, and preferably those that had given birth themselves. Would unmarried servants have been excluded from the birthroom after all, particularly when delivery became imminent? It is possible, yet women of varied status worked as daily servants. Marriage did not necessarily constitute a bar to this type of employment in the eighteenth-century, particularly where husbands were away at sea/war, or were in employment elsewhere. Daily servants may therefore have been mothers many times over.

All of which leaves me puzzled. WHERE WERE THE FLAMING SERVANTS?! Do you have any ideas?

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