An American House Servant’s Directory from 1827

A few weeks ago, I came across a curious volume titled The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts. Published in 1827, this book is filled with wonderful details about early nineteenth century household management in America. What is particularly interesting is that Robert’s work may be the first commercially published book by an African American author. According to Wikipedia’s sparse entry, Robert’s was born in Charleston but worked in Boston as a freeman and supported the abolitionist movement.

I have excerpted from several sections of the book in this post.  Please keep in mind, the original work is much more detailed. Enjoy!


IN the first place, I shall address myself to my young friends Joseph and David, as they are now about entering into gentlemen’s service, which they will find in course of time a very critical station for them to fulfil in its proper order; therefore I most sincerely intreat them to practise and study these few directions and observations, which I have laid down in the following pages, for their benefit and instruction, likewise for the benefit of those families whom they may have the honour to serve.


IN order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up; for in this time you can get through the dirtiest part of the work, which you cannot well do after the family rises; for then you always are liable to interruption; therefore by having the dirtiest part of your work executed, it will prove a very great comfort to you. As there is nothing more disagreeable than to run about with dirty hands and dirty clothes; and this must inevitably be the case if you defer this part of your work until every body is stirring and bustling about.

In the next place, you must have a proper dress for doing your dirty work in; for you should never attempt to wait on the family in the clothes that you clean your boots, shoes, knives, and lamps in; for the dress that you wear to do this part of your work is not fit to wait in, on ladies and gentlemen.

There is no class of people to whom cleanliness of person and attire is of more importance than to servants in genteel families. There are many servants, whom I have been eye witness to, through negligence as I must call it, who are a disgrace to the family that they live with, as well as to themselves, by appearing in their dirty clothes at a time of day that they should have all the dirtiest part of their work done. Every man that lives in this capacity should have a sufficient quantity of clothes to appear always neat and respectable; both for his own credit, and for the credit of the family he serves; therefore I shall give you a few hints on what clothes are suitable for his different work. In the first place for doing your dirty work, you should have you a round-a-bout jacket of a dark colour, with overalls, or loose trowsers, of the same colour, with a vest, and a cap of some description to keep the dust from your hair, with a green baize apron. This is a very suitable habiliment for your morning’s work, that is, before your family come down to breakfast; at which time you should have on a clean shirt collar and cravat, with a clean round jacket, white linen apron and clean shoes, with your hair neatly combed out. This is a most neat and clean attire for serving breakfasts. You must always make your calculations what time it may take to get through your work, so as to clean yourself for breakfast.

In the next place, I shall give you some directions on your dress for dinner. You should make it a general rule always to have a good suit of clothes or two, for attending at dinner, as a servant should always at this time look neat and tidy, but not foppish; what I mean by being foppish is, to wear a great bunch of seals to your watch, and a great pin sticking out of your bosom. There is nothing looks more ridiculous than to see a servant puff out above his ability; it really puts me in mind of the fable of the frog and the ox; there are many, I know, who never think of laying by a little sum of money against the time of need, but spend it all, as fast as they earn it, on fine dress.

I never find fault with a man for dressing neat and plain; but to go beyond extremes is ridiculous; you should always have a good suit for dinner, and I shall here give you a few hints on a suit which is very genteel and becoming. For the winter season you should have comfortable clothing, such as a good superfine blue body coat, blue cassimere trowsers, and a yellow cassimere vest. This is a very neat and becoming dress to wait on dinner. You should have at least two or three suits of light clothes for the summer season; as they require to be changed once or twice per week, if they are light coloured; but black bombazine is preferable.


As these things are often wanted in a hurry, therefore you should always have them in readiness, if possible. In this operation, you should always have good brushes and good blacking. These are implements that are indispensably necessary; without which, no credit will be given to the operator. In the first place you must remove all the dirt from your boots or shoes, with your hard brush.

When perfectly clean you must stir up your blacking with a stick, then apply a little on your black brush, and apply it lightly and smoothly over your boots or shoes, then apply your polishing brush quick and lightly over them, and in a few minutes you will have a beautiful polish. Should any brown spots appear, which often do, by not putting on the blacking even, then apply your blacking brush lightly over it a second time, and by this process you will have a beautiful polish.

When you have ladies shoes to clean, be very clean and careful about them. As the linings are generally white, you must have clean hands, as the lining is apt to get soiled; some of these shoes are cleaned with milk, or the whites of eggs, such as Morocco, or any kind of glazed leather whatever. You must apply the mixture with a sponge, and lay them before the fire or in the sun to dry; then take a soft brush, or a silk handkerchief; this will give them a fine polish.


You should always make it a regular rule to set up your candles in the morning, and particularly your chamber candlesticks, as they are often called for in the course of the day, to seal letters, &c. The others should likewise be put up, and in order, for suppose they are called for in a hurry, and at a time when you cannot find leisure to get your candles and set them up? besides, when you are in a hurry and bustle, you are very apt to break them, and this causes great delay, and it looks very bad to see the company waiting so long, after they have been ordered, and it likewise puts yourself into a state of confusion, &c. Should you have wax candles for use, be careful and have your hands clean, or you will soil them. Before you set them up in candlesticks, you should rub them with a piece of soft paper, and dip the tops of the wick in spirits of wine; this will make them easy to light.

There are some servants that light the candles before they put them up; but I do not approve of this plan, for you cannot light them and blow them out again, without causing them to swale or drop down the sides, which makes them have a bad appearance. You should have some wax tapers on purpose to light your candles with, as paper makes a dirt, and flies about the room; besides it generally sticks to the candle and causes it to burn dim. If you have branches around your drawing room, and they are to be lit up when there is a party, you must trim your wax candles most sublimely, with some white paper cut in the form of a rose, to go round the end of the candles, and fit neatly round the socket of the branch; this looks very well at night. You should likewise have a piece of taper tied on the end of a piece of rattan, on purpose for lighting them, as it is very awkward to bring steps into the room.


My young friend, I have always been thus particular about my knives and forks, because they are things that, from the appearance of which, not only the lady and gentleman of the family, but every one that sits down at table, forms an opinion of the cleanliness and good management of the servant to whose care they are intrusted; and I sincerely wish that you may gain the same approbation.


These, and polished steel fire irons, are things that require great care and attention to keep them bright and free from rust; I therefore shall give you some instructions how to keep them in good order. In the first place if the bright bars are very dirty and black, use the following mixture.

Take half a pound of soft soap. Put it into one quart ofsoft water and boil it down to a pint, then take some emery and mix in a portion of this liquid. Brush off all thesoot and dirt from your grate, and take a piece of thick cloth and dip it into the mixture, then rub quick and hard, and in a few minutes you will get off all the black and dirt. After which take some crocus and wet it with N. E. rum, or gin, to the consistency of paint, with a piece of flannel dipped into it, and rub it quick and hard, until the bars, &c. become bright, then take some old pieces of linen or cotton, which you must have for this purpose, and rub all the mixture clean off. Then take a piece of leather and some dry rotten stone, and in a few minutes quick rubbing, you will have a beautiful polish.


This is another part of a house servant’s business, which requires a great deal of care, as good clothes are often spoiled through neglect and bad management. Therefore I shall endeavour to give you some directions and insight of brushing and folding them up in a proper manner. In the first place, if your gentleman’s clothes should happen to get wet or muddy, hang them out in the sun or before the fire to dry. Do not attempt to brush them while wet, or you will surely spoil them, but as soon as they are perfectly dry, take and rub them between your hands where there are any spots of mud, then hang them on your clothes horse, which you must have for the purpose; then take a rattan and give them a whipping, to take out the dust, but be careful and don’t hit the buttons, or you will be apt to break or scratch them.

When this is done, take your coat and spread it on a table at its full length. Let the collar be towards the left hand, and the brush in your right, then brush the back of the collar first, between the shoulders next, then the sleeves and cuffs, then brush the farthest lapel and skirt, then the near one, observing to brush with the nap of the cloth, as it runs towards the skirts. When all these parts are properly done, then fold as follows.–Double the off sleeve from the elbow towards the collar, the other the same way; then turn the lapel over the sleeve as far as the back seam, and the other in the same manner; then turn up the off skirt so that the end may touch the collar; the near one the same; give it a light brush over, and then turn one half the coat right even over the other, and you will find the coat folded in a manner that will gain you credit from any gentleman, and will keep smooth for any journey.


The pantry is the place where the footman generally does the most part of his work, such as to clean his plate, trim his salts and casters, and trim his lamps and candlesticks, wash his breakfast things, and his glasses and silver after dinner, and several other articles; therefore you should be very particular in keeping it clean and neat, and have all your drawers and lockers for their several uses. Make it a general rule always to have every thing in its proper place, as nothing looks worse than to see every thing topsy turvy; this is an English phrase, but the meaning is, to see every thing in its wrong place; for the beauty of a good servant is to have a proper place for every thing that is used in common, that he may know where to lay his hand upon it, when it is wanted; this will be greatly to your advantage.

In the next place you must have a small tub to wash your breakfast things in, and another for your glasses, as the one you wash your breakfast things in generally is greasy, as you often have eggs, sausages, ham, &c. for breakfast. You should likewise have a sufficiency of towels, as it is impossible to do work without good materials to do it with, therefore you should have cloths for your glasses, tea things, and likewise for your knives, knife trays, and lamps, and always use your towels for their proper uses; your water for your tea things should be as hot as you can bear your hands in it. Put in a little soap, as it gives china a fine polish and keeps them from having a greasy feeling; do not put too many tea cups or saucers in at a time for fear of breaking them; be particular and wipe them very dry and clean, and put them by neat and tidy; there is nothing stands more high for the reputation of a servant, than to see his pantry kept neat, and every thing in it handsomely arranged in its place.


Now, my young friends, I shall here give you some instructions how to proceed with your morning’s work, in winter time. In the first place, make it your business to have plenty of wood, coal, or whatever fuel you burn, in its proper place over night, as it will save you a great deal of time in the morning, as the mornings are so short at this season of the year, and it is a great advantage to have these necessaries in readiness, where perhaps you have three or four fires to make, and grates and fire irons to clean before the family rises. In the next place you should rise early so as to be able to have your fires made and the rooms warm before you clean yourself for breakfast. Therefore, when you first come down, make as little noise as you possibly can in opening your rooms where you have fires to make, then proceed to take up your ashes, clean your grates, or fire irons, and tidy up your hearth. When this is done, proceed to make your fires. When they are all made, and burning well, then wash your hands, and open your shutters, and proceed to set out your breakfast table. When this is done, go round and see that all your fires burn well, or if they want replenishing, that the rooms may be warm and comfortable against your family come down stairs. Keep all your doors shut, and then, if you think you have time to clean your front-door brasses before they come down, it is a very desirable job to get out of the way before the family come down; but you can judge as to what time you have to spare. As you should have yourself clean and tidy against they come down to breakfast, you should always clean your boots and shoes over night, because it gives you more time in the morning.


As soon as you have all the clean articles put by in their proper places, and your room put to rights, then proceed to gather up your plate, &c. It is oftentimes that spoons, forks, &c. are thrown into the swill tub after a party, as the servants are generally in a bustle or hurry; so the present time is the best to count over your spoons, forks, &c. that if any are missing, you can make search immediately. In the next place, when the party has broken up, and all dispersed, proceed to extinguish your lamps, &c. Your lamps must be turned down, not blown out. Then push up the keys of your lamps, that the oil may not flow over, to spoil the carpets, for this would be a sad disaster; and it oftentimes happens through the neglect of servants not attending properly to the lamps. When all your lights are extinguished, see that your fireguards are put to your fires, and that every thing is safe in the rooms before you go out; then fasten your front door; then go round to all the doors and windows on the back part of the house, to ascertain whether they are all safe fastened. This is the most important part of a servant’s duty, to see that the house, and all the fires are safe. It is so great and important a part of your duty, that the lives and property of your employers depend on it. How many instances have we heard and seen, of houses being burnt through the neglect of the servants not having paid proper attention tothe fires and lights? and on the other hand how many houses have we heard of being robbed, through the neglect of the servant not paying proper attention to shutting the doors and fastening the windows? Another thing, you should have your hall door fastened at dusk, to prevent any one from coming in and stealing coats, cloaks, hats, &c. as this very often is the case in a city, and owing to the servants not fastening it in proper season.


Now, David, in the first place I shall address myself particularly to you, and give you a few hasty remarks on the propriety of servants in dressing, &c. There is no class of people that should dress more neat and clean than a house servant, because he is generally exposed to the eyes of the public; but his dress, though neat and tidy, should not be foppish, or extravagant. A man that lives in a family should have two or three changes of light clothes for the summer, that he may always appear neat and clean. You should likewise have a good suit of clothes on purpose to wear while waiting on dinner, as there is nothing that looks more creditable than to see a servant well dressed at dinner. It is a credit to himself and the family whom he has the honor to serve. Make it a rule always to brush your dinner suit, when your morning’s work is done, and every thing put in order, that you may have them ready when you want to dress for dinner.

You should never wear thick shoes or boots in the parlour, or waiting on dinner. You should have a pair of light pumps, on purpose for dinner, and a pair of slippers is the best thing you can wear in the morning, as they are easy to your feet while running about and doing your morning’s work; likewise you are free from making a noise to disturb the family before they are up. You must always be very clean in your person, and wash your face and comb your hair, &c.

In the next place wash your feet at least three times per week, as in summer time your feet generally perspire; a little weak vinegar and water, or a little rum is very good for this use, as it is a stimulant, and there is no danger of taking cold after washing in either. Servants being generally on the foot throughout the day, it must cause perspiration, which makes a bad smell, which would be a very disagreeable thing to yourself and the company on whom you wait.


This is a part of a house servant’s business, that requires a great deal of attention. Whenever your parlour or drawing room bell rings, lose no time in going to answer it; never wait to finish what you are about, and leave the bell unanswered; you never should let the bell ring twice if you possibly can avoid it, for it seems to be a great part of negligence in a servant, besides, it is an aggravating thing to those who ring twice or thrice without being answered. In the next place, when your front door bell rings, you must always step quick to answer it, before it ring the second time; because perhaps it might be some person of distinction, or on some business of great importance to your employers, wherein no one coming to answer the bell, they might go away and think that the family are not at home.

In the next place, you should never admit any person or persons into the parlour or drawing room, without first announcing their names to your mistress or master. This you can readily find out by saying, “What name shall I say, ma’am?” or “sir?” Therefore by this way you will find out whether your employers wish to see them or not. If not, tell them your mistress, master, or whoever they wish to see, are engaged, &c. in a polite and civil manner.

5 Replies to “An American House Servant’s Directory from 1827”

  1. To me, this books reads differently from like British texts. There seems to be more dignity and respect for the individual in the writing. I haven’t watched Downton Abbey, although many of the sections made me think of Gosford Park, such as the counting of the silverware. This book is an interesting document both on the subject and the author. It would be interesting to take the section on meals and run it side by side with a British text on the same subject. I might do that…

  2. Very interesting! A servant who followed these precepts would certainly be a treasure and able to command a good salary.

  3. This has been republished by Applewood Books as Roberts’ Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff.

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