I have a fascination with servant life. I’m more interested in the stories of the footmen and scullery maids than the mistresses and masters. As I was trying to move my Google Books library to Pinterest, I ran across this article in a 1904 issue of Harper’s Bazaar about the household staff of Harbor Hill, an old mansion on Long Island that was demolished in 1947. In its prime, it was all Edith Wharton’s New York – glittery, fascinating, and twisted.
The Servant Question at Harbor Hill
by Grace A. Fowler
THE queen of a perfectly ordered house hold is, comparatively speaking, as great a diplomat as a ruler of nations. There is an atmosphere about “Harbor Hill,” the charming country estate of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Mackay at Roslyn, Long Island, which bespeaks the gentlewoman, and a harmonious responsiveness about its corps of servants which argues well for executive system in the home. Whether for selfish reasons or otherwise, the wise homemaker is she who inspires in her servants an anxiety to please. It cannot be denied that happiness is a potent stimulus to endeavor, and perhaps the luxurious home life of the Harbor Hill servants accounts in a measure for the admirable order which is shown in every detail of this perfect home.
Certainly there is a bigness about the servant problem on these large estates of the very rich that is hard for the average housewife to grasp. It is not the kind of bigness, however, that is ordinarily suggested by the modern servant problem. In a small household conducted on the basis of economy the problem is that of securing one servant capable of performing all duties; in the household of the ‘very rich, which may, to be sure, be equally small in so far as number in family is concerned, the problem consists in properly apportioning one duty to each servant. When the master and mistress of Harbor Hill are lunching or dining alone a butler and three footmen in livery are always on duty to minister to their needs. When occasion demands, there are others equally well trained who assist in serving guests. Besides serving in the dining-room the head butler is in charge of the wine-cellar and the Madeira-room, and buys all the wines that are used. He also buys the fruits for the table and arranges the flowers, which he does most tastefully. Aside from these specified duties, the butler and footmen have little to do, and the time between the luncheon hour and dinner they are free to spend as they like. On an estate covering 800 or more acres, the vastness of the wonderful “servant system,” with its divisions and subdivisions, seems almost as great as that of some mighty railroad or other corporation. The domestic corps is practically managed by the housekeeper, and comprises some twenty-five or more workers. This is only a small portion of the laborers of Harbor Hill. The stables and the grounds are equally important departments, where the army of workers is much larger.
The nursery, of course, is a delightful little department of its own—so near the heart of the mistress of Harbor Hill that one might perhaps call it her own department, though in reality it is in charge of a skilled trained nurse. Unquestionably in planning Harbor Hill every device that brains and consideration could suggest, and money carry out, has been followed up in the housing of its workers, and the home life of the servants here stands out in most favorable contrast to that of servants in similar homes in England and France, where the crowded conditions are certainly a menace to all moral and physical development. Necessarily the housekeeper is a woman of intelligence, tact, and refinement and wonderful executive ability. It is she, and not the mistress of the house, who has the tremendous responsibility of employing and discharging and watching over this corps of domestics. She is supposed to know just what each one is doing at each hour of the day. She does all this and finds time to spend many hours in her well-appointed suite in the servants’ wing. Her living room, charmingly homelike, is furnished in rose pink, It is in the front of the house, with a fascinating outlook over the beautifully kept grounds. Bowls of cut flowers and many plants make this room resemble a conservatory. In a pretty cage hanging in the window is a song-bird, and on a fur rug in a sunny corner a fuzzy little ball of a dog is curled.
Adjoining the housekeeper’s bedroom is a bath-room for her individual use, with embroidered towels and all the dainty toilet accessories that are so enjoyed by the woman of refinement. At a completely equipped desk in her sitting-room she spends certain hours each day, sometimes writing twenty-five or thirty checks at a time. Besides paying the wages of all servants in her department, she pays all bills for the house and for the thousand and one household articles that she finds it necessary to purchase. To go over the house and supply every bath-room with dainty soaps and toilet waters, sponges, brushes, and other things which are needed, is in itself no small undertaking. She notes carefully the inevitable wear and tear, supervises repairers, and interviews painters, decorators, and plumbers. It is in midsummer, when the family is away and the house is practically closed for the season, that she is busy replacing, replenishing, and getting things in readiness for the opening of the season in September. So ably is she assisted in this work by her corps of maids that she accomplishes all this and finds time for relaxation.
Each week she spends hours in the calm lined linen-room of Harbor Hill, and the treasures of linen there are something to dream of. The room itself is so compactly ceiled with cedar that it looks as if it had been hollowed out of one large block of this fragrant wood. On one side from floor to ceiling is the magnificent cedar press, divided off into shelves and compartments. On the other side of the room is a long, low, cedar table with white marble top. When the laundered linen is brought in in eight or ten huge hampers, it is laid out and assorted on this table, until it can be counted and looked over by the housekeeper. On top of each pile as it is laid in the linenpress is placed a sachet of delicate odor. Every piece of linen here was ordered from Paris by the mistress of the house. Here are dozens and dozens of hemstitched and embroidered table-cloths and napkins of heavy damask, and matchless centrepieces and covers for table and dressing-table. The hand-embroidered sheets, bedspreads, and pillow-cases for the mistress’s boudoir seen here are perhaps the handsomest to be found in America. While one is almost awed by the amount of money the contents of this linen room represent, the exquisite tastefulness shown in the selection of it is equally impressive.
The Harbor Hill laundry is used exclusively for the servants. It is large and light, and splendidly equipped with every modern convenience for washing, ironing, and drying. Basins and tubs are of marble. There are wonderful electric dryers, and numberless electric irons of various sizes. The household linen for the servants’ rooms is kept in a separate linen-room. When one has examined the treasures stored here, some idea of what it means to be custodian of the linen-room is grasped. At the end of the day’s work the housekeeper is quite ready to jump into an open surrey which is at her disposal, and drive over to the village or through the picturesque grounds of Harbor Hill.
With the exception of the rooms of the valet and maid, all the house servants’ rooms are located in a wing sufficiently removed from the other portion of the house to cut off entirely the sound of any hilarity they might care to indulge in. The bedrooms of the butler, chef, maids, and footmen are similarly furnished in white-enamelled furniture and dainty muslin curtains, little personal touches giving them individuality. Every room has outside windows, with an attractive outlook, abundant sunshine, and a fresh breeze from the bay sweeping through the corridors. Each room is lighted with electricity, and is steam-heated. These healthful surroundings, no doubt, account in a measure for the clear complexions, happy spirits, and energetic movements of the corps of Harbor Hill servants.
The first room in the servants’ wing is the butler’s den, an ornately furnished bachelor’s room. Undoubtedly the butler of Harbor Hill is fond of art, for every available space of the side walls is hung with pictures of every description. Over his desk is a picture of the master of the house, and photographs of the mistress of Harbor Hill and the children are conspicuous among the collection. On the couch are numberless embroidered cushions-golf-girl, and summer-girl cushions —and on the Walls are several modish brass motto-plaques. The sentiment expressed by one of these is a fair example of life’s little ironies, and leads one to wonder if, in spite of all the luxuries and comforts of his surroundings, his thoughts do not turn longingly now and then to the Old Country. It reads:
A little health, a little wealth, A little ‘house and freedom;
With some for friends for certain ends But little cause to need ‘em.
Among the occupants of the servants’ hall is more than one musician, and one of the footmen is an enthusiastic camera fiend. He is never happier than when taking flashlight groups of the servants, or pretty views here and there around the grounds. When off duty they spend their evenings congenially on the place. Their hours for outside recreation are arranged by the housekeeper. Each servant has certain days for going to New York, if desired, and it is not unusual for some of the upper servants to have occasional vacations in summer when the master and mistress are abroad.
Mrs. Mackay’s maid has a room apart from the servants’ wing, as she must be conveniently near her mistress at all hours of the day and night. Her room is larger than those of the other maids. Here, as elsewhere in the servants’ rooms, the furnishings are in white, with soft green velvet carpet. The dresser is strewn with silver toilet articles, and the window-ledge is abloom with growing plants. Besides a wide closet for her own use, there is one where her mistress’s gowns may be hung while in the process of being brushed or mended. To all outward appearances, in the way of comforts, certainly there is nothing left to be desired here. There are several completely furnished rooms for maids and valets near the guests’ chambers, for the maids or valets of guests who may bring them or wish them while making a visit at Harbor Hill.
The upper servants’ dining-room is small compared with the size of the second servants’ dining-hall, and is on the same floor with the dining-room proper. It is a delightfully cheerful and pretty room. The walls are hung with pictures, and palms and cut flowers give it a homelike atmosphere. In this room only the upper servants have their meals, which, with the exception of a fancy dish or so, are exactly the same as those of their master and mistress.In this dining room the housekeeper, the butler, the chef, valet, and ladies’ maid are served. The maids or valets of guests are also entertained here, and any strangers not guests of the house who happen to be on hand at meal-times. The housekeeper presides at one end of the table, and the chef does the carving.
The lower servants’ hall is in the basement. It is an immense, light, airy room, with a table reaching from end to end. Seventeen servants have their meals here. The table is covered with spotless linen and ornamented with pots of maidenhair fern. On the walls are hung a set of type-written regulations, signed by the mistress of the house, restricting in no wise the hospitality, but regulating the order in which it shall be dispensed. The meals are served promptly at stated hours: breakfast at seven, luncheon at twelve, and dinner at six. No servant is expected to be at table longer than a half-hour. It is specified here that the joint shall be set before the head footman, who shall do the carving, and that the parlor maid shall pour the tea and coffee. Another instance showing the thoughtfulness of the mistress of Harbor Hill for her servants is in allowing tea to be served for those who desire it, in the lower servants’ dining-hall, between the hours of three and four in the afternoon. Certainly afternoon tea for the servants is not an established custom in all American homes.
It is the chef who plans the meals and buys the food for the Harbor Hill household, family, guests, and workmen. Menus for each day are submitted to the mistress of the house each morning, who adds to them or crosses out what she does not wish, and approves them. For ordinary occasions the chef writes the menus, using for the purpose plain white cards, engraved with a lavender orchid, containing Mrs. Mackay’s monogram in gold. The chef is assisted in the kitchen by a second chef, four cooks, and several kitchen maids. Every foot of the immense Dutch kitchen is covered with spotless white tiling, and the hood over the broad range is also of white. The utensils, which shine like gold in the sunlight, are of heavy copper. Tops of tables for pastry and other uses are of white marble, and all zincs are white enameled. There is a separate pastry-room adjoining the kitchen, with many marvelous contrivances for rolling and cutting. Such order prevails here that even the handles of the utensils on the shelves are placed at uniform angles. The chef is the head of the kitchen department, and servants employed here are under his direct supervision.
The responsibility of caring for the priceless silver of Harbor Hill rests with the head footman. The large vault in which it is kept is built after the style of the regulation vault used in banks. Inside it is shelved all around. It would be difficult to imagine a larger or richer collection of silver than is to be seen here. There are rare old pieces of family silver, wedding and anniversary gifts, and pieces picked up in travel carrying with them sentiment and association which double their value. Much of this silver is used only on occasions. There are shelves filled with candelabra, and massive bowls used only in elaborate entertaining, and chests of small pieces that are seldom needed. The silver is cleaned and polished each day. The head footman and an assistant are generally engaged at this work from directly after breakfast until time to don their livery for luncheon. During the summer, when the family is abroad, just as draperies are taken down and covers put on the furniture wherever possible, the silver is put away in chamois and flannel bags; chests and cases are packed and locked, the big doors of the silver-vault are barred and bolted, and the “silver servant” has a few weeks of rest before the fall season of entertaining begins. The man-servant in charge of the Harbor Hill silver once filled this same position at Georgian Court, the Gould estate at Lakewood. It goes without saying that he is a past master in the art of silver-polishing.
Besides the Harbor Hill servants, there are the servants’ servants, forming all together a sort of “endless chain” of servants. There is a maid employed to look after and care for the rooms in the servants’ hall. It is her duty to see that they are freshly aired each day, and that all curtains, covers, and linen are spotless. She feels a great interest in having every room in good order before the housekeeper makes her round of inspection. There is another maid whose sole duty is to take charge of the second servants’ dining room. She sets the table and waits on the servants at meal-times. There are kitchen maids whose entire duty is to wait on the chefs and cooks. These under-servants are just as well cared for as the others, and their rooms in the servants’ wing most comfortable.
On the top floor at Harbor Hill, with a generous skylight admitting the sunlight at all hours of the day, is a sewing-room for the personal use of the servants. There is a machine here, and every convenience for sewing and cutting. This is one of the favorite gathering-places of the housemaids when off duty, and many afternoons enthusiastic little sewing-parties may be found here. They feel a pride in fashioning for themselves dainty lingerie and pretty aprons. The housekeeper encourages them in such work, and looks in on these little sewing-bees to smile her approval or offer helpful suggestions. In their white duck skirts and white shirt-waists which they are required to wear in summer, they are most refreshing in appearance. This outward bearing has great weight with the mistress of Harbor Hill. It is said that she has a definite dislike for anything suggestive of embonpoint in the servants around her, and this is one problem which confronts the housekeeper when engaging her maids.
It is not to be wondered at that the mistress of Harbor Hill is loved by her entire colony of servants. It is she who has planned for their comfort. She exacts their best efforts, and she gets them. In spinning down the broad smooth drives of Harbor Hill, sweet with the fragrance of pines and bordered with beds of gorgeous-hued rhododendrons, one cannot but marvel at the glorious contradiction this little colony of servants is to the too-prevalent idea that servants are only downtrodden and tyrannized over in the homes of the wealthy. If there are any unhappy souls here, their unhappiness is not discernible to the outsider, who almost envies the gatekeeper of Harbor Hill in his picturesque little vine-covered lodge.