How To Victorian Maid Servant

Emily Augusta Patmore wrote accounts of her servants behaving badly in her 1859 book The Servant’s Behaviour Book; or, Hints on Manners and Dress for Maid Servants in Small Households so that others could learn from the mistakes of awkward Anna and uncouth Lucy. Thinking of your sensibilities, dear readers, I did not include these sections. However, I would like to believe that if I were in Patmore’s employment, she would have dedicated an entire chapter to me. It could be titled “Words and Hand Gestures Unbecoming A Maid.”

Patmore and her husband socialized with the Pre-Raphaelites, and Wikipedia describes her as one of their muses. While Patmore’s sisters and nieces would go on to become active suffragists, Patmore believed a woman’s sphere was in the home. Here’s a revealing passage that hints at Patmore’s character:

Ladies have been educated in a very different manner to you. They have read many books, have travelled and seen many sights, talked with educated people, and know a great number of things about which you know nothing. It is not likely that you can have anything to say that will amuse or interest a lady. When she talks to you, it is in kindness, and all the pleasure of the talk is on your side. She talks down to your understanding and knowledge, as you do to the understanding and knowledge of a young child, who does not know a hundredth part of what you know. Were you to listen to the conversation of your mistress with her friends, it would often be very dull to you, because the talk would be of books, people, and events of which you have never heard, and would consist of many words you would not understand. Just as their conversation would be dull to you from its cleverness, so is yours dull to your mistress from its simplicity. Many things that appear to you witty and full of fun, would in no way amuse your mistress, but would seem as dull to her as a child’s wit to you. When a child throws down a doll, and says, “How funny!” you see no fun, but laugh to please the child; and so the joke that is too clever for the child amuses you, but has no fun in it to the lady whose understanding is much beyond yours. I had a servant once who took every opportunity of repeating to me the jokes of the tradesmen and her friends. Some of them seemed to me only coarse, and others stupid; and I never felt the least amused by any one of them, but only annoyed by the liberty she took in occupying my time with such nonsense. Yet perhaps she thought to entertain me.

There is sometimes a mistress rich but ill educated. Such a mistress is almost sure to make companions of her servants, because her knowledge and ideas are nearer on a level with theirs. But a sensible girl will with just cause respect most, and like best to serve, the lady whose superior knowledge puts a natural barrier between them. In any case, a servant must rank below her mistress. How much more pleasant it is to give place to one who is really, and at all times, your superior, than to a natural equal, raised by the accident of possessing more money!

Emily Augusta Patmore by John Everett Millais

Now that we’ve clarified our stations in life, let’s get on with our Victorian Maid Servant training…

Maid with a Dachshund in her arms at an outside tap, anonymous, c. 1900 – c. 1910

ever let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house except when necessary, and then as little as possible.

This piece of advice cannot be too well remembered. It is needed by almost all young girls on their first entering service, and great is the annoyance thus caused to their employers. Every girl who wishes to live in a gentleman’s family must learn, sooner or later, to keep guard over her tongue, and it is best to begin at once, before her neglect has called upon her the reproofs of the family.

Never begin to talk to your mistress, unless it be to deliver a message, or ask a necessary question. Even then, do it as shortly as possible.

I need scarcely tell you never to speak when you go in to take up coals, lay a cloth, sweep up crumbs, or dust, or to do anything else in a room where a lady or gentleman may be sitting, either alone or with others.

There is, however, one little distinction to be made between your mistress and any other lady. There may be many things you need to ask or to tell your mistress, and when there is something necessary to say, there can be no harm in speaking; but it should be done in a respectful way; not while you are kneeling to sweep, or laying a cloth, but when you have done your work in the room, standing by the door, as I shall tell you by and by. It is also better to speak on any domestic matter when your mistress may chance to be in the kitchen—or even in her bedroom, if you can manage it—rather than when she is in the drawing-room. In the kitchen or bedroom she is more likely to have her thoughts disengaged, and at liberty to attend to domestic concerns; but many occasions will arise when you will need to see your mistress without waiting for such an opportunity, and you will then be obliged to go in to her, and it will not signify much, provided you remember to stay as short a time as possible. You should, in such a case, go in and shut the door, standing by it, and it will be well to begin by saying, “I beg your pardon, ma’am, but will you be so kind as to tell me—” Do not fancy that any lady will think this strange, or stare at you for saying it. It is only common civility. The girls I have with me now, always beg my pardon, or use some such words of apology, if they come in and speak to me unasked. I did not tell them to do so, but they are well behaved, respectful servants, and they feel that it is proper to show me this consideration. If you feel shy at using these words of apology, you may still enter and speak in a gentle and respectful manner which shows you are sensible of intruding, a manner which implies an apology. If your mistress should be with company, it is still less desirable to interrupt her; yet there are cases where even this must be done—but they are very seldom. In such a case you should merely say at the door, “Can I speak to you, ma’am?” and your mistress will come out. No questions must be asked before strangers.

Never talk to another servant, or person of your own rank, or to a child, in the presence of your mistress, unless from necessity; and then do it as shortly  as possible, and in a low voice.

When I say ” a low voice,” I do not mean a whisper, which would be worse than the loudest voice, but an undertone.

Nothing can be more ill-bred, than for two servants to laugh and talk in their mistress’ presence…

The same rule applies to children, and to any person of your own station, as a laundress or a charwoman, who may chance to speak to you freely when ladies are present … Children are often very troublesome in talking to servants when they are laying a cloth, sweeping up crumbs, &c. Sometimes, if a child says, ” Look at this, I” or, ” Oh, Mary, mamma has given me this!” you may nod and smile; but if questions are asked you by children, or a long story told, the best way is to appear not to hear. The child will probably receive a check from some one in the room, and will, in any case, soon learn that it is of no use to speak to you at such times. You may also yourself, when alone with the child, ask him not to talk to you when ladies and gentlemen are in the room, saying that you do not like to disturb them by talking yourself.

A nursemaid, when in the nursery, may be much more free in speaking to children with the lady present, as it is understood then that her business is to attend to them ; but her own good sense will show her that she should still say but little, and defer all stories, songs, and noises to the baby, ’till her mistress is gone; and that though she may answer questions, or speak to the children, she should do so in a quiet voice, and keep as much as she can in the background, leaving her mistress to enjoy the company of the children undisturbed.

Never talk to a fellow-servant, a person op your own rank, or a child, in a passage or hall, a staircase, or any such place, unless strictly necessary, and then in an undertone, and as little as possible.

If two servants meet, or are at work together, on a staircase or landing, or any place from which their voices may be heard in adjoining rooms—as under windows, in anterooms, &c, they should never converse. It is excessively annoying to those who are in the house to hear a hum of voices, and still worse, should the talking be nearer, to hear the conversation. When it is necessary to speak in such places, it should be in a low voice and few words. No rule is more often neglected than this by common servants, and no rule more strictly observed by servants accustomed to good places.

In a small house, where the kitchen is within hearing of the sitting rooms, be careful to shut the door before you begin to talk; and even then, avoid loud talking and laughing, as the murmur of it goes through the walls, and is very annoying to the family.

In a small house, remember also not to talk to friends or tradesmen at the street-doors. On opening to a friend who is coming in, say only, “How do you do?” or some few words, and save all talk till you are in the kitchen, and the door is shut. Never go along the hall and stairs talking.

Never call out from one room to another.

It is sometimes very tiresome to be obliged to run up two or three flights of stairs to speak to or call down a fellow-servant or child; but there is no help for it; there must absolutely be no calling: the nuisance of it would be intolerable. If talking on the stairs is bad, calling is a hundred times worse.

Always answer when you receive an order or reproof.

When you are told to do anything, never omit to say, “Yes, ma’am,” or “sir,” in a voice that may be heard. If you do not answer, it may be supposed that you have not heard the order; or what is worse, it may be thought you are unwilling to obey. It is a common thing for ill-behaved and ill-tempered girls to give no answer to an order that they dislike; and it is natural, therefore, for a lady to attribute silence, in answer to a troublesome order, to ill-temper.

It is even more important to make answer to a reproof, as here you may the more easily be suspected of ill-temper. A civil answer generally puts an end to the anger of the person reproving. A girl who replies in an amiable way, “I am very sorry, ma’am, and will be more careful next time,” or whatever else may be suitable (provided that the words are sincere), does her best to mend her fault. Supposing that your temper is too irritable for you to command yourself enough to say so much, you can still say a word or two; as, “Yes, ma’am;” “l am very sorry, ma’am,”—to show that you have heard and understood. Silence at such a time is rude, ill-tempered, and likely to provoke more reproof.

A servant’s voice should never be heard by the ladies and gentlemen of the house, except when necessary, and then as little as possible.

Never speak to a lady or gentleman without saying, “sir,” “ma’am,” or “miss,” as the case may be.

In some houses, the lady will like you to say “Sir” or ” Miss” to the children; but in others this is not done. Most ladies allow the servants to call the children “Dear,” or by their names, in speaking to them. I think, if you are not directed what to do in this respect, you will be safe in saying ” Sir” or ” Miss” to those who are old or well-behaved enough to treat you civilly, as the grown-up ladies and gentlemen do, and “Dear” to those who romp and play with you like children.

Whatever you may call the children, in speaking to them, always speak of them as ” Master John,” “Miss Julia,” and so on; except to the other children, to whom you may say ” John,” “Julia,” &c. Even should the lady or gentleman say to you, “Tell John to come in,” you should still answer, “Master John is in, sir.” Of course, a mere infant will be called ” Baby;” but, however young this ” Baby” may be when another comes to take the name, the elder baby must be called ” Miss ” or ” Master,” when spoken about.

In some houses, the servants call the lady and gentleman of the house “My master” and ” My mistress;” in others, “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Smith,” or by whatever may be the surname. I would advise you in this matter to follow the custom of the house you are in. You are most likely to be in families where the first mode of speaking is adopted; but whichever title you may give your master and mistress, in speaking of them, be sure you never address them by a surname; as, “Thank you, Mr. Smith.” This would sound very rude. The simple ” Sir” and “Ma’am “—of which we have before spoken—is always the right word to use in speaking to a lady or gentleman.

I need scarcely tell you that you should never speak of any lady or gentleman, whether friends of your mistress or not, without saying “Mr.” or ” Mrs.” before the name. It is sometimes a habit with tradesmen and others, for quickness, to say, ” Up at Green’s,” ” Over at Turner’s,” &c., in speaking of gentlemen’s houses; but this sounds very unbecoming in a servant.

Never talk to another servant, or person of your own rank, or to a child, in the presence of your mistress, unless from necessity; and then do it as shortly as possible, and in a low voice.

When I say ” a low voice,” I do not mean a whisper, which would be worse than the loudest voice, but an undertone.

Nothing can be more ill-bred, than for two servants to laugh and talk in their mistress’ presence.

Always move gently.

You must never run up and down stairs, unless, perhaps, you can trip down very lightly; but no one can run up lightly enough. However lightly you may go down, it should never be fast enough to make it difficult to stop, or to make it possible for you to knock against anyone at a corner. Your step should never be heard, either on the stairs or elsewhere. Never rush in haste to the letter-box, or go anywhere, or for any purpose at more than a gentle pace.

Always stand still and keep your hands before you, or at your sides, when you are speaking or being spoken to.

This is always a great trouble with a young girl on entering service. When speaking, or being spoken to, she does not know what to do with her hands, how to stand, or how to look.

Woman sitting at a table while a maid pours tea.
Woman sitting at a table while a maid pours tea.

If you begin by standing quietly, and holding your hands before you, or at your side, or one before you and one at your side, or, when answering the bell, one on the door-handle, there will be nothing to call attention to your position, and you will escape being scrutinized.

It is common to tell servants to meet the eye of their mistress, and look in her face while speaking to, or being spoken to by, her; but it is better not to stare the whole time in a lady’s face, but to look down occasionally, and look up on answering, or from time to time; indeed, to do what seems natural, which a continual stare does not.

On answering the bell, you should generally shut the door, and stand close to it while receiving your order. If no one notices you, stand till your mistress looks round. If she is alone, or not talking, you may say, “Did you ring, ma’am?” but if she is talking, you must wait, be it ever so long, till she has done. It is not likely, however, that you will ever have to wait more than a minute or two, as some one in the room will be sure to see you, if the mistress does not, and to call her attention to you.

There are some cases where it is better to walk up to your mistress’ side, as when she is making tea in a room full of company, or at any other time when you feel that she would not like to speak across the room, or when you have something to say which it is better to say in a low voice. Your own sense must guide you in this.

Sometimes you may be doing something by your mistress’ side, giving her a light, for example, to seal a letter, and she may say to you, “Wait a few moments, and you shall take this.” In such a case you should walk to the door and stand there: but this need not be done unless you will have to wait some moments, as in giving a baby to say “Good night” to its parents, or waiting for a letter to be directed and sealed. In giving a teapot for tea to be put in, or anything else that will only occupy the time that you would take in walking to the door and back again, it is better to stand by the side of the person on whom you are waiting. This is another matter in which you must exercise your own judgment. Even the size of the room makes some difference in the cases where it is proper to go to the door.

If, while you are walking to or from the door, anyone should speak to you, stand still, whereever you may be, turn your face round to the speaker, and remain in the same place till the speaking is over.

by Édouard Menta (not Victorian … but I loved it, so…)

If you join with the family in prayer, always sit close by the side of the door, or if the furniture is so placed as not to allow of this, go as near as you can to the door. Where there are more servants than one, it is usual for the youngest to sit nearest to the door, the next eldest, or next in position after her, and so on, the upper servant sitting furthest from the door: sometimes two servants sit one on each side of the door.

If a kind master or mistress should say, on a cold night, “Come further up, Mary; do not sit just in the draught of the door;” still be careful not to seem to join the family, but go only a little higher. Never draw your chair away from the wall.

The same may be said of any occasion upon which you may enter a lady’s room; as taking a child to see a friend of the family, visiting an old mistress, &c. Excepting in the case of family prayer, you would, however, of course stand up on the entrance of the lady, and sit only at her bidding: and even at prayers, you should not sit at once, unless the ladies and gentlemen are seated when you enter, but stand before your chair till all are seated, and then sit unbidden.

Always stand up when a lady or gentle man comes into the room in which you are.

This rule has, however, some exceptions. If you are at work, and your mistress comes in merely to fetch something, without noticing you, it is scarcely necessary to rise, though were she to have strangers with her it would be well to do so, and to remain standing till they went out, or bid you be seated.

If your mistress comes in, alone or not, and speaks to you, always get up, and stand till she has done speaking: you may then sit down, but not, remember, till she has done speaking to you. I am supposing that, having done speaking, she stays in the room to speak to somebody else, or to do something after having done speaking to you. Should she speak to you again, it is civil to rise again on answering; but there is no need to do this if she speaks again without turning her head to look at you. Should your mistress seldom visit your rooms, I would advise you to rise each time, on her speaking to you, or to stand all the while she is in the room; but if you are one of only two servants, or an only servant, so that your mistress is often in your rooms, she will not expect you to do more than rise on her entering, and stand till she has done speaking the first time, and then sit, without rising again.

Three servants.

If you are kneeling down to clean a stove, or sweep, and your mistress comes to speak to you, it will generally be enough to leave off workingand rise half up, on your knees. A mistress who is thrown with you often will not expect more, as getting up, and leaving off your work, would be too great a hindrance: you should, however, do this to a visitor in’ the house, or to your mistress entering with strangers.

A nurserymaid, whose mistress is much in the nursery with her, will of course rise, and give up her chair to her mistress, or place one for her; but she may then sit down again unbidden, at a respectful distance, not on the opposite side of the fire, or at the same table. If her mistress enters the nursery, and begins at once to play, standing, with the children, or goes to a cupboard or the window, so not needing a chair, the nurse may sit still: but should she be occupying the chief seat in the room, which she may always do in her mistress’ absence, she must be sure to give it up at the slightest sign of the lady’s intending to remain and sit down.

Should you ever be required to walk with a lady or gentleman, to carry a baby or a parcel, always keep a few paces behind.

When you open the street-door, do not stand behind it, so that the person at the door has to come quite in before seeing you.

In meeting a lady or gentleman on the stairs, if you are but a step or two up, go back and stand on the landing to give room. If you are too far up for this, stand on one side. Always remember, in meeting, to retire and make way, or to stand aside.

In entering a room to deliver a message, or speak to your mistress, observe the same rule as in answering the bell. In most cases it will be right to shut the door and stand beside it; but when other people are present, and the message is intended only for the lady, go up to her side and speak. Here you must judge for yourself.

In opening the door to a double knock, or ring of the visitors’ bell, be very careful that you are neat. If an only servant, you should ask your mistress to let you have a little looking-glass in the kitchen, that you may glance at your face and hair before going to open the door. It takes but a minute to smooth down a few stray hairs, or wipe off an accidental smut, and it makes a great difference in the notion given to a stranger, of the house, to see a servant without these disfigurements. It is well to have a white apron always at hand, which you may tie on as you are going up stairs, so that very little time need be occupied in these preparations; but should they make such delay as to oblige the visitor to knock twice, even that will be better than going up untidy.

When you open the door you should not speak, for the visitor will do so. Should the person be ever so well dressed, and yet ask only for “your mistress,” or “the lady of the house,” do not ask such a one into a room where there is anything valuable. The hall, if there is no common room at hand, is the best place for those who do not ask for your master or mistress by name. Well-dressed impostors are constantly calling at houses, with the design of pilfering while left alone in the drawing-room; and any friend of your mistress is sure to ask for her by name —”Is Mrs. So-and-so at home?” To any one asking thus, you will say, “Yes, ma’am,” or ” Sir, will you walk in?” The visitor may perhaps say, “No,” and only leave a card or message, and go away. In this case, keep the door open a little while; it is rude to shut it immediately.

If the visitor comes in, you should then ask, “What name shall I say, sir?” or ” ma’am?” and having carefully listened to the name, walk before to the room into which you have been directed to show visitors; should the room be empty, throw open the door, and let the visitor pass you into the room; then shut the door, and go up to tell your mistress who is come. If there are persons in the room to which you take the visitor, you should open the door wide, go just inside, and say the visitor’s name, then stand on one side, let the visitor pass in, and shut the door as before.

Here I must particularly warn you against a common fault of inexperienced servants. All young girls who announce visitors for the first time, are apt to say more than the name. Mary, the first time she opened the door to two gentlemen, came smiling into the room, as if she had a great treat in store for me, and said, in an excited voice, “If you please, ma’am, there are two friends come to see you!” Other servants have said, “If you please, ma’am, Mrs. Thornton wants to speak to you” “If you please, ma’am, here is Mr. and Miss Smith come.” Nothing of the sort is needed. There is one way of announcing visitors in every house; it is by simply opening the door, standing on one side and saying the name or names—no “if you please,” and even no “ma’am,” or “sir,” is to be used on this occasion—say only “Mrs. Thornton,”—”Mr. and Miss Smith,” and then stand back. If the visitor is just behind you, stand on one side, Inside the drawing-room door; but if there is plenty of time, without pushing the visitor, when you have said the name, go Outside the door and stand aside while waiting to shut it.

You will then go again to your work, taking care, however, not to soil your hands till the visitor is gone. The bell may ring for you to take up wine and cake, or for some other purpose; but it is sure to ring at last, for you to open the door. If, on going up, you find the visitor leaving, you will know it was for that you were called, and will walk at once to the door, hold it open till the visitor passes out, and then shut it, as I said before, slowly.

When visitors are expected to dinner or tea, it will be a little different. On opening the door, nothing will be said; for as they were invited, the visitors will, of course, know that your mistress is at home. Should it be a gentleman, you will help him to take off and hang up his coat and hat, and then ask his name: “What name, sir?” As new names are sometimes very difficult to catch, it is a good plan to repeat the name, that you may be sure you have heard it. I make a practice of telling the servant beforehand what names she will have to announce; and perhaps your mistress will not object to doing this, if you ask her; at any rate, to telling any names that may be difficult and quite new to you.

When you know the name—we will suppose it is “Mr. Elliott”—walk before the gentleman to the drawing-room, throw open the door, and stand against it, just inside the room, allowing the gentleman to pass in, while you say, in a clear and rather loud voice, “Mr. Elliott.” You need not now say “sir” or “ma’am,” because you are not speaking to your master or mistress, but merely calling the name out for all the room to hear.

We will now suppose the visitor to be a lady. You will then, on opening the door, ask, “Will you walk up stairs, ma’am?” If the lady says “No,” you will assist her with her shawl or cloak, and announce her exactly as you did the gentleman. Should she say, “Yes,” you will carry a candle before her to the bedroom, and go in with her to offer assistance in any toilet arrangements she may have to make. Should she decline your help, it is best to leave the room, and wait outside, or at the foot of the stairs, that you may be ready to take her candle, show her into the drawing-room, and announce her name, as with the others.

If you are an only servant, and a bell rings while you are with or waiting for the lady, you must, of course, go down; but you should still be on the watch, and take care up in time to show the lady into the drawing-room.

When a gentleman and lady come together, and the lady wishes to arrange her dress, you will show the gentleman at once to the drawing-room, and then take the lady upstairs. Sometimes the gentleman will choose to wait in the hall till the lady comes down; you have only then to remember not to leave him in the dark. Both in this case, will be announced together. There will be no difficulty about which name to say first, as you will say them in whatever order they are told you; as, “Mr. and Mrs. Layton,” or “Mrs. Layton and Mr. John Layton.”

Never take a small thing into the room in your hand. Letters, money, small parcels, a glass, spoon, knife, reel of cotton, folded pocket handkerchief, or any small thing, should be handed on a little tray, silver or not, kept for the purpose. A large parcel, a book so large as to look awkward on the letter-tray, a plate, and all larger things, may be given in the hand. Things handed on a tray should be left for the lady or gentleman to take up, and never lifted from the tray by the servant and given in the hand. Sometimes, when the lady or gentleman does not offer to take it, the servant may take it up and put it down on the table beside the person; but never give it with the hand, or the tray might as well not have been used. Sometimes, in fetching a bunch of keys from another part of the room, or picking up a small thing dropped, a tray may not be at hand, on which to give it; in such a case, do not offer to give it into the lady or gentleman’s hands, but lay it down at the side of the person to whom you are giving it.

Breakfast-Time by Hanna Hirsch-Pauli

Some young servants are puzzled, when taking up food on a tray, to know when a tray-cloth should be used. I think I can give you a simple and sufficient rule. Put a tray-cloth on the tray whenever a cloth would be put on the table to a larger meal of the same food.

You are to take up a mutton-chop with a cloth, because any meal of meat would be laid on a tablecloth. For a cup of tea or coffee, with or without bread and butter, if before dinner, put a cloth, because it may be regarded as a kind of breakfast, and a cloth is spread at breakfast; for the same after dinner, put no cloth, because it may be regarded as tea, and no cloth is spread at tea. Broth, gruel, and the like, should have a cloth; wine, spirits, beer, &c., unless bread and butter not cut are with them, should have no cloth. When you are in doubt, put a cloth; for it is far better to put one unnecessarily, than to take a tray without one when it ought to be there,

If you think for a few minutes Why we ever tap at a door before entering, you will be able to judge, almost without my telling you, when it is proper to do so. We tap to avoid entering suddenly upon a person who may be engaged in, some way that may make our sudden entrance awkward.

It seems hardly credible that a young woman should be so thoughtless as to enter a bedroom in which any one is without tapping; but I have frequently known this to be done. Be sure you never make this mistake; the result may be as awkward to you as to the person inside. Even if the bell is rung, and you are thus expected to go up, yet you are not expected to enter. In answer to a bedroom-bell, you should always tap, and wait outside for the order. If you are told to take up water or anything else, tap again, and say, “The water, sir,” or “ma’am.” You will then be told, “Put it down,” or “Bring it in,” or perhaps the person inside may come and take it from you.

As a sitting-room may be regarded as public, there is no need to knock. Most young servants begin by knocking at every door; this is very tiresome, and quite without use.

Some ladies like the servants to tap at every door, if they go in without being called or rung for; and where this is the custom of the house, you will, of course, do so; but even then it is superfluous to knock in answering a bell or call, as your entrance is expected.

When you tap, do it with your knuckles; for the tap should be loud enough to be heard, without sounding rough and boisterous.

There are some cases, as in a long illness, where a bedroom becomes almost as public as a sitting-room. Here you should use your judgment about tapping. When three or four people are inside, you may be sure you may enter at once; if the invalid is alone, or with one nurse or friend, it is safer to tap. You had better tap twenty times too often than once too seldom.