“The Woman Came To Do Laundry…”:
Depression-Era Domestic Servants in Greater Hartford, Connecticut
by Melissa Josefiak
“Had woman for cleaning and laundry…she wasn’t much good,” writes housewife Ida Robbins in her diary, October 15, 1931.1 Matter-of-fact, detached and impersonal towards her domestic servant, Robbins’ tone reveals the thoughts of the lady of the house. The “woman” does not merit a name, but the quality of her work is assessed. The unnamed woman was one of dozens of day workers hired by Mrs. Robbins during the 1920s and ’30s to help clean, cook and do laundry for her upper-class household in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In many ways, this household employee may have shared a typical lifestyle and career path of Greater Hartford’s domestic servants during the Depression.
The history of domestic service in the United States is exceedingly well-covered by social scientists and historians. Several secondary sources trace the history of domestic service from the early colonial days of indentured servants to the agonies of slavery to the transitions of 19th century live-in servants. Moreover, several articles and books are available on specific cities or regions. Upon closer inspection, a few monographs exist pertaining to the first three centuries of domestic service in Connecticut, most notably the colonial era, the sources thin out or are non-existent in reference to the 20th century. Historians have not yet fully investigated the state’s history with regards to domestic service, specifically the 1930s, a time of great transition in the industry. Addressing Connecticut’s “servant problem”, and more specifically that of Greater Hartford in the 1930s, reflects the ways in which the state’s household employees reinforced national trends in domestic service, such as transitioning from live-in help to day-help, utilizing local employment agencies and sometimes responding to ethnic hiring trends.
Source material on domestics is rare and uneven. Both secondary and primary sources claim that reliable, accurate data on domestics is difficult to evaluate. Domestics’ high turnover rate prevented consistent numbers from being recorded from year to year. So much of domestic work was part-time that it did not figure into annual statistics. Also, many domestics were paid under the table, not an un-common practice even today, so that their wages and employment status were never recorded.
To demonstrate the ways in which Connecticut’s domestics fit into the national picture, a brief history of domestics in the United States is required as well as the common or “typical” aspects of a domestic’s life in the early 20th century. During the 1920s and ’30s, domestic positions transitioned from live-in help to live out or daily help as a result of economic, social and technological factors. During the Depression, a time of increased unionization and standardization of working conditions, domestics were excluded from these initiatives. Many women’s reform organizations lobbied for their cause in the 1930s, only to realize success in later decades. National and state-sponsored reports provide a clear picture of Connecticut’s domestics during the Depression. Using newspaper advertisements, city directories and personal accounts, one is able to see that the domestic servants of Greater Hartford, for the most part, fit into the national patterns of domestic service.
The roles of domestic servants in the US developed through four distinct periods: the Colonial era; the Revolution to 1850; 1850 to World War I; and from WWI to the present time. During the first period, servants were supplied from the classes of indentured servants, African slaves and Native Americans. Although paid white servants existed during this era, they were treated little better than their indentured counterparts. The second period, from Revolution to 1850, was considered the short lived “golden age” of servitude. The spirit of independence and democracy affected all classes, at least in the Northeast. Slavery was slowly being abolished in the Northern states and indentured servitude was rare. Although never equal to their employers, domestics shared a fairly comfortable relationship with them and were referred to as “help”. Livery, or the wearing of uniforms to indicate servant status, was not common and the gulf between the master and servant was not as great as it would come to be in future years. Domestics during this period were largely rural, poor and native born, living in the same community as their masters.2 This second phase of servitude ended around 1850 when the first large waves of immigrants arrived on US shores, mainly Irish, escaping the potato famines of 1847-9. Domestic positions were filled by these new immigrants who, their employers felt, did not merit the relative egalitarian treatment of previous generations. Irish servitude was a dual-edged sword. The Irish were seen as inferior because they took these manual positions so quickly and the inferiority of the servant class was intensified by the phenomenon that so many servants were Irish.3 From a local perspective, more than forty percent of the domestic servants in Hartford in 1880 were Irish.4
Concurrently, during the third phase of domestics, 1850-WWI, the gulf between employer and employee widened. The word “servant” returned to replace “help” and servants’ quarters and servants’ entries in homes were built purposely to keep the classes apart. New waves of immigrants kept filling these lowly positions at a high turnover rate preventing a skilled class of servants from developing. Once they had gotten a foothold in the US, immigrants moved into occupations with better conditions such as factory work. Also, young single girls stayed in domestic work until they were married, preferring never to return to this type of labor.5
During the final phase of the history of domestics, the turn of the twentieth century wrought many changes in middle class houses. Improved technology in sweepers, electric appliances and services took much of the drudgery out of housework and made it more tolerable for middle class housewives to do their own cleaning and cooking. At the same time, a general relaxing in social formality and entertaining reduced the need for servants. Commercial bakeries and laundries made it possible to outsource those labor-intensive tasks.6
Moreover, WWI inspired feelings of personal freedom and less rigidity of the classes. Live-in servitude was incongruous with t
he tone of the period and ma
ny domestics were eager to find a job with regular hours as opposed to answering their employers’ beck and call. As the booming economy of the roaring twenties provided new occupational opportunities, traditional domestics fled from their employers and headed into factories and pink collar business positions, such as clerks and secretaries.7
After WWI, black women supplanted white women as the majority of domestics in the Northeast. Recruited by employment agencies, thousands of black women migrated to the North where they could be employed as day help. Reflecting a national trend of reduced dependency on servants and the shortening of the work day, live-out day help became the norm during the final period of the development of the domestic, WWI to the present.8 Social historian Susan Strasser simplifies the phenomenon, “Bridget, the stereotyped full-time, live-in servant of the 19th century, left the scene, replaced by Beulah, the part-time black maid of the 20th.”9
During this stage, domestic positions were mainly filled by married, older women who performed “maid of all work” roles and whose daughters also entered domestic service. Domestic positions were dominated by immigrant and black women. Black women were habitually closed out of better paying factory, shop or pink collar jobs that were only filled by white women, so blacks had no choice but to work in these low, manual jobs. They were stuck in this social stratum or “ghettoized” as social historian Judith Rollins refers to it, with little opportunity for improvement.10
Upper class women had always complained of “the servant problem”, the need for reliable, affordable servants. Affordable ones were undesirable, because they were believed to be lazy or incompetent and trained ones would inevitably move on to other positions in search of better pay. Immigration quotas after WWI reduced the unskilled labor supply and the roaring economy of the ’20s tempted many poor white women to factory, shop and office work, who may otherwise have looked for employment in domestic service. Thus, as the demand exceeded the supply for domestic help, wages went up and fewer households could afford servants under the old system.11
A common compromise was to replace live-in servants with day help or “dailies”, hiring someone for task oriented jobs, paid at an hourly wage, when employers were not obligated to feed and clothe. According to historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the average housewife, post-WWI, “…managed more machines than she did people.”12 Cowan refers to a “proletarianization” of housework in which comfortable middle class women were doing much of their own housework, with day help coming in to take care of the more arduous tasks. Of course, truly wealthy families who could always afford live-in servants still did. At the same time, the Depression ameliorated the “servant problem” by forcing desperate women into service for low wages.13
Within this final phase of the history of domestics, especially during the 1930s, poor living conditions and low social status were common. Servants were left with the “extra” part of the house that the family did not want to occupy: the attic; basement, lean-to, etc. They were expected to be on call before the family was up and after it was asleep. The standard time off was one afternoon a week and one day for every two weeks, on average. However, this schedule was subject to change if the family had a party or extenuating circumstances arose. Some families restricted the social lives of their servants because they didn’t want strange people in their home nor did they want their servants to entertain young men, get married and leave them. In contrast to this restricted lifestyle, the alternative for unskilled women was to pursue factory work. Although manual and dirty labor, just like domestic service, factory work had a reasonable beginning and end to the day and a woman’s time off was her own.14
An unglamorous lifestyle, domestic servitude was a position to be avoided at all costs, and servants themselves discouraged their daughters from entering that profession. Servants hated wearing livery and being called by their first names – it emphasized the gulf between employer and employee. Many domestics also felt that single men of the same wage earning level looked down upon women in the servant class and it was difficult for them to socialize and get married when they were perceived as second class citizens.15
It was a position from which women sought an escape as quickly as possible via a better paying shop or factory position or possibly marriage. The ability to control one’s workday with definite hours, the possibility of unionizing, occupational advancement and, especially, the control of one’s personal freedom was considered more attractive than domestic service. Cowan wryly comments, “The dark satanic mills did not look nearly so dark or nearly so satanic to young women who knew what it was like to work in some of America’s dark satanic kitchens.”16 It was no wonder that the profession had such a high turnover rate.
The new 20th century concept of extreme hygiene kept the servant busy all the time scrubbing and cleaning, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. For example, a typical upper-middle class family between WWI and the 1940s would employ one full-time person for day help and another person who would come in for one day a week for the arduous tasks such as laundry.17
In addition to daily duties, such as washing dishes, and weekly duties, such as dusting, the day help was expected to have additional “do when you can duties” such as polishing silver and waxing linoleum floors. When asked about their favorite (or least hated) duties, domestics ranked their specific tasks. The best position and most gratifying job was that of cooking, because it required skilled labor. Next came serving and light cleaning. At the bottom was washing clothes and dishes. The worst jobs fell to those who lived in or were regular employees.18
Hours were the main contention between employee and employer. Early to rise and late to bed – the day would start at 7-8am for day help and continue until the dinner dishes were washed. In the course of the day, many domestics were “on call” which meant that they had a brief rest period when their assigned tasks were done, but were expected to be in attendance for small items that the mistress needed. Some householders would only pay their domestics for one hour of work for every two hours they were “on call”, since they were not being productive.19
Much job sharing occurred among domestics. For example, a skilled, titled position, such as cook, would still be expected to do some washing up or light cleaning. Baking was a hot, sweltering job, if one did not outsource it. Washing, even with a machine, was heavy work – especially the ironing and line drying aspects. Chatty meals at the employer’s dinner table would prolong the clearing and dish washing tasks, so that it might have been 12-14 hours before a domestic could return to her home. Despite the long hours, domestics would only benefit from one meal a day from their employers.20
The Depression of the 1930s worsened many conditions for the domestic servant. Desperate women, forced into domestic service because of the poor economy, took day help positions for low wages. One sample wage was given at $1 – $1.50 a week for fulltime day help. Informal networks of employers would set their own local rate and then stick to it – so th
at there would be no competition and they could retain their servants.21 Being “in business for themselves” so to speak, domestics were not successful with organizing or unionizing and they definitely did not benefit from the New Deal initiatives that standardized many industries.22 Wages depended on the benevolence of the housewife and the desperation of the employer; service was non-regulated. Day help was actually paid lower than live-in help because householders were not responsible for feeding and clothing their domestics.23
Many domestics even into the 1930s compared their jobs to slavery. Domestics were often not treated as people independent of their employers, did the hardest tasks and experienced unlimited working hours, even for day help. Naturally, the slavery connection was more pronounced between white employers and black domestics.24
Livery was not common in the 1920s and ’30s, except in the most prestigious households. Advertising of the period portrayed domestics as young, single women, “housewives in training”. In reality, most of them were adult women, often with families. In the 1930s, at least one third of domestics were heads of their own households.25 Among some of the complaints about service was that it was lonely, drudge-like work. Women often resented having their free time controlled and having to entertain their friends solely in the kitchen. Many women left to become laundresses— same wages, same physical labor, but the women had regular days off and were in control of their own business.
The story of Greater Hartford’s domestics in the 1930s parallels many of these national trends. However, source material on this topic is problematic. Many of the domestics were illiterate or did not speak English, and thus did not leave letters or memoirs. Also, the state’s collections of oral histories do not contain any specifically pertaining to household employees. Therefore, if the domestics could not speak for themselves, then it was necessary to seek out the sources that were in contact with them, namely contemporary reformers, employment agencies and the words of their employers. Using statistics, labor reports, trade union publications, city directories and newspapers, a clearer picture of the state’s domestics takes shape.
Labor statistics are readily available for many aspects of women in the labor force throughout the 20th century. However, numbers for domestic service are few and far between in these compilations. Their exclusion speaks volumes about the low importance of domestic service. Official publications produced by the National Industrial Conference Board provide statistics and abstracts for nearly every conceivable profession except domestic service.26 For a profession that was the largest employer of women during the 1930s, it evidently was not worthy enough to be tracked and quantified.27 By not including domestic service as a regular and quantifiable occupation, the reports reinforced the profession’s low status in the job market as well as the individuals who worked within it.
A similar argument can be made about domestic service’s roles within the women’s labor movement. Several secondary sources refer to the fact that women’s magazines published articles on “the servant problem” and how to handle servant issues, but few advocated reform measures. The absence of articles regarding reform in trade publications is more striking. As we find from the “Trade Unions” report, a groundswell of activism within the YWCA in the late 1930s had prompted people to more positive steps, but it took several long years to make this a reality. Union publications of the early 1930s only made passing references to the problems of domestic service.
In examining three years of the union publication, Life and Labor Bulletin from 1930-1932 (its last three years of publication), the exclusion of domestic service is made painfully acute. The monthly newspaper of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (N.W.T.U.L.), Life and Labor only includes three articles over this time period, despite the fact that its editors acknowledge that half the women in America are connected with domestic service!
One issue is solely devoted to domestics, July 1931, advocating competitive wages, standardization of working conditions and equal treatment for blacks and whites. Its other purpose was to stir up its readers with righteous anger: “The modern worker does not desire membership in the family group with the status of the old-time servant whose duties of loyalty, unstinted service and consideration only of the family’s need were fixed when society was organized on a caste basis and households of master and slave, lord and serf were the order of the day.”28 From this platform of 1931 to the reports of the late 1930s to be explored later in this paper, one can see that the serious groundwork was being laid for domestic service reforms in later decades.
As part of the reform movements on the state level, Connecticut’s chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) conducted a number of investigations of the profession. One of its most informative was the 1936 study, Household Employment in Hartford, Waterbury and Litchfield, Connecticut. Temporary employees within the Department of Labor conducted 1,270 oral interviews with 1,270 employers and domestics in these three towns during 1934 and 1935. The data collected from the surveys produced several conclusions, among them: “Working hours in household employment are longer than in other occupations; hourly wages, even of the highest paid employees are extremely low; there is a relatively high rate of turnover in household employment.”29 Almost all of the conclusions reflect national trends with some startling exceptions. For the scope of this paper, only the data Hartford will be explored in detail.30
The purpose of the study was two-fold: to lay the ground work for future reform measures for improving domestics’ working conditions and, more obliquely, to lobby for better training for domestics, in answer to housewives’ concerns about “the servant problem”.31 The report’s compilers selected these three towns for the study because they were felt to be “representative” of Connecticut’s population: Hartford as a “white collar” city; Waterbury as a manufacturing city; and Litchfield as an upscale, rural town.32
Citing wide regional differences, the report used statistics to draw a profile of a “typical” Connecticut domestic, one who was white, native-born of foreign parentage, in her 30s, and in her present job for the past three years. Her typical work week was longer than that of women in other occupations, between 60 and 70 hours, usually for 10 hours a day, earned a cash wage between $8.50 and $9, which was above the state average, and was able to receive callers. The report cautioned that the “typical” employee was in the majority, but conditions for live-out help were much worse.33
As to nationality, the report commented that although most domestics were native born, two thirds of them were from foreign born parents, from Northern, Southern or Eastern Europe and Ireland. In contrast to the national pattern of blacks replacing whites as the dominant number of domestics, the report made this conclusion, “The great majority of household employees in these three towns were white; only six to 15 per cent of the employees in each town were negroes. There were relati
vely more negroes in household employment than in other occupations, however.” 34 Observing that whites were more prevalent than blacks in the region is in direct opposition to the national patterns.
The average age of domestics in Hartford was 31,616 of domestics had three years of experience, and 9/10ths of them listed their skill as “general houseworker”. Also in Hartford, half of the domestics had worked at their current jobs less than a year and 1/3 less than 6 months, underscoring the pattern of high turnover. The report’s compilers drew some sweeping conclusions, “To what is this short tenure of job due?…it seems probable that much of a housewife’s difficulty in securing a maid she can keep, and much of the houseworker’s trouble in finding a position she wants, is due to the lack of recognized standards of training in housework, on the one hand, and of standards of working conditions on the other.”35 In contrast to this viewpoint, the report also tried not to draw broad conclusions when it came to other aspects, “…housewives generally feel each home must be a law unto itself insofar as working conditions are concerned.”36 Although they advocated reform, the compilers clearly chose not to burn their bridges with the employers by demonizing them.
The report advocated the clear need for reforms in household employment. In comparison with statistics drawn from the Department of Labor, the report stresses the abuses suffered by domestics. The 60-70 hour week was clearly over the 52 hour week allowed by state standards, modern technology had not been introduced in many homes and most importantly, “…far less stress is laid on the organization and efficient management of housework than of other occupations.”37
The survey revealed that certain aspects of Hartford’s domestics had much in common with national patterns. Two thirds of Hartford’s domestics had a “rest period” extending their days and one half day off for every 6-7 days worked. Their day began between 7 and 8 in the morning and ended by 8p.m., but many women worked before and after these parameters. The report’s compilers noted that any work before 6a.m. and after 10p.m. was considered “night work” and was prohibited for women in the state. The conclusion drawn from these results is that the extreme length of the work day and lack of standardization was the chief deterrent in attracting women to the profession.38
Hartford’s domestics enjoyed good pay when the cash wage and in-kind wages, such as room and board for live-ins, was a factor, but live-out wages were extremely low, especially when compared to women in other occupations. The report called for reform measures to standardize the industry and provide better training programs, so that better employees could be rewarded with commensurate wages.39
The report also offered some startling conclusions about nationality and while it largely provides quantifiable information to support its statements that whites earned less than blacks and Southern and Eastern Europeans, their reasoning reflected a biased and truly questionable conclusion:
Because of the differences in cultural background between the employers of household workers and the negroes and immigrants from Southern and Eastern European countries, employers are often reluctant to hire the latter workers. Apparently Irish and Northern European women show a greater aptitude for household employment than do women from other countries.40
The last sentence provokes the questions if it was truly “aptitude” or merely prejudice that discouraged employers from hiring blacks or Southern and Eastern Europeans.
Reform on a national level manifested itself in several studies. The goal was to raise public awareness of the poor conditions and lack of standardization in household employment. Although domestics did not benefit from New Deal policies, the groundwork had been laid by agencies such as the YWCA helped to gain recognition for domestics in the coming decades.41
As the 1930s were a time of active unionization, domestics could not suitably organize themselves to create an effective union. This was due to many reasons, such as the isolation that kept them in their employer’s homes prevented them from daily socialization with other domestics, their limited time off was a deterrent to spending leisure time at union meetings, their diverse ethnic backgrounds created obstacles in arriving at common ground, and being in business for themselves, so to speak, they lacked the organizational structure or hierarchy necessary to disseminate ideas or develop organized plans.42
Unionization efforts were only marginally successful on a local level in the 1920s, as determined by the Brief on Household Employment in Relation to Trade Union Organization. Produced in 1938 by the U.S. Department of Labor, it was compiled per request of the YWCA at the 1936 meeting of the National Industrial Assembly. Its purpose was to codify the grievances of household employees, raise awareness of the occupational hazards, submit a report to the American Federation of Labor and promote trade unions wherever possible.43
In addition to the laundry list of complaints that had haunted domestic service for centuries, the brief outlined more contemporary grievances such as, “Exclusion from Social Insurance and Other Legislation”, which reflected the aggravating loopholes in New Deal policies that were enacted to provide social safety nets for a variety of occupations, but not domestics. Furthermore, only three states had accident compensation for domestics, Connecticut being one of them. A hollow victory, Connecticut’s law only applied to householders that employed 5 or more persons in service, which frustratingly included only 5% of the state’s domestics.44
Excepting the conclusions and selective data from the Household Employment report addressed earlier in this paper, the Brief compares Connecticut favorably to the wages of domestics in other states. For the $8.50 to $9.00 cash wage achieved in Connecticut, similar studies recorded only $5.00 to $6.00 in Lynchburg, Virginia, $5.00 in Lakewood, Ohio and the varying wage of $2 to $9 in Fairmont, West Virginia.45 Clearly, Connecticut’s domestics led the field in this comparative study.
Despite the best efforts of the reform organizations, domestics were denied protective Federal legislation as outlined in the Brief, “However, it was officially ruled that as household employment is ordinarily neither a trade nor an industry, it was not subject to the National Industrial Recovery Act and no code might be filed.”46 Facing these odds, only 7 unions of domestics were known to the Women’s Bureau by 1938, all of them located in metropolitan areas. None were located in Connecticut, the closest one being in New York, which operated under the auspices of the AFL.47
Since each household was a “law unto itself”, reformers realized they could do little to improve conditions within the privacy of each home. They instead turned their attentions to aspects of domestic employment which they could regulate, namely employment agencies. These agencies and personal newspaper advertisements had replaced earlier methods of finding domestic help, namely personal contacts and referrals.48 Necessary to the placement of many domestics, especially live-out help, agencies paired housewives wrestling with “the servant problem” with women in search of a job. Rife with abuses, these private placement agencies were notor
ious for overcharging and dishonest practices. Agencies in Connecticut were no different.
Seeking to correct these abuses, the Connecticut State Department of Labor published a report in 1937 under the supervision of the Department of Labor and Factory Inspections simply titled, Private Employment Agencies. After interviewing managers of the employment agencies, the employers and employees who frequented them as well as examining the agencies’ business records, the report’s compilers enumerated their findings, and in strong language made several recommendations to correct the abuses. Conducted during the summer of 1936, the report was compiled by employees of the Department of Labor, investigating 32 of the state’s 36 agencies.49
The report paints a bitter picture of Connecticut’s employment agencies. Although the agencies handled many different types of occupations, the majority of placements were for domestics and many dealt exclusively in domestics. With the high turnover rate in household employment, placing domestics provided the main traffic for the agencies and the report deals almost exclusively with those relationships. Demographically, all but three of the agencies were run by the owner and all but eight were operated by the owner alone. Thus, these largely one-man (or woman) operations were another case of a “law unto one’s self.” Ninety percent of the agencies were owned by women, half were not American-born and more than half had not had any employment agency experience prior to opening their businesses. The agencies surveyed had been in business anywhere from a few months to 20 years.50
Among the corrective measures recommended by the report are the issuing of licenses to reputable agencies, providing receipts for services rendered, recording all financial and placement transactions, providing a probationary period for new placements and a public posting of fee schedules.51 The aspect that received the most complaints from those who used the agencies addressed their fees. The agencies charged a fee to the workers as well as potential employees. Although the fee varied for the employer, the most common fee for a potential employee was roughly 10% of the first month’s wages.52
Without standard practices and written policies, the agencies took advantage of the people who came to them for placement, their fees being paid in advance. If the month’s wages were not completed, the placement fee was charged anyway. Often, standard rates of pay were not set. False advertising in the classifieds attracted people to the agency promising good work and high wages when none existed. Sometimes, several incompetent candidates were sent to a household, so the employer had to keep firing them and pay another placement fee. Encouraging a high turnover rate was a deliberate attempt to keep steady business for the agency. In other cases, an agency would send several employees to the household and only one would get hired, but the agency would collect all of their fees. Without written contracts in place, the employees had little recourse when they tried to reclaim their fees.53
Although the employers were not required to pay their placement fees up front, their chief complaint was that the candidates sent to them were untrained and unsuitable. In some cases, the agencies lied about the candidates’ previous experience, nationality, education and willingness to do housework. Some investigators discovered that agencies encouraged candidates to lie about all of these topics.54 Therefore, it is no wonder that a high turnover was so common, benefiting no one but the agencies themselves.
It should be noted that not all agencies were guilty of these abuses, but the report makes strong accusations as to the majority of them: “The employers and workers who had dealt with these offices made complaints indicating serious malpractice on the part of nearly two thirds of the agencies.”55
In its examination of the employment bureaus, the report does not name the private agencies. Although it examined 32 of the 36 agencies in Connecticut, it does not provide statistics as to which operated out of Hartford. In utilizing city directories, one can get a more representative picture of who was placing domestics in the 1930s. In sampling three directories at the beginning and end of the decade, 1930 and 1940, as well as one from the height of the Depression, 1934, certain patterns emerge.
Within the 1930 Hartford City Directory, 15 employment agencies have official listings. Two of them are discernable as state or county agencies, three are specifically associated with nursing and the remaining ten may be considered “private”. From these ten, five of them are listed under individual names, two of those are women’s names. Of particular interest is the agency listed as “Housewives’ League” at 125 Trumbull Street; one may assume that this one dealt primarily in domestics.56 Only one agency included a paid advertisement in the front section of the Directory. The quarter page ad of the General Employment Bureau boasted, “Efficient and Reliable Employees Furnished for Every Vacancy/ We Solicit Your Patronage”. Their Main Street address reveals that it may have been a substantial business.57
In examining the 1934 Directory, a few of the employment agencies had not weathered the worst years of the Depression. Eleven agencies are named including the two state and county ones and two for nurses. Only one of those listed under private names are retained, Newberry & Shields at 112 State Street, but two new ones are listed, Schultz and Arnold of 34 State Street and Hulda Carlson of 1043 Boulevard, West Hartford. The General Employment Agency is not listed and not one agency has chosen to pay for a large ad. Perhaps employment agencies during the Depression did not need to advertise for new placements or earlier agencies did not survive the difficult economic conditions.58
At the end of the decade, a different picture emerges. Fifteen listings are provided under “Employment Agencies”, including the ones for state and county and the one for nurses. Certain private ones have been reconstituted. For instance, Newberry & Shields becomes Wesley R. Shields at the same address and the General Employment Service may have been the reincarnation of the General Employment Bureau. Hulda Carlson continues to ply her trade in West Hartford, and she is joined by three other individuals as heads of agencies including Shultz & Arnold, who remained from the 1934 Directory.59 Only one agency has placed an ad, C & D Employment Bureau. Their rather splashy full page ad (complete with photograph of its president) is listed under “Clearing Houses” as “Consumer & Dealer Supply & Service Co./Merchandise And Service Brokers”. Within their 44 divisions are listed “Employment Bureau” and “Personnel Supply Bureau”, part of their full-service practices.60
Putting names and addresses to the agencies helps to paint a clearer picture of domestic service placements. These listed in the directories are probably the more reputable and affluent ones and the ones after the 1938 report may have felt the sting of reform. Although many of the agencies most likely dealt with domestic service, none of them advocates them as such. Whether it was an inferred part of the business or simply too indelicate to put in print, it underscores the fact that domestics were not given the same status as the librarians, nurses or business people who had their own employment bureaus.61
Reviewing contemporary newspaper classifieds for domestics reveals that the 1930s were a time of transition and desperation. In contrast to the numerous, small individual ads of previous decades, the advertising of the 1930s is more concentrated and restrained.62 Pre-stock market crash issues of The Hartford Courant classifieds of 1928 contain large ads for employment agencies that concentrate on domestics, in addition to several individual ones.63
In examining later issues from the depths of the Depression in 1935, no agencies take larger ads and only a few have paid for individual ones. The Depression has hit hard in other ways as the possibility of having a job outweighs the low pay, “HOUSEKEEPER – Family of Four – Young Woman preferred, state references, age, religion and lowest wages”. Another advertisement is heart-wrenching in its simplicity, “WOMAN – Wants day’s work or bundle of washing.” 64
Nearing the end of the Depression, a return to larger ads placed by employment agencies and more individual advertisements resurfaces, promising new hires good prospects and attractive wages. For instance, the General Employment Service, (the “House of Professional Services”) advocated that its placement officer, Bert Chevalier, “…has 30-40 excellent domestic positions open at top wages in some of West Hartford’s finest homes.”65 After reading the Employment Agencies brief, one is cautious reading such promising ads.
Racial and ethnic prejudice is rampant in the ads, regardless of the year: “GIRL – White, for seasonal work and to wait at table” and “White Girl – For General houseworker, no cooking or heavy laundry”.66 Even those women who placed individual ads advocating their services, made their ethnic background perfectly clear as to better their chances: “MIDDLE AGED – American Widow would like position as housekeeper. Mrs. Bagshaw” and “General Housework – or housekeeper by English woman for business people or elderly couple.”67 After perusing the classified ads, one can easily imagine the frustration of African-American or immigrant women seeking a decent domestic situation in Greater Hartford.
Although the words of the domestics are not readily available, those of their employers are more accessible. Examining the diaries of Ida Robbins, an upper-middle class Wethersfield woman, reveal several of the patterns seen in Connecticut’s and national domestics. Living in the same 12-room house as her daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Howard Dunham, Robbins benefited from day help for the smooth running of the household.
The women hired by Dunham and Robbins can be grouped into three categories. The first were the skilled laborers, Mrs. McSweeney and her niece Nellie, who were hired for cooking and serving at fancy dinner parties on select occasions. The maids, hired on a long term basis for dusting and cleaning are referred to by first name, among them are “Margaret”, “Beda” and “Clara”. The women who were hired for the laundry, heavy cleaning or ironing are simply noted as “the woman” or “the girl”; the most common phrase in the diaries that refers to domestics is simply, “the woman came to do the washing”.68 Either the family could not keep good help for very long or Robbins did not take enough interest in their individuality to mention them by name.
The domestics clearly worked in tandem with the ladies of the house. Dunham cleaned her own rooms and the bathroom and Robbins complained of “fatigue” from washing dishes. However, the heavy work, especially the laundry, was allocated to the domestics. Beyond names, there are very few references to ethnicity or race. Only once did Robbins refer to “the Polish girl” and she never referenced race, so it is not clear if the household was hiring African-Americans according to national patterns.69
Although it is unclear as to what were the methods of hiring, it was quick and efficient. The turnover rate was high (for three days in April 1929, three separate names are mentioned), but Robbins never complained of a “servant problem”. They were steadily supplied with new hires, perhaps a contract with an agency was used so that they were not short on staff. It would seem unlikely that individual newspaper advertisements or personal referrals could have supplied them with so many people.70
Although she does not take notice of all the individual women, Robbins often refers to their quality. Such comments as “…accomplished quite a little…” to “…she was very good…” and finally “…thought best not to leave Margaret [the new maid] alone…” reveal her assessments of the new hires.71
Robbins’ diaries reflect the transitions in domestic service. Her several references to “had woman today to do cleaning and ironing” and “had woman all day” reinforce the idea of detached supervision that so many employers had with their servants, a style remaining from the 19th century. However, she and her daughter also work alongside the regular “maids of all work”, in a new style of middle class housecleaning, in which employer and employee share responsibilities.
Through evaluation of the historical sources available, one can see the ways in which Greater Hartford’s domestics of the 1930s reflected most of the patterns of the domestics across the country during this time period. A time of great transition, the Depression forced many women into service that had avoided it previously. Low wages, poor working conditions and abuses within the profession were common on the national front, as they were in Greater Hartford. The lack of unionization within domestic service was a local issue as well as a national one. Ethnic and racial prejudice was common in hiring domestics and Connecticut was no different.
However, despite the effects of the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north during the 1920s and ’30s, Connecticut did not follow the national pattern in which blacks dominated domestic service. An interesting and complex subject, the story of Greater Hartford’s domestics provides some much needed insight to the simple diary entry, “Had woman to do the laundry…”72
Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
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New York: The Women’s Bureau and the Young
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2 Rollins, Judith, Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985), 48-50.
3 Rollins, 51-3.
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5 Rollins, 53.
6 Rollins, 53.
7 Rollins, 54.
8 Rollins, 53-4.
9 Strasser, Susan, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 178.
10 Rollins, 54-6.
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17 Katzman, 116-8.
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25 Palmer, 85-6.
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27 National Industrial Conference Board, Women
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Board Incorporated, 1936), 174.
28 Brown, Jean Collier, Brief on
Household Employment in Relation to Trade Organization (New York: The
Women’s Bureau and the Young Women’s Christian Association, 1938), 13.
29 The Hartford Times, 2 April, 1904.
The Hartford Courant, 1 & 2 December, 1928. It should be noted
that the punctuation and capitalization in the classifieds is uneven at
best and the quotations reflect those anomalies.
31 Hartford Courant, 11 August, 1935.
32 Hartford Courant, 11 October, 1939.
33 Hartford Courant, 2 December, 1928, and 1 October, 1939.
34 Hartford Courant, 19 August, 1935 and 1 December, 1928.
Robbins, Ida Adams, 17 April, 1929, 20, August, 1931, 5 February, 1934,
and 25 April, 1931, Robbins Diaries, Hurlbut-Dunham Collection,
Wethersfield Historical Society, Wethersfield. Four of Ida Robbins’
diaries are extant at Wethersfield Historical Society, including the
years 1920, 1929, 1931 and 1934. The author gratefully acknowledges the
efforts of the unnamed individual who transcribed all four volumes.
36 Robbins, 25 April, 1929.
37 Robbins, 25-7 April, 1934.
38 Robbins, 13 February, 1934, and 15 February, 1929.
39 Robbins, 16 Septmeber, 1934.