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The New Housekeeping: Solving the Servant Problem

As immigration dropped sharply during World War I and many native-born women left domestic service for wartime jobs, middle-class women lamented the shortage of domestic workers. This spurred efforts to reorganize housework and a fostered a new breed of home economists who argued for “scientific” housekeeping. By applying the methods and theory of scientific management to the home, these experts argued, housework could be rendered less arduous and time-consuming. The “new housekeeping” often relied solely on the unpaid work of the middle-class wives. A leading proponent of household scientific management, Christine Frederick answered common criticisms of domestic workers by turning a critical eye on their employers. The “servant problem,” she argued, was a problem of bad management—middle-class women needed to abandon unsystematic methods and arbitrary supervision for the new principles of scientific management. She expressed unusual empathy for women in domestic service, perhaps because she herself had cleaned houses to help pay her expenses as a college student at Northwestern University.

We women have talked much about “solving the servant problem” for years; yet conditions seem to grow worse rather than better. Fewer servants are recruited each year, and the good Irish and German stock which entered service twenty years ago is being replaced largely by the southern European, Bohemian, and Slav girls, who are much harder to train into our American ideals. But even this source of supply has been lessened since the war because Europe needs her women to rebuild her devastated countries.

After studying with me the new ideas of efficiency and scientific management applied to the home, a friend of mine who employs a maid tried out the efficiency ideas which I have explained in previous chapters. She standardized her household tasks, she made schedules for the maid to follow, she gave the maid the right tools to use in the kitchen, and in every way applied the “new housekeeping” in the work which the maid did for her. After some preliminary difficulties in getting it applied, the housework went on as if done by magic, and the smooth-running way in which her home was maintained delighted my friend beyond measure.

One day, however, her maid said to her: “I ain’t complaining, ma’am, and I’d rather work this way than the old way, now that I’ve learnt; but this idea of yours don’t seem to work so much good to the girls as it does to you. I can do more work by doing as you say, and easier, too; but it don’t make no more pay for me, and even when I hurry up and get done sooner I don’t get no more time to myself. Seems as if when I do more I ought to get more, but I can’t quite figure it out.”

“I tried,” said my friend, “to make Katy see that the object of all my ideas was to make her work easier. She acknowledged that, but she proved that she was doing more, and she didn’t see that my scheme helped her financially even if it did reduce the effort with which she did her work. ”When I thought it over,“ my friend continued, ”I saw that Katy was right. I had been applying the practical points of the efficiency gospel, so that Katy was able to get more work done than before I taught her, but I had forgotten to apply the last three ethical points of the efficiency gospel, those of ‘fair deal,’ 'discipline,‘ and the ’efficiency reward,' to the one who was benefiting me by her increased skill.

“Katy gets more work done because she applies the schedules and plans I have given her. This does benefit me, but, as she rightly asked, where does she come in? In other words, where does the worker or employee benefit because the employer adopts the new and more efficient housekeeping? It was distinctly up to me to see how a plan which benefits me would benefit Katy as well.”

So my friend began to think it over, and recalled that in almost every industry, in all the factories which we visited, or had heard about, the conditions of work, the wages and the hours have all been standardized by law. But Katy is still in the same barbaric state of vassalage which was once common in all industries.

“I didn’t like to admit it to myself,” my friend continued, "but when I looked at the matter squarely I had to concede that my attitude toward Katy is that of an arbitrary General toward his soldiers. I say, ‘Do this,’ and I expect her to do it without question; not because it is right or fair or the best way, but just because I say so. And I expect her to accept such rooms and board and hours and comfort as I choose to give her, and to be satisfied even if I stop her in the middle of the breadmaking to button my dress, or if I have company on washday. Now that’s the naked truth, Christine, and I couldn’t get away from it.

“After I got to that point I began to lose my wonder that a girl hesitates before entering the ‘servant class.’ I began to see that a girl in this class is isolated from her companions and looked down on by them as inferior to typists and clerks. Her health is not cared for. I read the report of one investigation board which tells us there is a higher percentage of consumption among servants than among other workers; a second commission reported that more insanity is found in this class; and Miss Jane Addams [Progressive reformer and settlement-house worker], writing recently, says ‘there is more danger of prostitution for the girl in domestic service than in any other occupation.’ We give her no mental stimulus nor impulse to improve. Most important, we give her no wage stimulation which might urge her to better work. This is how I had been treating Katy.”

“Well,” I asked, “how did you apply these ethical points to Katy?”

“First,” answered my friend, "I changed my whole attitude toward her. I dropped the dictatorial idea of ordering her around and feeling that she is a subordinate. That is a false relation, and is the very heart of the difficult situations between mistress and maid. Under scientific management there is no arbitrary commanding officer—there is ‘team work’ of equals.

"But before I assumed this new attitude toward Katy I had also to assume a new attitude to my profession of homemaking. I had to think of it as worthy of my highest efforts, not degrading or unimportant. Then with this idea firmly in my mind, I could the more easily convince Katy of the dignity of her work. Great soldiers or business men are not willing to ask others to do what they themselves would be unwilling to do. The best mistresses are those who will be able and proud to perform any detail of work, just as the greatest printer I know, who is also worth thousands, is able to set up the most complicated machine in his shop, from the first screw to the last.

"Then I made up my mind that Katy should share some of the benefits to workers which are granted in other industries. Consider what factories and business houses do for the comfort and health of their employees nowadays. They maintain, among other things, reading-rooms, clubs, social centres, nurses, matrons and recreation roofs. I saw to it first that Katy’s room was properly heated, that it had proper light and ventilation and was furnished comfortably. Her room was all this in a way, but when I got at it I found much to be desired. Then I gave her a high stool to use for her work in the kitchen, and I trained her to see that the kitchen was well ventilated. I saw that she had comfortable shoes and that she observed personal hygiene. By doing these little things for Katy she got it into her head that I was giving her a ‘fair deal,’ and at the same time it insured her devotion and interest to myself. I got for her some good books, and books on domestic science of the simpler kind so that she might develop mentally and form some broader idea of homemaking than the limited round of daily duties teaches her.

"Then I went to a large shop and talked to the foreman and asked him to explain to me the new attitude of scientific management that the employer is assuming toward his helpers.

"He said that under scientific management the employer assumes the responsibility of enabling the employee to work under the best conditions. You see how this is entirely opposed to the old theory of making the employee work by force, or putting the responsibility on the worker. The old way, he said, was for the foreman or manager to say: ‘Here’s a casting; go and anneal it.’ And the workman chose his own tools and his own time, and did the job just as he thought best. If it was a good job all right, but if it was a poor one the worker didn’t much care. Now it is all different. Under scientific management the employer first studies the task to be done, and the employer finds the best way, the shortest way, and the best tool to use in doing it.

"Then the foreman hands the worker a card, a kind of instruction card, which tells him exactly how to do this task, what tools to use, and how long it will take. So the man must do a good job, do you see? The employer has planned so well that the worker cannot fail. And because the employer has planned so well his workmen accomplish more work with less effort and less waste, and have become efficient workmen.

"I had done all this for Katy. I had studied her household tasks and found that bread takes so long to make, that it takes thirty minutes to tidy the rooms, and that the best way to wash dishes or iron or do some other household task takes only so long. I had made Katy follow schedules based on these data, and her efficiency was greatly increased.

"Now as to where Katy comes in: I found out how the other workers under scientific management receive an incentive to do more work. This foreman explained just how his men receive what is called an ‘efficiency reward.’ All the workers receive so much as a daily wage for certain standard amounts of work. But if they do more than the standard—that is, reach a high percentage of efficiency—they receive a ‘bonus’ of extra money. But it is not always quantity of work that is the goal of efficiency, but quality, skill, and more responsibility in work. The foreman said that before scientific management was in practice in this shop the workmen used to do the least amount of work they could, many of them, and that word would often be passed around secretly among themselves to do just as little work as possible. Why? Because under the old plan it was the employer, and the employer only, who benefited by the workman doing more work. But under the new plan the more the worker does the more he gains in actual increase in pay. And if he shows especial aptitude and skill he is promoted to positions of responsibility.

“Now do you see where Katy was right? She, too, must receive an ‘efficiency reward’ for more work done, or for the higher skill she develops. Nothing acts so strongly upon a worker as this money or promotion incentive to greater output or skill. But it is just this stimulus that my Katy and other Katies are not given under the old plan. They see themselves drudging away forever at the same old pay, with no chance to rise. Under those conditions what is the use of trying to do your work better, or staying in one place any length of time?”

“How did you give Katy this extra stimulus?” I asked.

“First,” said my friend, "I thought about Katy’s hours of work and the wages she gets a week. This ‘hours’ question is one of the most difficult in our whole readjustment of the servant problem. Nearly all girls will tell you that the hours are so long they ‘never have any time to themselves,’ and that their work is never done. We have extra company and keep them very late, or we ask them to change their Thursday suddenly to suit our convenience. Yet we never make it up to them.

"I first standardized her work, her tools, her operations, basing on them schedules for her to follow. Katy at once did more work for me, with less effort to herself, in the same time. Here I am the gainer. But Katy must gain too. She must have free time and extra incentive to work.

"Now Katy gets $5 a week as a houseworker, which is about 80 cents a day. I made up the following schedule of wages and hours based on this sum:

Katy’s Daily Time Schedule

Regular hours of work (at 8 cents an hour)

7 A.M.—3 P.M.

5 P.M.—8 P.M.

11 work hours

Daily at 8 cents

Regular off Time

Work done in these hours 10 cents an hour 3 P.M.—5 P.M. After 8 P.M.

Sunday afternoons or alternate Thursdays

"This simple time schedule brought out these points: that Katy’s regular hour-wage should be based on about 8 cents an hour; and that I should give her 10 cents an hour for extra or over time. Her regular hours were as given, leaving two hours off in the afternoon, when she was free to mend, read or go out for a walk. I know that maids do have hours off, but they are always subject to mistresses' whims. On my schedule it was understood that Katy’s free hours would be inviolate unless they were considered extra hours at extra pay, just as they are in a hospital or factory. If I wanted Katy’s services during those two hours, or after hours, as when dinner was late or extra company delayed the work, then I paid for it. If I asked her to give up her Thursday to assist for an unexpected guest, I paid her by the hour, or about 50 cents for the afternoon.

“In other words, I trained Katy by my efficiency methods to become a trained worker, and then I paid her as trained workers are paid in business houses or factories.”

“Yes,” I commented, “but isn’t it true that many mistresses do already train their maids and give them privileges and favours? Yet it seems that the more they get the more they want, and in cases where the maids have been treated with the utmost fairness they have nevertheless left their mistresses unexpectedly and when most needed.”

“That is true,” said my friend, "but I feel that when the present mistress-slave relation is changed to a businesslike one of employer-employee, with schedule hours and extra pay for extra work, the service will be put, as it should be, on the same plane as in other employments, and these present troubles will not occur any more than they do in my husband’s office.

"By this system we not only give Katy a ‘fair deal,’ but we also put in force the point of ‘discipline.’ Certain work is scheduled for her and she must accomplish it. My plans must be carried out; she must feel the responsibility of her work and not shirk it. When she understands my plans, based on the best way to do her work, she must accept this programme and carry it through.

"The ‘discipline’ of the Navy shows what I mean: the men have a spirit of loyalty to their work; even though it is hard, they take pride in it, and are proud that they belong to the service. It is something of this spirit of loyalty and pride in even difficult work—a willingness to ‘stand by’ and do their best—that must characterize the ‘discipline’ of the servant to make her a success.

“But,” continued my friend, “other plans and means can be used to increase the efficiency of servants, and raise the standards of their work.”. . .

“The stimulation of increased pay,” continued my friend, "is probably the strongest spur to increased effort that we can give the servant or any other worker. It is because we wish to have some basis for measuring this extra pay, or ‘bonus,’ that I worked out the wage-schedule given in the last chapter.

"My idea, like that of Mr. Taylor, is that every worker should be paid first a day-wage, of settled amount, just because he puts himself at your disposal as a worker. But in order to increase the efficiency of the worker, we must give this additional ‘bonus’ or ‘reward’ above and beyond the day-wage. It is the familiar example of the salesman who has a regular salary and ‘commissions.’ It is the extra percent given on his commissions that stimulates the man to increase his sales.

"It is harder to arrange bonus rewards in the home than in the factory, but some can be planned. There are certain dishes, certain whole menus, the mastery of which might be held out to a cook as a stimulus for her increased efficiency. A mistress could say to her cook: ‘Here are twelve dishes, or six luncheons, that I want you to know how to cook, just all by yourself. When you can serve these without any aid from me I will give you so much.’ Or she might put responsibility with the children as another incentive, promising to raise the maid’s wages when she could relieve her of certain details of their care. Another bonus might be given when the maid had learned to do the ironing, so that a washerwoman need not be employed so often.

"An excellent bonus is the offer of two weeks‘ vacation, with pay, to any servant who has been in steady employment for one year. Another, giving the maid the whole of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, or other holiday. If the family celebrates either Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day at home the other may be granted as a bonus to the servant, or she may be given extra pay for working on holidays. Extra pay during prolonged stays of guests is only another side of the ’fair deal.'

"I have found that young girls employed as servants often protest that they never have a morning when they can sleep late after a party or dance. Perhaps we never even thought of that, and how good it would seem to sleep late once in a while just as we do! The girls have Thursday and Sunday afternoons off, but always must be up again the next morning early. An easy way of making a bonus would be to count all day Sunday as two Thursday afternoons, and let the girl off from Saturday night until Monday morning, so that she could sleep late Sunday at some friend’s house if she wished.

“It is impossible to estimate the stimulus that some form of bonus gives to the worker. Give a girl a bonus like some of these, or tell her you will raise her wages when she can cook ten dinners from your cook-book, and see how the incentive works! She will probably become enthusiastic and interested in her work, because she will see that you want to give her an efficiency reward as well as to consider your own benefits from her increased efficiency.”

This successful experiment of my friend to apply the ethical points of the efficiency doctrine to her maid has stimulated me to investigate the subject further. Under present conditions the servant works in isolation in the home, removed from social pressure, which induces competition, and hence skill. In the factory “Katy” sees other girls at work, and there is a rivalry as to which does the most and is the most successful. At present there are no efficient standards for the servant. The demand is far greater than the supply, and hence a servant of very poor skill stands a chance of employment. But where working conditions are satisfactory, only the skilled stand a chance of employment. In one factory a system of demerits and merits exists in which the workers practically grade themselves. The factory has established high standards of work, and when a workman presents himself he is not questioned, but put to work at his own price. If he can satisfy the standards set, he will be retained; if he can exceed them, he receives extra pay; if he cannot “make good,” he automatically puts himself out of work. Now, some such graded pressure of work may in time replace in the home the social pressure exerted on the “Katies” of the outside world.

But until we raise the standards of work in our homes, which would make such a graded pressure possible, we must have recourse to other forms of incentive. A whole chapter might be written on the psychology of suggestion and surroundings on the worker. The light, cheery kitchen with sanitary fittings and decorative utensils cannot fail to react cheerily and happily on its worker. “Like mistress like maid,” is an old saying, but it is true to psychological laws, and we know that neatness, thrift, and order in the mistress will tend to evoke the same attributes in the maid. Imitation is one of the strongest means of increasing efficiency in any line. Most of our human progress is due to imitation of what some other individual originated and used, wore, or ate. Servant efficiency can be increased by setting for the servant an example of neatness, economy, and dexterity in work, which she will subconsciously imitate.

Not only in material matters will this point of imitation increase the servant’s efficiency, but also in the psychical attitude of the mistress to the maid. As my friend said, how can a maid believe in the dignity of homemaking if the mistress herself considers it beneath her, and thinks it fit only for hired workers? How can a maid regard her work as worthy of her best efforts if the mistress thinks housework beneath her, and never takes an active interest in it? It is only when the maid feels that the mistress believes in the tremendous importance and value of true housekeeping that she will imitate the attitude of her employer.

The new idea of scientific management in handling workmen in factories is to enforce a spirit of “team-work” between equals.“ The ”boss“ has given place to the trained helper, who guides rather than dictates. His aim is not to make everybody responsible for work but himself, but to assume co-responsibility with the worker. This different attitude which the ”boss“ assumes toward work is reflected in the worker. So, too, the maid will imitate this mental attitude of work if the mistress responds and sees that their work must also be ”teamwork of equals.“ It is an actual definite rule in many scientifically managed shops that superiors say ”mister“ in addressing the humblest workman. How many good potential servants have become poor stenographers because of the odium of the name ”Bridget"?

Another means of increasing servant efficiency is to stimulate the loyalty of the worker. We work best for those we love. This loyalty can be generated by the mistress assuming the “team-work” attitude, and by her genuine interest in the worker. We can never have loyalty unless we have some degree of equality. Servants of the “old days” are universally spoken of as loyal. These servants were loyal, I think on the final analysis, because in those days servants were much more a part of the family in which they served than is true of servants to-day. The old “mammies” and “followers” who sometimes made great sacrifice for master or mistress did so because they felt it was for one of their own family. It may be harder to stimulate this attitude to-day; but we have examples of the loyalty of workers in factories and shops, which always result when the workers feel that their employer is honestly desirous of serving their best interests. It is this loyalty, this “service plus” attitude of the worker to his employer, that the efficiency gospel is peculiarly able to develop.

Another strong psychological means to increase servant efficiency is to stimulate the servant’s interest in her work. I do not mean stimulation in the result of labour, but training the servant to get pleasure in the doing of good work. Experiments in the kitchen, new dishes, new ways of serving, or the testing of new devices, are all means to create interest. Work done because the worker likes to do it is always done well. Pleasure generally accompanies interest, and if the worker can be made to enjoy her work, her efficiency will certainly increase.

One of the interesting points experimented with in factories where workers were employed at tasks requiring severe strain or skill, particularly among women workers, was that called “resting periods.” Instead of letting the worker continue for a long stretch at difficult or tiresome work, the workers were made to stop for certain periods and do something pleasurable, like going outdoors, moving about, talking, or even dancing. This few moments' absolute change of position and attention made it possible for the girls to return to the difficult task and do it several points higher in efficiency than if they had continued without a change. There are many women kind enough to give the servant change of work, or leisure, but too often there has not been intelligent enough planning to arrange the tasks so that the monotony of standing, for instance, is varied. This idea of “resting periods” should be as capable of increasing the efficiency of the servant in the home as it is that of the factory worker.

Even if we have done everything possible to increase the efficiency and prosperity of the worker, we have not completely done so, in my opinion, until conditions permit the servant to live her own life outside the home in which she works during the day. I believe that we are gradually coming to the abolishment of a permanent serving class in our homes. There is everything to be said against a servant living in one’s home and not being a part of it. Even though we raise the standard of the servant class to the dignity of skilled houseworkers we shall never absolutely solve the question until the worker ceases to live with us. I know it is not an entirely original thought with me, but I can see no practical reason why we shall not have servants—skilled servants—work for us, who live their own independent lives at their own homes, and come to us daily as washerwomen and seamstresses do now, or as workers go to office and factory. This is now done quite extensively in New York City flats and apartments where room space is at a premium, and particularly by the coloured workers. I believe we will come to it in all our homes. We would have to pay them more, but this increase would be balanced by the reduced overhead expenses that every permanent servant entails, and the necessity of having fewer rooms and thus smaller houses.

I believe, thoroughly believe, that by adopting more definite hours, by attending to the comfort, hygiene, and relaxation of our several “Katies,” by exchanging our dictatorial attitude for one of fairness, and by offering a stimulus of extra money—of a bonus—and a promotion for increased efficiency, we women would very greatly solve the “servant problem.”

Just as now we support extensive training schools for nurses, as well as business training schools and colleges, besides the forms of training given by domestic-science courses, agricultural institutes, and those trade or professional schools where work or practice is combined with learning or mental development, I believe we will come to have large institutes which shall teach housework and homemaking in a practical way; where courses will be given on marketing, buying materials, sanitation, standard practice in housework and cooking—institutes which will graduate, not teachers, but trained workers to take the place of our present unskilled servant class. I believe that is what we are coming to, and the signs are already on the horizon. But the mistresses must themselves be ready, and you know, my readers, as well as I do, they are not.

Source: Christine Frederick, The New Housekeeping (New York: Doubleday, 1926), 155–180.The New Middle-Class Housekeeping: “How I Keep House without a Maid”

See Also:The New Middle-Class Housekeeping: "How I Keep House without a Maid"
Patriotic Housekeeping: Good Housekeeping Recruits Kitchen Soldiers
"More Work for Mother"?: Scientific Management At Home