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Upstairs, Downstairs: The Science of Service

Women’s magazines published between the Civil War and World War II frequently featured articles on “the servant problem” for their middle-class readers. For mistresses, the “problem” was the inadequate supply of “competent” household help. Over the years, the solution to the problem changed. Whereas in the 19th century women were counseled to follow the ideals of Christian maternal benevolence, in the 20th century women were advised to follow principles of scientific management. As this 1912 article by Christine Frederick, an advocate of scientific management for housewives, makes clear, none of these reforms touched the heart of the real problem: servants were poorly paid (eight cents an hour in this “enlightened” household) and treated with little respect. Even so, scientific management did have some potential benefits for domestic servants. Many household workers complained about the lack of a regular schedule, constantly changing orders, and conflicting demands. If household work were truly rationalized, it might free them of some of the arbitrary, demeaning, and disorderly conditions of their work lives.



Fourth and Last Article in a Four-Part Series

A friend, who is much interested in “the new housekeeping” problem, carried out in her home, in cooperation with her one maid, the ideas which I have tried to explain in these articles. She was immensely pleased because the housework was done with much less effort and time than ever before. 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. Katy was right. I had taught her how to do these things, but I hadn’t thought of the ‘fair deal,’ and the ‘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.”

How One Woman Solved the Servant Problem

“So,” said my friend, "I began to think. And the first thought that came to me was that, in every industry I have heard my husband talk 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, but when I looked at the matter squarely I had to concede that my attitude to Katy is that of an arbitrary General to his soldiers. I say ‘Do this,’ and I expect her to do it without questions; 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 bread-making 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 to 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 Adams, 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 solve Katy’s problem?”

“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 whole profession of home-making. I had to think of it as worthy of my highest efforts, as not degrading nor unimportant. Then, with this ideal firmly in my mind, I could more easily convince Katy of the dignity of her work. Great soldiers and even great business men say they do not ask others to do what they would not themselves be willing to do. I carried this same attitude into the kitchen.”

What was Done to Better Conditions

"Then I made up my mind that Katy should share some of the benefits to workers which are granted in other industries. Just think of what factories and business houses do for the comfort and health of their employees nowadays. They maintain, among other things, reading-rooms, clubs, social centers, 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 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 home-making 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 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 twenty 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 is 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 special 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?”

One Way to Stimulate Interest in the Work

“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, and based 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 five dollars a week as a houseworker, which is about eighty 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 am—3 pm

5 pm—8 pm

11 work hours daily at 8 cents

Regular Off Time

Work done in these hours 10 cents an hour

3 pm—5 pm

After 8 pm

Sunday afternoons or alternate Thursdays

"This simple time schedule brought out these points: that Katy’s regular hour wage should be based on about eight cents an hour; and that I should give her ten 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 fifty 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 favors? 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.”

The Plan Has Proved Most Successful

“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 program and carry it through.”

“And it has really proved successful?” I asked.

"My dear, it works like a charm. Katy is a new girl. She feels a pride in her work. She is today an excellent servant.

"But neither I nor any other woman needs stop here. I have thought out other ‘bonuses’ which might be successfully worked out when there are servants in the home. A ‘piece-rate’ system, for example, acts as an incentive to effort. It is harder to arrange piecework 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 washer-woman 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 deplore that they never have a morning when they can sleep late after a party or a 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 cookbook, 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.”

Servants Should Not Live in Our Homes

"But let me tell you one thing, my dear, that my thought along this whole line has brought to me, and I believe it will come too.

“I believe,” said my friend slowly, "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 colored 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 of promotion for increased efficiency, we women would very greatly solve the ‘servant problem.’”

We Should Have Housework Institutes

“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 home-making 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, which you know, my dear, as well as I do, they are not.”

Didn’t I know it?

And don’t you know it, my reader?

Source: Christine Frederick, “It Works Like a Charm: Scientific Management and the Servant Problem,” The New Housekeeping series, Ladies Home Journal (December 1912), 16, 79.