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Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England

Author(s):Steedman, Carolyn
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.NET (February 2011)

Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.? xvi + 410 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-73623-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

Labours Lost examines the concept and material reality of domestic service from 1760 to 1830.? One important question is who counted as a domestic servant.? Steedman defines her topic as ?waged domestic work? (p. 31) which excludes both unpaid family work and servants hired for agriculture or industry.? However, in practice servants often engaged in multiple activities, making a clear border between different types of service impossible.?

Domestic servants were taxed, men beginning in 1777 and women from 1785 to 1792, but servants hired for a farm or other business were not taxed.? Since in reality servants moved seamlessly between the business and domestic spheres, determining which servants were subject to the tax led to numerous legal battles. One employer was charged for a male servant because, in addition to farm work, the servant also cleaned his boots and saddled his horse, but a grocer was not charged for his boy, in spite of the fact that the boy cleaned his shoes.? Not surprisingly, the tax on servants brought in less revenue than the government expected, as employers found ways to avoid the tax.?

The law of demand would lead us to expect that fewer servants were hired after the tax was implemented.? Unfortunately Steedman does not have the sources necessary to show whether this was so.? Using tax records she can show that the number of servants increased in one town and decreased in another after the tax was implemented.? However, tax records cannot tell us how many servants were hired before the tax was implemented, or how many servants would have been hired if there were no tax.

Another important concept addressed in this book is who owned the labor of a servant. The employer clearly owned the objects produced by his servant?s labor, such as the dinner cooked, but what about the labor-power itself?? Did a servant own her own labor-power, or did the master who hired the servant take ownership?? Locke suggested that the employer owned the labor-power of the servant, while another contemporary writer, John Vancouver, claimed that the ownership of labor-power could not be transferred.? Employers seem to have favored the Lockean view; Steedman notes that the widow farmer Frances Hamilton often used the pronoun ?we? to describe work done by her servants, which makes sense if we take the view that the employer owned the servant?s labor.

Whether or not servants owned their own labor, they did own their ?character.?? To get a job, servants had to have a good character from their previous employer.? Employers found this a convenient system for policing the behavior of servants and in 1792 a law was passed whose aim was to prevent forged characters.

Labours Lost also focuses on the material reality of servants? lives.? The ?necessary house? had to be cleaned out, and diapers washed.? Maids, like all English women of the time, wore stays.? Food was scarce around the turn of the nineteenth century, but employers seem to have been aware that food was necessary for work, if not very realistic about how the poor were to be fed.? If we focus on material reality we will remember that cooking required fuel and it becomes clear that the ?economical? soups recommended by the rich were in fact too expensive for the poor.? These parts of the book help us to see more clearly what everyday life would have been like for an eighteenth-century maid.? Occasionally the book can marry the focus on material reality with the concepts discussed, as when an examination of the books owned and read by Frances Hamilton connects physical objects in her household to the concepts of slavery and labor discussed in those books.

While the focus on material reality leads Steedman to discuss universals such as the privy, her concern with the concept of service leads her to discuss more unusual events.?
The question of poor law settlement was particularly difficult for Charlotte Howe, brought to England as a slave.? Since slavery did not exist in England, she could not be a slave, but neither did she have a hiring that would give her a settlement.? We also learn about extreme cases such as servants executed for killing the children in their care.

While Goodwin used the male pronoun when discussing servants, most domestic servants were in fact female.? Male servants were fewer in number, but they had a higher status.? Male servants were taxed first because they were considered luxury goods.? Men were also paid higher wages.? However, Steedman notes that men and women rarely did the same work.? Typically male servants did work that women did not do, such as care for the horses.? Men and women were paid the same wage for cleaning out the privy, but this was not typical male work, and men who did this work were usually older.

Steedman uses a wide variety of sources.? Quantitative information on the number of servants hired and their wages is drawn from household accounts, tax records, and the Westmoreland Census of 1787.? Information on how people thought about servants is drawn from personal papers of employers and published works by famous (Locke, Smith) and non-so-famous (John Vancouver) thinkers.? Steedman discusses the law extensively, examining records of local magistrates as well as Lord Mansfield, and also examines literature, both books about servants and poetry written by servants.? The book is peppered with engravings from the era that depict servants, but the impact of these engravings is limited because they are not discussed in the text.??

Overall the book provides a rich description of the lives of servants in the late eighteenth century, showing us the everyday and the unusual, taking us from the most mundane realities to philosophical questions of who owned a servant?s labor.

Joyce Burnette studies the work and wages of women in the labor market, and is author of Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain (Cambridge, 2008).

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Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century