Aggie's World, domestic service in the 1920s
My aunt, Barbara McIvor, around 1930These are photographs of my aunts, Barbara Jean McIvor c 1928
and Jean, as young domestic servants in the late 1920s. 

What was life like for domestic servants in the early 20th century?  Long before I thought about
writing To Dance at the Palais Royale, I interviewed my family members for a university course. I talked
to my three aunts, Jean, Barbara and Janet, who had come to Canada alone as teenage domestic servants from Scotland in the late 1920s, and to my mother, Isabel, who was later forced to drop out of school in Canada at the age of 13 to become a domestic servant.

Eventually, I used what I learned to help create Aggie's World in To Dance at the Palais Royale.

 This is what they told me. Domestic servants worked long hours. Most lived in the houses where they worked, so they were very dependent on their employers. If one of these young women displeased her employers and lost her job, she also lost her place to live. If she was dismissed without a reference, her chances of finding another job as a servant were slim. The skills that were useful in domestic service didn't transfer well to other kinds of jobs, so it was vitally important to stay on good terms with employers.

In To Dance at the Palais Royale, Aggie is accused of stealing and faces dismissal. This actually happened to my mother. Fortunately, she was still living with her parents. When the mistake was discovered, the employers wanted my mother to come back to work for them, but she refused.

The girls who worked as domestics rose early, before the people they took care of, and didn't finish working until the last meal of the day had been served and the dishes were washed.
They were given two half days off every week, usually Thursday afternoon and Sunday afternoon. On these days, they might get together with friends or relatives who were also domestic servants and see a movie or go to a park.  Some of the churches in Toronto offered free afternoon tea to domestics on Sundays, perhaps in recognition of the small salaries these girls were paid. My aunts made $25 a month and sent $20 home to their mother in Scotland every month, so, on their days off, they tried to spend as little money as possible. Instead of buying a meal, they would buy a bunch of bananas for five cents.

In the early 1900's, housework involved hard physical labour.  Some houses had new inventions that made life easier--electric vacuum cleaners or mechanical carpet sweepers, refrigerators and washing machines for example. But in other houses, the carpets were still beaten outside a few times a year, and an icebox kept food fresh with a large block of ice delivered by an iceman every week or so. Clothing might be washed in a washtub with a washboard. Even an electric washing machine had a wringer on top, a set of rollers that squeezed the water out of clothes when they were pushed though. Laundry was still dried on clothes lines; it had to be put out and taken in. Housework was time-consuming and exhausting, so anyone with extra money would employ a domestic servant. People who had servants weren't always wealthy.  My aunt Janet first worked in the house of a lawyer, and the woman she worked for did all the cooking.

Ideas about cleanliness were very exacting, and a servant could spend hours every week washing clothes, ironing and starching them, washing and polishing floors, beating rugs, dusting and polishing furniture, washing dishes, polishing silver, polishing shoes--the list of household chores was almost endless. In addition, twice a year, in the spring and before Christmas, many houses were given a complete cleaning.

For all this work, a domestic servant might be paid $25 a month, as my aunts were, plus room and board (a place to sleep and food to eat). Only girls from the poorest families works as domestic servants. British girls were brought to Canada to do this work because Canadian girls were too independent, preferring to work in factories. Shop girls, who worked in stores, were usually from families with slightly more money. Employment was only for single girls. Women were expected to stop working when they married and most companies and families would not hire married women. 

To Learn More

Icebox Memories everything about the icebox, the iceman and the commercial ice harvest.

The History of Irons will tell you about that appliance and how it changed. Nice graphics when you click on the links. (This page had ads.)

The History Channel has some great pages about household appliances. To find out about what followed the icebox, visit the History of the Refrigerator Page.

At the bottom of the page are links to the history of the vacuum cleaner, and the history of the washing machine.  The upright vacuum cleaners on the vacuum cleaner page are very much like one that Aggie would have used.

If you're wondering about carpet beaters, VacHunter's Beaters page explains how they were used with pictures.

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