are photographs of my aunts, Barbara
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
I interviewed my family members for a university course. I talked
three aunts, Jean, Barbara and Janet, who had come to Canada
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
Eventually, I used what I learned to help create
Aggie's World in To
Dance at the Palais Royale.
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
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
still living with her parents. When the mistake was discovered, the
employers wanted my mother to come back to work for them, but she
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
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.
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
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
would employ a domestic servant. People who had servants weren't always
wealthy. My aunt Janet first worked in the house of a lawyer,
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
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
single girls. Women were expected to stop
working when they married and most companies and families would not
hire married women.
To Learn More
Memories everything about the icebox, the iceman and the
commercial ice harvest.
History of Irons will tell you about that appliance and how
it changed. Nice graphics when you click on the links. (This page had
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