By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
In 1847, Miriam Whitcher, wife of the Reverand Benjamin
Whitcher of Elmira’s Trinity Episcopal Church, was struggling to find a hired
girl. She wanted one who could make bread, wash, and iron and was good natured,
but knew her place. In May, she hired Martha and soon became depended on her,
but by September she was fed up with how overly familiar Martha was. She fired her
and tried to do without for a while, before breaking down and hiring
fourteen-year-old Ellen, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants who “had no
ideas of equality and does not seem to think of coming to the table with us.”
She couldn’t do the work, however, and was soon replaced by Jane, a
twenty-five-year-old Black woman, who could both do the work and know her
place. Jane worked for the Whitchers for nearly a year. (See this blog post for more on Whitcher)
The Whitcher situation was not unique. During the mid-19th century, the entire concept of domestic labor was in flux. In the early 1800s, the nation was predominantly rural and the average farmwife was responsible not only for cooking, cleaning, and childcare, but also gardening, tending livestock, making cheese, spinning, weaving, making the family’s clothing, and often making extra products to sell. A family might temporarily hire a neighbor’s teenage daughter to help the wife out during the planting or harvest or after childbirth. These hired girls would work alongside and supplement the work of the farmwife for brief periods and were generally not regarded as servants. They were part employee, part guest, living under their employer’s roof and eating with them at the table. They also did not make a career out of it, but rather ‘helped’ during their teen years to gain funds and experience before marriage.
Running parallel to this was a system of unfree unpaid domestic labor in the form of slavery. In 1800, there were two households with slaves in Elmira and, by 1810, there were eleven. Enslaved women performed much of the same work as white hired ‘help,’ but these Black women were understood to be inherently inferior. They would certainly never be welcomed at their master’s table. All slaves in New York State were freed as of July 4, 1827, but a system of Black indentured servitude lingered well into the 1830s. (see this blog post for additional details) For the rest of the 19th century, domestic service was one of the few careers open to Black women both nationally and in Chemung County.
By the 1840s, a number of compounding factors were beginning to change the nature of paid domestic labor. Increased industrialization shifted textile production from the household to the factory, greatly reducing the amount of work a wife was expected to perform. These same factories offered new, better-paying employment opportunities to young women and girls. The end of slavery in the northern states and the Underground Railroad resulted in a new pool of Black workers who lacked the options enjoyed by white women and could not demand the same levels of pay or respect. The Irish potato famine from 1845 to 1852 resulted in a wave of desperately poor Irish immigrants who were largely in the same boat.
By mid-1800s, 15 to 30% of all urban households had at least one domestic servant. Unlike the old ‘help’ previously employed by farmwives, these women were employed full-time and year-round. A small, middle-class household like the Whitchers might have a single maid-of-all-work who would cook, clean, and do laundry alongside their mistress. A larger, more prosperous household might employ a cook, a laundress, and multiple maids, maybe even a nanny or governess as well. In these households, the lady of the house would act as manager overseeing their labor without performing any of it herself. Having a servant became a sort of status symbol. It also freed up upper class women to become involved in charities, clubs, politics, and self-improvement.
Locally, there are a couple well-known domestic servants, both associated with Mark Twain. One was Mary Ann Cord (1798-1888), the cook at Quarry Farm. Mary Ann had been born into slavery in Maryland. In 1852, she was sold away from her husband and their seven children and brought to New Bern, North Carolina. It was there she found her youngest son, Henry, during the Civil War. He had escaped to freedom years before and found work as a barber in Elmira. She came to Elmira with him and where she met and married Primus Cord. From 1870 until her death, she and Primus worked for the Cranes of Quarry Farm, her as cook and him as groundskeeper. In 1874, Mark Twain wrote A True Story Word for Word as I Heard It based off of her life story (see this blog post for additional details).
Katy Leary (1856-1934), meanwhile, was born and raised in Elmira, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants. In 1880, she took a job with the Clemens family sewing baby clothes. She worked for them for the next thirty years serving as a lady’s maid, housekeeper, nurse, chaperone, traveling companion, seamstress, nursemaid, and nanny. After Samuel Clemens died in 1910, Katy left service and opened a boarding house with her pension money. Interviews with Katy were the basis for the book A Lifetime with Mark Twain, published in 1925.
The life of a domestic servant in the late-1800s was unpleasant. Pay was low, the hours were long, and the work could be grueling. Servants often lived within their employers which left them with little privacy and made them vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic servants tended to either be young and unmarried, or older widows returning to the workforce. While some women, like Mary Ann and Katy, made careers out of it, most domestics preferred to abandon the field in favor of marriage or other employment.