The Economist on The Servant Problem in Brazil now, and historic Britain

Domestic labour

The servant problem

Britain in the early 20th century and Brazil in the early 21st have in common an issue that infuriates the rich, empowers the poor and delights dramatists

Dec 17th 2011 | São Paulo | from the print edition



“THE cook was a good cook, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went.” Saki’s epigram, from “Reginald on Besetting Sins”, has lasted well, but when it was published in 1904, readers would have felt not just its wit but its bite. This was the era of Britain’s “Servant Problem”: middle-class dinner parties buzzed not with school admissions and house prices but with the shortage of decent help, and its tendency to stalk off at the slightest provocation. (The cook in question drank, and “on a raw Wednesday morning, in a few ill-chosen words”, her mistress had said so to her face.)

Cooks always drank. “Too often tyrant, virago and frequently heavy drinker, all in one,” they get their own chapter in “The Servant Problem: An Attempt at its Solution”, published in 1899. The description of the problem—cases of “disease and deformity” caused by the “inefficiency and carelessness of nurses and nursemaids”, bold-faced girls in employment agencies with the cheek to question prospective employers about hours and perks—is more convincing than the solution: homes where ladies would be cared for by apprentice maids. Servants “have broken my spirit and ruined my health,” one friend tells the author, who went under the name of An Experienced Mistress. They are “necessary evils”, another moans.

Mistresses have always complained about servants: employment inevitably creates difficulties, but the relationship is trickier when the workplace is the employer’s home. The combination of physical proximity and class difference offers a wealth of dramatic possibilities, as the writers of novels and television programmes discovered long ago. “The Help”, a novel of black servants and white mistresses in the American south in the 1960s, has sold 5m copies and has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; this year “Downton Abbey”, a British soap based on relations between aristocrats and servants in a grand Yorkshire house, has gripped many millions around the world and garnered five Emmy awards. The drama is set around the time of World War I, when the servant problem was shifting the balance of power, and heightening tensions, between those above and below stairs.

In 1881 the British census had found 1.25m women, in round numbers, working in domestic service, by far the largest category of employed women. The demand for “skivvies”, or maids-of-all-work, went on rising for decades, as a newly created professional middle class looked for the servants their betters had always had. But the supply of uneducated village girls such households would have employed was drying up. From 1880 to 1918 the school-leaving age rose in stages from 10 to 14.

Meanwhile, new options were becoming available for working women, in shops, offices and factories. The first world war accelerated an already established trend. An estimated 2m women took jobs making munitions and replacing bus-drivers, postmen and all the other male workers sent to the front. Many left domestic service to do so—and some never returned to it. “The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor,” Voltaire had written over a century earlier. By the early 20th century, the rich were getting the uncomfortable sense that the foundations of the social order were shifting.

Old-fashioned notions of the consecrating value of service were revived by an increasingly desperate upper class (Victorians had been fond of before-and-after illustrations of filthy ragamuffins rescued, body and soul, by being turned into neat little maids). Irish girls and orphans from institutions who half a century earlier would have had to settle for the “rough”—lugging coals and hot water around and the like—found themselves able to pick and choose. In 1912 in America, Christine Frederick argued in “The New Housekeeping” for servants to get overtime and bonuses for mastering new tasks—and to be granted the respect of an honorific. “How many good potential servants have become poor stenographers because of the odium of the name ‘Bridget’?” she asked rhetorically. But to no avail. On both sides of the Atlantic women continued to abandon other people’s sinks in droves.

The life of Virginia Woolf, from 1882 to 1941, bracketed the period of the Servant Problem. Her mother, Julia, had married in 1867 and set up home with cook, kitchenmaids, housemaid, parlourmaid, lady’s maid, nurse, nursemaid and gardener. Such a mistress was something akin, in the opening words of Mrs Beeton’s famous cookbook, to “the Commander of an army, or the leader of an enterprise”. But Woolf wanted to live the life of the mind, not to become manager of a medium-sized domestic business; and anyway, she would not have been able to find the staff.

Like others in the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals, Woolf was groping towards a new way to live: simpler and more self-reliant; befitting the writer of “A Room of One’s Own”. Alison Light’s book, “Mrs Woolf and the Servants”, uses Woolf’s novels, letters and diaries to document the transition, which was anything but smooth. Woolf abandoned the custom of dressing for dinner and learned to cook, and would sometimes end a letter to the effect of “must go and put the dinner on”, like some 1950s suburban housewife. In another mood she would strike a snobbish tone, using the word “housemaid” to describe people she disliked.

Woolf’s relationship with her few servants could be stormy. After one of many rows with a cook, Nellie Boxall, Woolf described her in her diary as a “mongrel” with a “timid spiteful servant mind”. Screaming matches with servants were “sordid” and “degrading”, she complained, and dealing with Nellie interrupted her writing. Such dramas were caused in part by swift, yet unrecognised, changes in social status: though Woolf wrote that she wanted to be cordial towards Nellie, she also expected Nellie to be obedient. Over and over again Nellie would beg to be kept on when Woolf threatened to sack her, only later to give notice and then withdraw it. But despite the emotional wear and tear, mistress could not imagine life without maid.

Well-off Britons like the Woolfs, steeped in the culture of service, took a long time to turn to technology to solve their problems. Refrigerators caught on a generation later than in America. It was the fall in the employment of servants that drove up demand for labour-saving devices, says Ms Light, not the other way around. The Woolfs only installed flushing toilets in their country house in 1926, when the increasing difficulty of finding a villager willing to slop out their chamber-pots and deal with the earth-closet in the garden forced change upon them.

Servant Problem Redux

Gaping income inequalities; limited education for the masses; a long tradition of domestic service: Brazil at the turn of the 21st century bore striking similarities to 1880s Britain. But in the past decade Brazil’s professional classes have burgeoned and a lower-middle class—25m new consumers—has sprung into being. Most Brazilian children now go to secondary school and the country’s north-east, long its poorest region, has become its fastest-growing.


As a result, many maids from the north-east who migrated in past decades to the richer southern cities are downing dusters and heading home. Quite a few are mixing cement and driving forklift trucks on the big infrastructure projects peppered around the region. Research by IPEA, a government-funded think-tank, found that across Brazil the proportion of domestic staff aged over 30 rose from 57% to 73% of the total over the past decade. In the past four years the workforce in São Paulo’s metropolitan area rose by 11% and average wages by 8%. But the number of domestics fell by 4%—and their wages rose by 21%.

“The hunt for domestics”, screamed one of the cover stories in Veja São Paulo this year. The mistresses interviewed by the weekly magazine, sold in Brazil’s biggest and richest city, expressed their frustration in words eerily similar to those used by Experienced Mistress’s friends more than a century earlier: it’s rare to find an honest maid; my motto is “bad with her; worse without her”; maids are paid enemies.

“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor,” wrote Voltaire

The servant problem is raging in Brazil. Margarida, a thirty-something mother-of-two back in São Paulo after four years abroad, tried out seven nannies in less than a year. The failures included women who lied about their previous experience, or their travel costs (which in Brazil must be reimbursed by the employer), or “sat on the sofa all day”, or rarely turned up. Then Daniela, who had previously worked as her maid, called and asked if she was looking for someone. “I jumped at the chance to have Daniela back,” says Margarida. “I’d lost out on three jobs because of being let down on child-care, and I loved her, she had been a friend.”

But Daniela walked out after three weeks, complaining that Margarida was watching her every move. “She had been working in a hotel and she wasn’t happy working back in someone else’s home,” says Margarida. “But she didn’t know that about herself. And I hadn’t understood either.” Margarida is now trying out her ninth nanny. “I’ve learned to turn a blind eye to things I don’t like. I know now I was expecting too much. I hadn’t realised how much Brazil had changed while we were away.”

Alzira hears the maid’s side of such stories every day. The second child of 11 and a native of Piauí in the north-east, she started work aged ten, cleaning, looking after children, and rearing chickens. In 1988, aged 21, she made the 2,000km trek to São Paulo in the hope of something better. A sewing-machinist until carpal-tunnel syndrome ended that job, then a door-to-door seller of cosmetics until her lack of both education and a car impeded her progress, she turned to domestic work in 2006. Since then she has been helping other natives of Piauí into similar jobs.

Increasingly, she is in the line of fire in an undeclared, unacknowledged running battle. Some maids make ridiculous demands, such as large loans from their mistresses (one wanted the air fare to visit her parents); some mistresses are simply too rude for anyone to stay, no matter how much they pay (among the worst, apparently, are those who used to be poor themselves). Nowadays Alzira gets more calls from would-be mistresses than would-be maids. “I feel sorry for some of them, they phone and beg.”

More and more, she says, Brazilian women would rather not work in other people’s homes. And maids quit more easily now than just a few years ago. She thinks many people look down on domestics, regarding them as “the dregs”. She knows maids who, in social situations, lie about what they do for a living. “For me this is as dignified as any other job—I do it to support my family. But not everyone feels like that. It’s typically black women who do this job, and prejudice still exists.”

Since Priscila Leite and Isabella Velletri set up Homestaff, a domestic-employment agency, three years ago, they have been contacted by 5,000 would-be mistresses and have been able to find staff for 650. Doing so is getting harder, says Ms Leite: at the moment they have one maid on their books for every 30 clients. Scarcity is, unsurprisingly, driving up wages: specialists in caring for newborns can make as much as 5,000 reais ($2,750) a month. The agency sometimes gets hate mail from enraged mistresses accusing them of talking prices up—“but we don’t make the market, we just follow the market.”

Clients often start by expecting to find a maid who, like the north-easterners who came to the city 30 or 40 years ago and worked all the time because they had left everything behind, will live in and take only every other weekend off. But today’s young women are unwilling to follow in their mothers’ footsteps. Those that do have their own homes to sleep in, and friends and families with whom to spend evenings and weekends. “Much of our work is opening people’s minds to reality,” says Ms Leite.

Older clients, particularly, expect to be able to pay low wages for a maid-of-all-work. They are quickly disabused, either by the agency (“we delicately point out that we abolished slavery in 1888”) or by their daughters who explain that maids are no longer willing to remain standing whenever in their employers’ presence, and that if they are insulted they will leave. Ms Leite tells of a couple with a small apartment who made up a bed for their new maid in the laundry area—next to the dog’s. They were surprised when she walked out.

Britain has passed through the servant problem that Brazil is now experiencing. So what can Britain tell Brazil of life on the other side? That service does not die, but is reborn in a different form.

According to Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), household expenditure on domestic service hit a low point in 1978, since when it has quadrupled in real terms. It estimates there are as many domestic workers in London now as in Victorian times. But everything except the raw number has changed. Few live in employers’ houses nowadays; many are self-employed, providing specialist services such as dog-walking or oven-cleaning to multiple customers. More work in institutions such as nurseries, rather than in private homes. Some are well-qualified and earning good salaries: professional couples look for educated nannies with qualifications in first aid and the like, and pay accordingly. Not included in the ONS figures are the factory jobs that have replaced service jobs. Instead of employing housemaids and cooks, for instance, busy householders buy the output of workers chopping and bagging salads and cooking ready meals.

Even the most apparently anachronistic of servants, butlers and valets, survive, though with the same shift from living-in to self-employment. Rick Fink started work as an assistant steward in the Royal Navy in 1953, then became live-in butler to a retired naval commander with a rich wife, earning £10 a week. In 1985 he went freelance, working regularly for a handful of families who wanted help on special occasions such as formal dinners and shooting weekends. In 2002 he opened his own butler-valet school to teach the traditional skills of service. His pupils are male and female, around two-thirds sent on the course by their employers, including yacht-owners, aristocrats both British and foreign and the global nouveaux riches. The other third pay their own way in the hope of making as much as £300 a day freelancing, or £70,000-80,000 a year full-time.

In Brazil babysitting services and child-friendly dining venues, unnecessary when the maid lives in, will start to boom. Clothes shops will start selling the drip-dry, non-iron stuff they flog in the rich world. Dry-cleaning and ironing services should benefit too. Schools will have to shape up: even the priciest private ones offer part-time education—with no guarantee that siblings get offered the same shift—meaning that families often have to shell out for both school fees and a nanny who works full-time. Men might even start to take up some of the slack: “my husband changed our children’s nappies,” says Ms Leite of Homestaff, “and friends thought that made him the world’s best father.”

Ready meals will become more popular: Brazilians still cook most meals from scratch, even though the country has some of the world’s biggest food-processing companies, which export their tins and sachets to America and Europe. Fine dining at home will largely disappear. “For the 4,000 reais a month a really good cook now costs, you could eat out ten times in São Paulo’s fanciest restaurants,” says Ms Leite. Many Brazilian mansions have no hot water in the kitchen, and there are paulistanos who time-share helicopters but do not own a dishwasher. That will change when getting congealed fat off pans stops being someone else’s job.

While the demand for service survives the Servant Problem, standards of housekeeping also tend to fall. Work famously expands to fill the time available, but that is even truer of domestic work than other sorts. Bridget Anderson of Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society recalls receiving the results of a questionnaire administered to domestic employers in a number of different countries, which asked what the staff spent their time doing. She was intrigued to discover that maids in Italy spent a great deal of time dusting ceilings. “I had never even thought of dusting a ceiling,” she says. “But then I looked up at mine—and they were very dusty.”

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