Life Below Stairs

Every aristocratic household as well as many belonging to people from the middle class had a retinue of servants or domestiques ranging from thirty to an incredible 200.

Published: 30th October 2014 06:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th October 2014 02:23 PM   |  A+A-


In 18th century France, more than half a million French men and women spent their entire lives in domestic service, living “below stairs” in the service of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. This life was captured by the celebrated French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, who achieved fame and recognition for his homely scenes that were painted with simplicity. They appealed to the royalty and the bourgeoisie alike. In the 1730s, during the time that Chardin was painting his celebrated pictures of “life below stairs”, Paris was overflowing with servants. All day long, the streets bustled with the sounds of footmen and other servants hastening about their business.

Every aristocratic household as well as many belonging to people from the middle class had a retinue of servants or domestiques ranging from thirty to an incredible 200. Although many servants in smaller households were simply maids-of-all-work, the big houses boasted of servants with specific duties assigned to them. There were the valets des chambers to attend to their masters’ every whim, stewards to run the affairs of the house, butlers to look after the wine and the silver, chambermaids to attend to the ladies of the house, young lackeys (or jacquets) to perform menial tasks, cooks and kitchen maids to prepare meals and clean up, coachmen, grooms, chairmen, laundry maids and postillions.  In the 18th century when picnicking first became fashionable, an array of footmen were required to serve the food and tend to the horses. Women servants who were often alone in the city were vulnerable to the advances of both the master and the servants. The kitchen maid as a woman of loose morals was a common notion in the 18th century, a perception that was reinforced by the unfortunate connection between prostitution and domestic service.

There was a rigid hierarchy of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ servants. Each servant had his/her duties and status. At the top of the tree was the steward, an impressive figure who managed the house and very often treated as an equal by the master. At the bottom of the hierarchy was the scullery maid who at best was ignored. Upper servants such as the steward, the valet and the lady’s maid were generally highly trained and their living conditions were a reflection of their elevated status. Lower manservants, the jacquets in particular, were expected to wear la livre ( brightly coloured livery and gold braid)  and upper servants were generally allowed to wear ordinary clothes. Similarly, while the kitchen maids wore coarse woollen clothes, the lady’s maids usually dressed in the cast-off silks and satins of their mistresses.

Upper and lower servants always ate and slept separately, the former eating well in their own rooms, often dining on the leftovers from the food that they served their masters. Very often unwary guests would find their full plates whisked away from under their noses.  Lower servants would dine in the servant’s hall or the kitchen, partaking from the upper servants’s leftovers.

Life was generally comfortable for many upper servants. For instance, a valet, once he had dressed his master in the morning, could have the entire day to himself while a lady’s maid was very often treated as a friend and confidante of the mistress.

However, for the servants at the bottom of the hierarchy, life was arduous. For instance, a young scullery maid had to crawl out from her freezing attic bed at five in the morning to clean the kitchen range and light the ovens. All day long, she scoured the pots and scrubbed floors with hardly a moment’s rest, often climbing back into bed as late as one in the morning.

There were many masters who treated their servants well and could not imagine life without them. According to the English historian Edward Gibbon, “there was nothing to match the indispensable comfort of a servant”. There were many books on how to get the best from servants penned by churchmen and aristocrats. Even a steward, Jean Audiger, wrote one titled The Ordered House (La Maison Reglee). All these books resonated with the same message — that servants owed their master total obedience in exchange for food and clothing. They emphasised that the master had the right to act as the moral guardian and as Fleury wrote, a master “must consider it inevitable that a servant has a fault and must charitably endeavour to correct it. A servant owed it to his master to suffer, work and be silent, whereas a master owed his servants “bread, work and punishment”.

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