January 12, 2011

The cost of domestic servants

More thoughts on the costs involved in getting a telephone installed at home.

Yesterday's post on "the telephone tangle" referred to Hastie's idea about having two lines into businesses and homes, to ensure better chances of connection.  In real terms, this was a luxury that few could afford.  Even London business people, for whom the telephone was a boom, were slow to adopt the new technology; they had other lines of communication.  To put things into perspective, let's compare some prices.

Annual subscription charges
c.1879 - £20
1896 - £18 (Glasgow)

1897 - c.£14 (London)
1904 - £34 (Glasgow)

I haven't reached the stage yet where I can conduct analytical research into how much a telephone connection would have cost the Victorian gentleman.  The figures above were gleaned from various articles and give only a very rough idea.  

Looking now at servants' annual wages, we can build up a general picture.

Pageboy/Footboy, unliveried - £8-18
General female servant - £12-18 (without allowance for tea, sugar, beer!)
Butler - £60-80
[figures are suggested wages, derived from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1888 edition]

By comparing amounts, we see just how much a family was prepared to lay out for a butler (and from a certain social level and above, everyone had one) but out of that group, few households had a telephone connection.  Secondly, there is little substantial difference between a telephone subscription and a lowly servant's wage.  Why not just have the subscription?  My cynical answer is that a telephone can't sweep the floor or fetch coal.

When looking at Victorian domestic arrangements, we see that householders were slow to instal plumbing, for instance, or change from coal to gas.[1]   It was as cheap, or cheaper, to keep a domestic to do household chores in the old way, rather than pay to make the changeover.  Who cares if the servant had to work harder?  I think it is precisely this mentality that was also applied to the telephone.  These people were not so quick to adopt every new gadget and technology that came along, when they could manage fine with the old ways (unlike today).  Not so much a fear of change per se, rather an attitude of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

My conclusions?  If you could afford to keep a servant, then you could afford to have a telephone.  But few who could afford a phone, got one.

[1] Peter Williams "Constituting class and gender: a social history of the home, 1700-1901." In Thrift, Williams, Class and Space: The making of urban society. 1987

p.s. I have yet to come across a late C19 drama, musical, story, etc. (in which the telephone is a prominent feature) that depicts a servant answering the telephone.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.