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The Black Mammy and the Irish Bridget: Domestic Service and the Representation of Race, 1830–1930
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The Black Mammy and the Irish Bridget:
Domestic Service and the Representation of Race, 1830–1930

In January 1884, Puck magazine featured a full-color, two-panel cartoon entitled “Our Self-Made ‘Cooks’: From Paupers to Potentates.”1 On the left a simian-featured Irish peasant woman in rags is being forcibly ejected from a tumbledown cottage. She is further burdened by her elderly mother and by her emaciated child sleeping on an equally emaciated pig in front of a meager fire. The caption reads, “They are evicted in the old country.” The panel on the right is captioned: “But in America they do all the evicting themselves.” In this rendering, the same ape-like woman now stands tall and imposing in the middle of a well-appointed kitchen, while an Irish cop sits contentedly at the stove stirring his cup of tea under the benevolent gaze of a portrait of the pope. The cook wears not her uniform, but rather a gaudy, overdone version of a stylish waist dress, replete with an oversized red bow and tightly cinched belt. She is holding a book in one large hand and peremptorily ordering her mistress out of the room with the other. Her beautiful employer hesitates in the doorway, also holding a book, clad in a much more modest black dress, but clearly cowed by her commanding cook.2 The Irish cook has taken over the kitchen, though not with her superb domestic skill. Instead, stoking the fears of any nativist readers of Puck, her Catholicism, her misguided [End Page 176] middle-class pretensions, and her policeman suitor represent an Irish immigrant victory over urban domestic space (figure 1).

A Fleischmann’s Yeast promotional calendar from the same decade offered a similar middle-class kitchen, but with a very different narrative meaning. At the center of a diamond-shaped overlay framed by a gold filigree and orange maple-leaf design, a Mammy figure stands, confidently stirring something in a skillet. Like her Irish counterpart, she also rules the kitchen, but with appropriate culinary skills and equally appropriate cooking attire, and with the important addition of a scarf wrapped around her head and small gold-hoop earrings—attire suggestive of her African heritage but in no way alarming. Her mistress looks on from the doorway, not in distress or in modest attire, but in familiar elite fashion and in comfortable assurance that all is well cared for in her kitchen (figure 2).3

These two artifacts speak volumes about the contrasting images of the two groups of women who dominated domestic service in America from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s. Representations of both the Irish “Bridget” and the Black Mammy had roots in the early republic and the antebellum periods. While the nostalgic, nurturing image of the Black Mammy was honed and refined from the 1830s on, the peak of her glorification occurred between 1890 and the mid-1920s. This apotheosis accompanied the tremendous growth in the number of black domestic servants in the North.4 In contrast, the notion of the uncivilized, buffoonish Irish Bridget coincided with the earlier dominance of Irish immigrants in these positions.5 Why the [End Page 177]

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Figure 1.

“Our Self-Made ‘Cooks’: From Paupers to Potentates”: Cartoon by Frederick Opper, Puck, 30 Jan. 1884. The caption on the left reads, “They are evicted in the old country…,” and the one on the right reads, “But in America they do all the evicting themselves.”

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Figure 2.

Fleischmann’s trade-card promotional calendar, ca. 1880s. Author’s private collection.

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contrast? To provide at least a partial answer, this study examines the circulation of images surrounding these two figures from the 1830s through the 1920s. Cartoons, fiction, advice literature, and advertising campaigns that disseminated images and ideas about Bridgets and Mammies rarely squared with the reality of the actual servants’ experiences, so why were such cultural representations necessary at all? And why did they take the particular forms they did? Cultural representations, particularly the exaggerations found in cartoons and advertisements, serve to illuminate anxiety about and...