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Reviewed by:
  • Domestic Service and Gender, 1660–1750: Life and Work in the London Household, and: Domestique et servante. Des vies sous condition: Essai sur le travail domestique en Belgique au 19e siecle
  • Theresa M. McBride
Domestic Service and Gender, 1660–1750: Life and Work in the London Household. By Tim Meldrum (Harlow and London: Longman, 2000. ix plus 220pp. $
Domestique et servante. Des vies sous condition: Essai sur le travail domestique en Belgique au 19e siecle. By Valérie Piette (Louvain-la-Neuve: Académie royale de Belgique, 2000, 521pp. paperback).

The history of domestic service has attracted increasing attention in the past 20 years, and now encompasses a significant literature of both local and national studies on the experience of the thousands of people, both women and men, who spent all or part of their lives in this occupation. Many historians of urbanization and family history make reference to domestic servants and some integrate more extensive discussion of the work and social condition of servants, but few studies of the working classes recognize the significance of this occupation which by the last decade of the nineteenth century was the largest single sector in the British labor market. The current relevance of the question was emphasized in Servicing the Middle Classes: Class, Gender and Waged Domestic Labour in Contemporary Britain (London, 1994) by two sociologists, N. Gregson and M. Lowe. There has been a rise in waged domestic labor in Britain as more women return to work after childbirth and rely upon domestic help to allow them to do so. Tim Meldrum prefers what he asserts is a less anachronistic perspective, locating the 21th century pattern of waged domestic labor within the long history of such work and its meaning for the experience of both the working and middle classes. Meldrum points out that servants haunted the streets and houses of early modern London, their presence felt, if not heard, and widely documented in the theatre, in visual representations and in criminal records. The institution of service was a cornerstone of early modern English life, when as much as three-quarters of those in the 15—24 age cohort may have been servants. London was the center of domestic service in Britain with the growth of a servant population that more than kept pace with the expansion of the middle class, and is estimated at one-thirteenth of London’s entire population by the beginning of the 18th century.

This paperback book is based on Meldrum’s 1996 doctoral dissertation at the University of London, but it is published as part of the series on Women and Men in History intended for students and the general reader as well as scholars. [End Page 215] The goal of the series is admirable, but Meldrum’s volume seems unlikely to attract a general audience, being too mired at times in the critique of previous historical work on the topic.

Pinpointing domestic service in the early modern period presents a challenge which Meldrum handles well by delineating the relationship between slavery and service and the confounding of categories of service in agricultural households, and concluding with a well-accepted definition of “domestic servant” as a full-time, live-in servant dwelling in a household and performing domestic tasks for wages. It was the middling class who employed them, and the employment of a servant marked a significant level of social status, and has been considered by historians as a defining characteristic of the middle class. Meldrum cautions the reader that there are numerous cases in which it is difficult to distinguish a domestic servant from relatives and female lodgers who performed domestic work in the households in which they lived.

One of Meldrum’s theses, advanced in an earlier article (“Domestic Service, Privacy and the Eighteenth-Century Metropolitan Household,” Urban History, 26:1999), is a critique of the argument by well-known historian Lawrence Stone that the middle classes were searching to increase their privacy by removing servants’ rooms to a separate floor in the 18th century. Meldrum argues that this evolution in private life did not occur within this time frame and he disputes that this spatial change...

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