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Tales from the Elevator and Other Stories of Modern Service in New York City
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Tales from the Elevator and Other Stories of Modern Service in New York City

Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has influenced generations of scholars in urban studies, as well as lay people interested in what makes cities work. It argues that healthy, functioning neighborhoods provide safety and a sense of community by mixing residential housing, shops, bars, small parks, and other spaces and establishments that keep people coming and going at all hours, looking after each other. But there are exceptions—other neighborhoods that also work, despite a lack of mixed use—and Jacobs's brief comments on one exceptional kind of neighborhood inspired my dissertation. Jacobs writes that the work of building a sense of community can be commodified and turned into capitalist enterprise and wage labor. She calls the "network of doormen and superintendents, of delivery boys and nursemaids," on Park Avenue and other upper-class residential streets "a form of hired neighborhood."1

Many scholars since then have discussed wage workers who maintain, patrol, and enliven modern spaces, waiting upon and [End Page 695] interacting with the public and the industries that hire and manage them. Some of these scholars imply that the commodification of feeling, affect, or emotion is itself a recent phenomenon, and others tend not to take up the question at all.2 I decided to study Manhattan's hotel and apartment house industries to see how they improved on slavery and servitude, which seem to me to share this (actually) ancient tradition of emotional labor, and how they refined it to their own specifications. I assumed the contrast between servitude and service would show the latter occupations in a better light than historians and sociologists who decry post-1945 deindustrialization, and tend to compare "good" industrial work to "bad" jobs like flipping burgers.3 The evidence I found suggests that the modern service sector was not only better to its workers than masters and mistresses were to servants, but that it played a significant role in the decline of servitude in the United States.

In modern times, the variety of American forms of servitude shrank, as slavery, indentured servitude, and relatively self-sufficient household economies gave way to wage labor. But servitude was also remade as waged domestic labor, and throughout the nineteenth century, hotel and apartment house labor competed with a growing, increasingly systematized, anonymous domestic service. Domestics were different from the indentured servants of the colonial era and different from the young women whom neighbors and cousins took into their households to teach wifely duties, but not too different. They still lived under a master's roof, followed his directions, and [End Page 696] suffered his bad moods. Through the upheavals of industrialization and emancipation, the institution of servitude endured and expanded.4

But around the turn of the twentieth century, even domestic service went into serious decline. As the accompanying graph demonstrates (figure 1), between 1860 and 1950 the ratio of domestic servants to all Americans diminished considerably, with the most precipitous drop between 1890 and 1920. Servitude never disappeared completely and boomed against the general trend during the Great Depression, when labor was cheap. But what had once been a dominant way to complete domestic tasks became just a choice, and an increasingly rare one, among many.

Historians who have noted this trend have generally attributed it to two factors: new household technologies like the electric iron that decreased the demand for servant labor and new job opportunities in office work, industry, and certain professions that drew would-be domestic servants away from the labor pool.5 Though both of these factors are undoubtedly important, I point to a third that is arguably the most crucial: the rise of service industries that competed to provide the same functions as domestic servants, housewives, and other household workers. The census data show that servitude declined as Americans, both workers and consumers, gained other options.6

These two trends do seem to be causally related, but it took a lot more research to understand how. The core of my research was in the archives, trade journals, and union records of hotel and...