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  • Cleaning Up: The Transformation of Domestic Service in Twentieth Century New York City
  • Lara Vapnek
Cleaning Up: The Transformation of Domestic Service in Twentieth Century New York City. By Alana Erickson Coble (New York&London: Routledge, 2006. xvii plus 258 pp.).

Alana Erickson Coble proposes a "transformation" of domestic service in New York City from a hierarchical relationship between mistress and maid "to a more balanced relationship" where employer and employee negotiated the terms of labor. Coble focuses on the period from 1920 through 1965, when limitations on immigration combined with the Great Migration increased the population of African American women working as domestics in New York City. During this period, Coble argues, domestic work in private households came to be identified as a "black" occupation although the total proportion of African American servants never reached more than half.

Like Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Coble sees African American women as changing the nature of domestic service by refusing to live-in with their employers, effectively limiting their hours of labor and remaining available for their own families. Nonetheless, the hours domestic servants worked proved to be a point of contention, with workers preferring an eight-hour day and employers preferring live-in help, or ten to twelve hours of labor from workers they hired by the day. The nature of the service performed also became a point of conflict and negotiation. After World War II, most servants refused to wash windows or to get down on their knees to scrub floors.

Despite these improvements, Coble acknowledges limited occupational mobility for African American women during the period she examines. As Jacqueline Jones has noted, the conditions of African American domestic workers became particularly dire during the Great Depression, when large numbers of white women re-entered domestic service. In one of her most interesting chapters, Coble describes the two-tiered domestic labor market that developed in New York City during the 1930s, with white women commanding higher wages and black women often forced to wait on street corners hoping to find work for the day. Civil rights activist Ella Baker and journalist Marvel Cooke undertook an exposé of the Bronx "slave market" that led the city to push the state to use federal funds to open several free, indoor day labor centers for domestic workers in 1941. Government efforts to intervene in the domestic labor market were short-lived, however. The "slave markets" reappeared in the late 1940s, when African American women were laid off from wartime jobs and the nation slipped into a postwar recession. [End Page 209]

Coble is at her strongest when she focuses on developments within New York City. For example, she analyzes floor plans from Manhattan apartment buildings to trace the changing expectations for servants. In the early twentieth century, these buildings had small rooms for servants to live in. She links the construction of smaller apartments in the 1940s and 1950s to a shift toward day labor. She uses advertisements to show how utility companies and makers of household appliances promised to eliminate the need for servants through advances in household technology. Like Ruth Cowan Schwartz, however, Coble concludes that the net result of these technological innovations was to make "more work for mother."

Coble draws on an impressive base of social historical evidence. She analyzes census data to provide details on the wages, ethnic composition, and proportion of domestic workers in New York City and the United States, complementing the charts and tables in David Katzman's classic study of domestic service during an earlier period. She mines oral histories and records of domestic employment bureaus to capture the experiences and expectations of employers and employees. Cartoons, movies, magazine articles, and congressional testimony provide clues to wider cultural perceptions of servants.

Given this rich base of evidence, the thinness of Coble's general argument is disappointing. Too often, her analysis falls back onto Whiggish assertions of progress with little direct evidence that women who worked as servants perceived their conditions as improving.

This insistence on progress seems to inhibit Coble from exploring the gender, racial, ethnic, and class tensions embodied in the "servant problem," a productive approach taken by scholars such as Phyllis...


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pp. 209-211
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