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Bridget Hill

For a large part of the period from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, servants were ubiquitous throughout Europe. The largest concentrations were in the cities and towns, but servants were also found in rural villages and on farms. In rural France, for example, between 2 and 12 percent of the population was in service (Hufton, 1993). It constituted the biggest employment after agriculture. Indeed the smaller proportion of servants in France and Germany as compared with Britain was the result of a larger number of women still working in agriculture. Thus, servants formed a significant occupational group in Europe. Numbers probably peaked in the late nineteenth century, declined steadily in the following years when in both France and Britain new job opportunities opened up for women, and slumped in the period following World War I. Yet until World War I, domestic service remained throughout Europe the largest category of female employment (Hufton, 1997). As late as 1911 in Britain, 35 percent of working women were employed as domestic servants.

In part it is the large number of servants in the population, especially in urban areas, that makes them an important subject of research for social historians. In the eighteenth century they constituted something like 12 percent of the population of any European city or town (Hufton, 1993). In Paris at the end of the eighteenth century there were one hundred thousand servants—that is, 15 percent of the population (Fairchilds, 1984). In France as a whole there were two million servants, which meant that 8 percent of the population earned their living in service (Fairchilds, 1984). According to Patrick Colquhoun, London in 1806 had two hundred thousand servants of both sexes, with twice as many women servants as men (Hufton, 1993). Given that such a sizable proportion of the population of European countries was in service, one must ask why. Where did the demand for servants originate? Where did servants come from and why did they choose (if "choose" is the appropriate word) service as an occupation?

Servants were unique among the lower classes in their contact with their employers. This was the nearest most masters and mistresses came to the laboring class. Indeed, one function servants performed was to shield their employers from contact with the working class. The diaries and journals of employers tell us a great deal about master-servant relations, the work servants were expected to do, the conditions under which they carried it out, and the conditions of hiring and firing. Accounts written by servants themselves are rare, but some do exist. Other members of the working class were suspicious of and even hostile to the close, even intimate, relations between many servants and their employers. An analysis of these relations provides a fascinating insight into the complexities of class. Because most domestic servants were not natives of the town or city in which they worked, the history of service is also intimately linked to the history of rural-urban migration and, on a wider scale, to international migration.

With the exception of France and England, comprehensive studies of domestic servants are lacking. One reason this subject of research has been ignored is that, as part of the lower orders, servants and their work were regarded as unimportant. Only in the late twentieth century did historians see them as a fit subject for study. Another reason is that from the end of the seventeenth century servants were increasingly women, and, some historians would say, therefore of little significance. That the vast majority never wrote about their experiences also presents real difficulties in learning about servants. They constitute an elusive and nearly silent group of the population. Some were visible, but most were not. If historians were to rely only on the many accounts written by employers they would rapidly conclude that servants constituted a necessary evil, as they were generally the subject of criticism and abuse from employers.

Information about servants is also available in the many courtesy books telling servants how to behave toward their mistresses and masters and how best to perform their tasks, but these tell us little of how in fact they did behave or exactly what work was demanded of them. Many of these books were written by men and emphasize the dependent role of servants and their duty of unquestioned obedience, loyalty, and absolute discretion. One of the worst sins a servant could commit was to discuss the lives and behavior of his master and mistress outside his household.


"Servant" is a term that has been used very loosely. In England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the term covered all servants in husbandry—that is, both farm servants and domestic servants. Although now the distinction between live-in servants and day laborers who lived in their own homes and worked only part-time for an employer is clear, in earlier periods people did not distinguish between the two (Hill). Apprentices were frequently referred to as "servants," as were undertenants in the seventeenth century.

In France the term domestique or serviteur could cover a great range of occupations and people from very different social backgrounds. Domestique was used not to describe the work done as much as the conditions of employment: a domestique lived in an employer's household in a state of dependency. Those considered domestiques might include gardeners, musicians, teamsters, shop clerks, silk weavers, and lawyers (Fairchilds, 1984).


During the eighteenth century the demand for domestic servants increased as urban development created a growing affluence among the middle classes. Who were the servants who responded to this demand and from where were they recruited? Most women entering domestic service came from the countryside. It has been estimated on the basis of urban censuses that in the preindustrial period 13 percent of the total population in any city north of the Loire were country girls in service (Hufton, 1997). Only a minority of those employed in cities and towns were natives of the towns in which they worked.

The link between domestic service, rural poverty, and unemployment for women was a close one. In southeast England, where agricultural changes had limited the nature of employment available to women, the sheer inability of single women to earn sufficient funds for economic independence made migration an important option. In France girls living in the poor and backward agricultural regions of the Massif Central regularly made the journey to Montpellier and Béziers. In Toulouse in the eighteenth century girls were recruited from the poor agricultural land of the surrounding hill areas.

In general, women entered service when young. The censuses of Wurzburg and Amsterdam show a steady influx of female adolescents. Domestic servants in Amsterdam came from the northern provinces, where family poverty forced many girls into service at a very young age (Hufton, 1993). After 1820 in the area of the Netherlands, where there was a heavy concentration of textile work but where the industry was in decline, parents decided between factory work or domestic service for their daughters. Eighteen percent of domestic weavers' and 28 percent of factory workers' daughters decided to enter domestic service and left home at a very early age ( Janssens). In England it was normal for girls aged thirteen to fourteen to enter service, and many started much earlier. In nineteenth-century Italy children as young as ten or twelve were brought into a family as maids. They grew up with the family and lived in intimacy with their mistresses. Often they were expected to serve all their lives in the one family (Robertson).

According to Danish landowners the very low level of wages on farms persuaded maidservants to migrate to the nearest provincial town or to Copenhagen in the hope of finding better conditions of employment (Dahlsgård). During the first half of the nineteenth century, unmarried girls aged twelve to thirteen flocked to Antwerp and the other chief towns of Antwerp province. Most of them came to be housemaids of Antwerp families. As the city's director of poor relief wrote in 1843, these migrants did not come to Antwerp "in order to set up in business or to carry on their former trade but quite simply to find in another community one way or another the means of existence denied them in their birthplace" (quoted in Lis, p. 45).

The middle classes in towns usually preferred to recruit their servants from the countryside. They were regarded as better and more virtuous workers. It is interesting to note that nearly one in two of female immigrants to Antwerp left the city in the period between 1817 and 1830. At least one-third returned to their places of birth, hoping no doubt that the meager savings they had made in service would enable them to marry. Similarly, seasonal migration from Massat, a village in the Pyrenees, was essential to the survival of the inmates. Most young girls migrated to Spanish cities, but however long they were away, ultimately they tended to return home with the little capital they had accumulated (Hufton, 1997).


During the eighteenth century domestic service was changing. In the first place it was fast becoming feminized. Increasingly, only wealthy masters could afford to employ men at twice the wages of women servants. They did this to display their wealth; also, as the streets were unsafe for women, men served in public as pages, coachmen, and porters. This process first affected urban servants in Britain, Holland, Germany, and France, and later in Spain and Italy. In addition, and perhaps most notably in postrevolutionary France, there was a marked decline in the number of servants employed by the nobility and an increase in the number employed by the middle classes. Another change was the increasing mobility of servants. In response to the chance of a wider experience, better wages or conditions, or the hope of more sympathetic employers, domestic servants constantly changed places.

With the expansion of the middle class in the eighteenth century many more households than formerly were able to employ servants. Given the differential between the wages of male and female domestics most of these households—some quite humble—employed a woman. There was a marked increase in the number of single-servant households. Male servants tended to opt out of service, resenting the close personal supervision. There were far more employment opportunities available to them that allowed them to live in their own homes. In the massive migratory flow from country into towns women were predominant. Many of them ended up in domestic service, so that cheaper female servants became readily available.

Thus, noble households became smaller and more feminine not only because female domestics were cheaper but because male domestics were increasingly attracted out of service by alternative occupations. Apparently the proportion of male servants in noble households peaked around 1750 and then declined. In England in the mid-eighteenth century, the duke of Bedford's household numbered forty servants of both sexes (Hill). While earlier in the seventeenth century households of over fifty had been common, by the late eighteenth century they frequently numbered twenty or less.

Even so the hierarchical structure of servant households often remained. In servant-households in nineteenth-century Germany, for example, individual workloads were carefully defined according to gender, and a rigid hierarchy was maintained between upper and lower servants both in their work, at mealtimes, and in periods of rest. A lady's maid, for instance, was carefully defined in a German dictionary compiled by the Brothers Grimm as "a maiden in the service of a princess or a noblewoman . . . distinct from the chambermaid, often also from the maids-in-waiting who are below her in rank, and distinct also from the housekeeper who runs the household" (quoted in Joeres and Maynes, p. 65). On the whole the bottom of the hierarchy was occupied by women, the top by men (Fairchilds, 1984).

By the end of the eighteenth century, most middle-class households employed one servant, usually a woman. Increasingly, lowly families could afford to employ servants. Maids-of-all-work were cheap enough to attract new employers who wanted help with the burden of the family wash or someone to serve in a shop when the mistress was occupied. Servants had moved into the category of wage earners and were no longer regarded as part of the families who employed them. They were contracted to work and no longer used to denote status or for show. In consequence service was seen by some as increasingly menial and the condition of service considered degrading.


Beginning in the nineteenth century in larger households, the labels attached to individual domestics described the work they did and distinguished them from other domestics. Thus terms like "butler," "coachman," and "postilion" bore a close relationship to the work performed by the servants in these positions. In the eighteenth century such labels were more arbitrary. Servants, however they were labeled, moved between roles in response to their employer's current needs. This is reflected in advertisements for servants that appeared in mid century. In 1755 the Ipswich Journal, for example, carried an advertisement for "a Livery Servant who has been used to wait at Table, and knows something of Horses, and if he has any Knowledge of Gardening it will be the more agreeable." It was the same when it came to employing a woman servant. One advertisement for a female servant in the same journal ran "Wanted immediately. A Cook Maid in a large Family, who must look after two Cows" (Hill, pp. 23–24). For the majority of single-servant-employing households the label attached to them was of little consequence. Most were females, maids-of-all-work, whose range of duties might have little or nothing to do with housework.


Normally it was women who both hired servants and supervised their day-to-day tasks. In Germany, however, husbands not only did the hiring but sometimes also the supervising. Similarly, in middle-class households in nineteenth-century Rome it was common for the husbands to deal with the servants and even arrange for the delivery of supplies (Robertson). In England hiring fairs were held at the Whitsuntide and Martinmas fairs when all kinds of servants paraded before their future employers prepared to hire themselves out for six months' service or a year.

Around the middle of the eighteenth century in England registry offices were established to provide exemplary servants with places. Almost immediately they were accused of fraud and deceit. There were servants prepared to pay for good references, and the registry offices responded willingly. In Scotland John Lawson set up a registry office, calling it Lawson's Intelligence Office as early as 1701. He offered to provide households all over the country with reliable servants. But employers found that servants recruited through registry offices did not stay any longer than those recruited by other means (Plant).

Servants were more commonly recruited through friends, relations, or tradesmen. Although servants in search of a position were expected to offer good references, it soon became clear that employers could not trust their authenticity. Employers were urged to seek out former mistresses in order to inquire about their past servants. Some mistresses resorted to advertising for servants, although that method presented difficulties when it came to checking up on applicants. In Spain it was often the village priest who established a line of contact with a particular city and would act as a reference for a girl taken on by a family. Therefore Galician girls migrating as servants tended to predominate in Madrid (Hufton, 1997).


The conditions of employment varied according to the size of the household and the individual employers. Hours were always long—frequently twelve to eighteen a day. Servants rose early to light fires and start the drudgery of cleaning the house. While employers might define their servant's duties carefully, there was no set time schedule. Free time was minimal—perhaps one day off a month. Often there was no clear agreement about off-duty time, so that servants could be on call every hour of the day and night. A German essayist, Fanny Lewald, wrote in the mid-nineteenth century of how the German domestic servant was " 'in service' day and night. On workdays and holidays, at any hour, the master and mistress have a right to her services" (quoted in Joeres and Maynes, p. 68). This was typical. Samuel Pepys's female servants were frequently expected to stay up until he returned home drunk, and then to undress him and put him to bed.

Accommodation varied greatly. It could consist of a space on the kitchen floor, the area under the stairs, a cupboard, cellar, or by Victorian times, an unheated and unlit attic equipped with a trundle bed and little else. It could consist only of a space in a bed. In seventeenth-century France, masters and mistresses thought nothing of having servants of the same sex sleep two or three to a bed. Often all that was provided was a space on a landing. Danish servants often occupied minute rooms adjacent to the kitchen and without windows. A Neapolitan servant maid in the twentieth century still slept in a dark cupboard under the stairs. In the larger noble households of prerevolutionary France, male servants at the top of the hierarchy might have rooms of their own, but most servants lived in houses with two dormitories—one for men and the other for women. Lack of privacy was guaranteed by the failure to provide any keys to servants' rooms. This was just one factor that made female servants vulnerable to the attention of the male members of the household. Pepys regularly watched his female servants undressing. Victorian houses were often designed with separate staircases to separate servants from their master and mistress and to prevent those unfortunate confrontations, but they still occurred.

The standard of food given to servants also varied. Some servants ate the same food as their employers, although not necessarily of the same quality; others did not. The British feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, visiting Scandinavia in 1795, was horrified to find that employers gave their servants food different from what they ate themselves. This was, however, the usual practice in Scotland in large households. In 1829 Lady Breadalbane ordered that no butter was to be served in the servants' hall but that all their pies and puddings must be made with dripping (Plant, p. 171). On the whole servants' food in Scotland was dull but not unwholesome. In smaller households the servants ate the same food as their employers. As there was little meat, most of the week they lived on porridge, broth, and bannocks.


Throughout Europe, the wages paid to servants varied enormously—both among different areas of each country, and between towns or cities and the rural countryside. For example, while in general female servants' wages were half those of men in Denmark, there were wide variations between one manor and another (Dahlsgård, p. 63). There was also a striking contrast between wages in Scotland and England in the early eighteenth century. Maximum wages were fixed by the Lanarkshire justices in 1708 at £24 Scots a year or £2 sterling for any male servant able to perform "all manner of work relating to husbandry" (Plant, p. 165). In England, the equivalent wage could be at least five times greater.

What has not always been fully appreciated are the large number of servants who were paid no wages at all but were taken on to work in exchange for board and lodging. In Denmark until the late twentieth century it was customary for daughters who became maidservants on farms to receive practically no cash wages at all (Dahlsgård). In England many pauper servants were placed by the parish authorities with employers. Foundlings who survived tended to go into service. Unemployed daughters of those claiming parish relief were liable to be forced into service on the same terms. Not only were no wages paid to them, but the parish authorities usually gave their employers an allowance toward the maintenance of the servant. Young boy-servants, or "livery boys" as they were called, might be given a suit of clothes, but rarely, if they were paid at all, were they paid more than a pittance—more pocket-money than a wage (Hill).

From the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century the wages of French domestic servants are accurately described as "in general so low as to be almost nonexistent" (Fairchilds, 1984, p. 54). Most servants were paid à récompense—that is, they received board, lodging, and some sort of present at the end of their service. Such a system was widespread among both farm and house servants. The alternative was hiring à gages, when servants were in theory paid a yearly wage, although very often it was paid at least partly in kind. In 1705 François Louradour was hired by the Chevalier de la Renaudie at a yearly wage of "eighteen livres, two shirts, and one of my old hats" (quoted in Fairchilds, 1984, p. 55). But wages often went unpaid—sometimes for as long as six years. In eighteenth-century Madrid, many servants in times of hardship were prepared to work for their keep alone—at least until times improved. Most expected to be able to profit a little from the sale of food, and even in modest households servants expected to be able to sell "dripping from meat . . . to street vendors for candles" (Hufton, 1997, p. 86).

In general women servants earned less than men, often no more than a half, even for the same kind of work. Wages varied not only according to gender but also by skill and by geographical location. In France, Paris was by far the highest-paying city for servants. But all servants, except the most highly skilled upper servants, earned wages that were uniformly extremely low, even taking into consideration the value of their board and lodging. Things changed when servants' wages began to rise gradually in the period 1730–1750 and then sharply in the 1770s and 1780s. All wages were rising in France in this period, but servants' wages rose more than those for other occupations. The wages of an unskilled female servant rose 40 percent between the periods 1726–1741 and 1771–1789. For male servants the rise was even greater. In these circumstances hiring à récompense died out (Fairchilds, 1984).

If wages of domestic servants were universally low there were perks from which servants could benefit. We do not know the exact origin of these perks, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century they were a firmly established practice to which servants attached great importance. As the relationship between employers and servants became less paternalistic and more contractual, such practices came under increasing criticism, but attempts to abolish them were met with frenzied opposition. As Samuel Richardson's heroine learned in Pamela, it was usual for employers to pass on clothes to their servants. In England there were often tea allowances made to female domestics and beer to males. Some employers gave special washing allowances to their servants. Cooks and housekeepers were in a position to benefit from tradesman's perks given to confirm their employers' continued use of their services. But by far the most valuable of perks were vails or tips. This custom survived from a time when guests of a household were expected to tip the servants. Vails amounted to a generous supplement to wages for those servants who benefited from them—that is, mainly male servants who were on public view, such as footmen, postilions, and butlers.


One thing common to all female domestic servants was their vulnerability to advances made by their employers, their employers' sons, or fellow servants. Away from their families and friends, in strange households, these young girls lacked all protection from sexual exploitation. Absence of privacy in households (as has been noted, if a servant was lucky enough to have a room of her own she would not possess a key) meant frequent cases of pregnant servant girls. In France ecclesiastical court records reveal masters who impregnated three maids in succession but managed to negotiate marriages for each (Hufton, 1997). We know most about the situation in France, where the déclarations de grossesse (statements required by law of unwed mothers detailing the circumstances surrounding their pregnancies) provide an invaluable source of evidence. Even so, the threat to servant maids was almost certainly much greater than the evidence suggests. To many it seemed perfectly natural that masters should have sexual access to their servants. It is clear that in France affairs between servants and masters were commonplace. It seems probable that most female servants experienced some form of sexual harassment from their masters at one point or another (Fairchilds, 1984).

For the majority of the servant girls who became pregnant, employers had made promises of money or gifts, or threatened dismissal or the use of force. Often male servants promised marriage and abandoned the women when they became pregnant. In eighteenth-century Nantes, for instance, 40 percent of women reporting illegitimate pregnancies were domestic servants. In Marseilles it was as high as 90 percent (Maza). There is no reason to think the situation in England was all that different. In France it appears to have been easy for a well-to-do master to unload the maid he had made pregnant on some single male in need of money. Often this was done with the full connivance of the wife-to-be. Such a marriage cost one French seducer one hundred florins and a new set of clothes (Hufton, 1997).

Such marriages notwithstanding, the fate of the pregnant servant maid was dire. As soon as her condition was known, instant dismissal followed. The opportunities for her reemployment were few, particularly if she had the child. Shame and fear of returning to their families caused many to take to the road. A town provided more anonymity than a rural village. But they had to be very careful, for anyone harboring a traveling pregnant woman in England could find himself in court and fined (Hufton, 1997). Wherever they were discovered, they were harassed and moved on. Occasionally evidence of some humanity toward such traveling women appears. Anne Frie of Broad Hinton told the magistrates in 1610 that when she found " 'a walking woman . . . in travail of child in the open street' she took her in 'for womanhood's sake' " (Hufton, 1997, p. 269).

While there is some disagreement about the scale of recruitment of domestic servants into prostitution, two groups constituted regular sources. One was unemployed domestic servants (Fairchilds, 1984). As Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders suggests, in such cases the choices were simple—either prostitution or starvation. Often such prostitution was short-term and the women returned to regular employment as servants at a later stage. In France that was the recurring experience of women employed in the silk manufacture in Lyon. Whenever trade was bad the servantes would be dismissed. Their only recourse would be a period in prostitution. The same thing happened in the lace industry in Belgium when bad trade left women workers unemployed. They made their way to Dutch ports and for a spell became prostitutes (Hufton, 1997). The second source for the recruitment of prostitutes was inn servants, who received no regular wages but were expected to survive on the basis of tips. It is not surprising that they attempted to supplement their earnings by prostitution (Fairchilds, 1984, p. 75). In Amsterdam, where prostitution was particularly common, most prostitutes were migrants from the north Netherlands and Germany, and 15 percent of the total number of prostitutes had been servants (Hufton, 1997, p. 326).


What chances existed for upward social mobility among domestic servants? For the minority in larger households it was possible to ascend the servant hierarchy by learning new skills and accumulating experience. As Olwen Hufton writes, "a kitchen skivvy after a few years might even advance to parlourmaid." She might achieve the status of chambermaid or, more exceptionally, lady's maid, but this was far from usual, and required a large dose of good luck (Hufton, 1993, p. 21). So for a minority of servants of status there was some career structure to their lives in service. In the large houses of the rich, where a strict hierarchy of servants existed, an experienced servant could enjoy a measure of autonomy, a comfortable standard of living, and some authority over others. This was especially true of male servants. Given the decline in the number of male servants there was a decreasing opportunity to marry men in service. Many female servants married tradesmen or craftsmen. Others were lucky if they won the affections of the lowest paid laborer. Much depended on what dowry a female servant had managed to accumulate from her earnings. Real social advancement from marriage, however, was rare. If the estimate of John Rickman, the chief statistician employed on the early nineteenth-century British census, was right—that is, that one-third of servants were upwardly mobile, one-third remained static, and one-third were downwardly mobile—then two-thirds of servants experienced no social betterment (Hill). For the majority of servants there was no such career structure. This in part explains the great mobility of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century domestic servants who were constantly changing places, to learn new skills, to increase their wages or improve their working conditions, and often just to get away from an unpleasant master or mistress.

Most young girls entering into service had little or no education. There is evidence that by the eighteenth century in Britain and the Netherlands better-off employers were demanding a degree of literacy from servants above the level of kitchen maid. It has been argued that servants were more literate than the rest of the working population and that a high proportion married above their social origins (Smith). Of course literacy varied; in France and the Mediterranean countries, literacy rates were much lower. In the departments of Provence and Normandy, for example, the literacy rate in the eighteenth century was barely 30 percent. Employers of servants in Spain did not expect them to be literate. In northwest Europe in the eighteenth century, employers demanded some sophistication and education in their servants (Hufton, 1997).

What was the attitude of servants to service? Of eighteenth-century London female servants, D. A. Kent wrote, "domestic service was an occupation which allowed women a measure of choice and relative economic independence" (quoted in Hill, p. 107). In sharp contrast is the comment from a German novel of the brother of a German woman entering service. "You have no idea of the dependent status that awaits you, or of the moods to which you will be exposed" (quoted in Joeres and Mayne, p. 66). One historian confidently states that most French women employed as domestics would have been anxious to get out of service as soon as they possibly could. For thousands of French women service was an unpleasant but necessary experience that lasted ten years before a dowry was earned to make marriage a possibility (Maza). In fact many servants married and left their employment. At least in theory the head of the household would expect to be consulted, if not about the groom, then about when the marriage was taking place. If the girl hoped to stay on in service the approval of the head of household was essential. There is evidence that, by the end of the eighteenth century, French domestic servants found service more and more intolerable as it involved loss of independence. Service at its best was regarded as a temporary bridge to better things (Fairchilds, 1979).

In their anomalous position between masters and mistresses and the rest of the laboring class, servants belonged nowhere. They were an isolated group. Female domestic servants in particular were consistently objects of hostility, as indeed were unmarried woman generally. Their unmarried status was seen as threatening by a society that saw marriage as the foundation of social stability. They were assumed to be promiscuous, debauched, and wanton, and were often accused on the barest of evidence of being prostitutes. Their ambiguous position was seen as menacing and a threat to social order (Maza).

In the twentieth century, as employment opportunities for women increased, the number of women choosing to enter service declined. Women wanted better wages than was possible in service, and more independence and freedom to live in their own homes and to spend their spare time as they chose without the close supervision of their employers.

In 1849 the Westminster Review published an article looking forward to a time when women would refuse to enter domestic service. The growth of more attractive alternative occupations for women in the late twentieth century made domestic service a rarity except among the very wealthy. But in a subtly different form domestic service thrived in the shape of home-helps, baby-sitters, and au pairs. These occupations appealed mostly to women, often single parents with young children, who needed part-time employment. The great difference from domestic service of the past is that they lived in their own homes and led lives independent of their employers.

See alsoEstates and Country Houses (volume 2);Prostitution (in this volume);Illegitimacy and Concubinage (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


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Kent, D. A. "Ubiquitous but Invisible: Female Domestic Servants in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London." History Workshop Journal 28 (1989): 111–128.

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