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Domestic Service

Domestic servants have always been important to Latin American society and its economy. In the colonial period the patriarchal household was the primary basis of juridical identity and social control in Spanish and Portuguese America, with all persons being controlled through the male head of household. The Spanish casa poblada (the home of the encomendero, required by law to include room for at least forty guests and military retainers) was literally viewed as the basis for Spanish civilization in the New World. In sixteenth-century Latin America domestic servants were found not only in the houses of encomenderos and senhores de engenho (Brazilian sugar planters), with as many as forty, but also in the houses of merchants and artisans, with the former having as few as one. In addition, Spanish and Portuguese law mandated that women be maintained in a position of tutelage, which implied that most employment options for women prior to the end of the nineteenth century were domestic—in terms of where the work was executed, the type of labor demanded, and often the type of family relationship necessary to exercise a craft or trade.

The dominant race of domestic servants varied by location, depending upon the ethnic mix of the population, and also changed over time. However, Indians, slaves, freed slaves, persons of mixed races (castas), and white men and women were all part of the servant population in the sixteenth century. In Brazil, African and Indian slaves composed the servant population from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. In Mexico, Indians were the dominant form of domestic labor in the sixteenth century, but blacks, slave and freed, became more important in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, most Mexican domestic servants were castas. Spanish servants continued to be considered prestigious. Women seeking employment as wet nurses in Mexico City frequently claimed Spanish blood—probably because of the idea that a baby would imbibe qualities of character common to an ethnic group along with its milk. In Brazil, although most domestic servants were Indian or African slaves and freed persons until the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a definite preference for mixed-blood or "whiter" servants.

Domestics in the colonial period are difficult to trace. The only relevant regulations specified that domestic servants were under the authority and responsibility of the head of the household in which they worked. The significance of domestic servants in colonial Latin America becomes most apparent through studies on household composition. Studies of eighteenth-century Caracas, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and various areas in Chile and Brazil indicate the high proportions of dependent members of the household who were not part of the nuclear family and were generally regarded as servants. These allegados or agregados frequently contributed from 20 to 40 percent of household members. Orphaned relatives, "adopted children," manumitted children and women in Brazil, Indians captured in frontier wars, illegitimate ("natural") offspring of the head of the household, and the adolescent children of neighbors or kinfolk were natural components of the servant category and contributed to the personalized, paternalistic master-servant relationship, which also was often strengthened through ritual kinship. This characteristic of domestic servitude declined in the nineteenth century. At the same time, the association of domestic service with the lower end of the class/caste/color system that dominated Latin American society caused a gradual alienation between employers and servants as well as a loss of status for the occupation of domestic service.

In the nineteenth century the effects of urbanization and structural economic changes increasing the size of the middle class led to renewed demand for domestic servants in the urban areas of Latin America. At the same time, domestic service acted to continue preindustrial social and productive relationships and to reinforce the patriarchal household. The private home was seen as a "protected place for a woman to work" and a "guardian of moral virtue." Most domestic servants were migrants from nearby villages. In nineteenth-century Mexico City and in Argentina about 60 percent of women workers were domestic servants.

Female labor participation during industrialization has followed a U-shaped path, according to studies on Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and the United States. In these countries the high proportions of women working in the mid-nineteenth century were followed by dramatic declines in the ranks of working women from the 1890s to the 1930s. In this period domestic service declined as well, though less than other forms of female employment. In the period from 1940 to 1970 female employment expanded throughout Latin America in response to generally improved economic conditions and to the expansion of the service sector. Middle-class and upper-class women entered the white-collar sector, which enlarged the demand for domestic service. This contrasts strongly with the experience of the United States and Europe, where domestic servants largely disappeared in this period. The difference in Latin America may be attributed to the much larger unskilled lower-class population, many of them rural migrants, desperately in need of jobs. Furthermore, with the continued use of domestics, upper-class and middle-class Latin American women were able to go to work without threatening the traditional patriarchal organization of the household.

Most domestic workers are recent migrants, frequently utilizing the "educational" and patronage advantages of a live-in domestic situation to provide them with a transition from the provinces. Nevertheless, the "mobility" experienced by domestic servants is not a move between types of employment, but rather a move as a domestic to a better neighborhood with a higher salary and more privileges. In the 1980s and 1990s the increased value of privacy, the growth of daycare and nursery schools, and improved technology in the middle-class home began to dampen the demand for full-time, live-in servants. More domestics were employed part-time for specific tasks—a change that has reduced the paternalistic privileges of the live-in situation as well as some of its oppressiveness in terms of hours and personal supervision. Although "casual" domestic labor was even less regulated and usually less secure than a live-in position, it did permit the domestic to acquire several employers.

Everywhere in Latin America domestic service has historically been the most important form of female employment. However, in part because of the colonial circumstances of conquest and caste/race relations, domestic service became an aspect of race and class subordination rather than the "stage-of-life" learning experience it usually was in pre-industrial Europe. In the sixteenth century many (perhaps half) domestic servants were male, and some were white. By the eighteenth century, most domestic servants were female and predominantly of mixed-blood or mixed-caste background, and those who were male were also of mixed blood or of slave status. Domestic service in the nineteenth twentieth, and twenty-first centuries has become an almost entirely female and lower-class occupation. Through women's organizations, federal labor laws throughout the Americas came to include domestic service, yet legal recourse in practice is often limited.

Globalization has brought changes to women's employment. While it has increased their participation in the export-manufacturing sector, globalization has also spurred women's migration across and within country borders. For instance, Bolivian, Paraguayan, and Ecuadorian, women often migrate to Chile and Argentina for domestic work. In the twenty-first century, domestic service continues to be important, particularly for new migrants and Afro-Brazilian women.

See alsoCaste and Class Structure in Colonial Spanish America; Migration and Migrations; Women.


An excellent source on domestic service in Latin America, both historically and today, is Elsa M. Chaney and Mary Garcia Castro, eds., Muchachas No More: Household Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean (1989). On Brazil, see Sandra Lauderdale Graham, House and Street: The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro (1988), and Mary Karasch, "Suppliers, Sellers, Servants, and Slaves," in Cities and Society in Colonial Latin America, edited by Louisa Schell Hoberman and Susan Migden Socolow (1986). An accessible article relating larger economic changes, women's employment opportunities, and domestic service is Elizabeth Jelin, "Migration and Labor Force Participation of Latin American Women: The Domestic Servants in the Cities," in Signs 3, no. 1 (1977): 129-141.

Additional Bibliography

Aymer, Paula L. Uprooted Women: Migrant Domestics in the Caribbean. Westport: Praeger, 1997.

Barbosa, Fernando Cordiro. Trabalho e residência: Estudo das ocupações de empregada doméstica e empregado de edifício a partir de migrantes "nordestinos." Niterói: Editora da Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2000.

Eckstein, Susan, and Timothy Wickham-Crowley. Struggles for Social Rights in Latin America. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrettte. Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Kofes, Suely. Mulher, mulheres: Identidade, diferença e desi-gualdade na relação entre patroas e empregadas domésticas. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2001.

Momsen, Janet Henshall, ed. Gender, Migration, and Domestic Service. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Segura, Denise A., and Patricia Zavella, eds. Women and Migration in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: A Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Vázquez Flores, Erika Julieta, and Horacio Hernández Casillas. Migración, resistencia y recreación cultural: El trabajo invisible de la mujer indígena. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2004.

                              Elizabeth Anne Kuznesof

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Even though they were regarded with suspicion, domestic servants were an indispensable element in the households of the triumphant nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. The affluent middle classes, who had enjoyed a spectacular rise thanks to widespread industrialization and urbanization, became increasingly vocal in their demand for an abundant domestic workforce. Initially, domestic service was assimilated within the larger category of the proletariat, but it came to constitute a separate sector as legislation assigned workers to more clearly defined categories. During the twentieth century, the rate of feminization in this sector increased until women constituted 80 to 95 percent of the domestic work-force in some European countries. From the late nineteenth century onward, the declining status of domestic service became a cause for general concern, and in response constant attempts were made to maintain the volume of the sector's workforce by increasing its professionalization or by turning to an immigrant workforce from more and more distant countries. Complaints of a crisis in the availability of domestic servants became a commonplace topic of conversation among bourgeois housewives in many nations.


Although the crisis in domestic service was an international phenomenon, the number of women entering into service remained high. In 1920, servants in Switzerland accounted for 14 percent of women in the workforce; in Germany in 1925, 11 percent of working women were domestic servants. During the Depression of the 1930s, the scarcity of domestic servants was felt even more acutely on the Continent. When in response to the economic crisis governments sought to limit women's work through both persuasion and coercion, household and domestic employment were exempted from the measures.

The demand for servants rose as new social categories acquired wealth. The upper middle classes and the aristocracy were no longer the only potential employers, and the emergence of a massive class of employers only increased the demand for domestic servants. Prior to the widespread adoption of the automobile as a status symbol, the domestic servant was valued as an external sign of wealth by a class that sought to separate itself from its working-class origins.

Various solutions were proposed to remedy the relative penury of servants. In the nineteenth century these were initiated primarily by individuals and in the twentieth by governments. During the 1920s, girls became less willing to enter domestic service, for a variety of reasons. Among these, the inferior social status of the occupation ranked high, followed by working conditions, including long working hours and the lack of comfort and leisure, and psychological and social factors, such as isolation from one's family, the lack of hope for improvement of one's situation, and the limited prospects for marriage. Although numerous surveys documented the reasons girls were unwilling to enter domestic service, solutions were hard to find. One remedy was sought at the level of semantic symbolism. It was felt that the vocabulary of domestic service, heavily fraught with disparaging connotations, must change. The words maid and servant were replaced by euphemisms such as domestic worker or, more elegantly, lady's help, or in French employée de maison or auxiliaire ménagère, and in German Hausgehilfin.

Domestic workers were, almost as a matter of course, excluded from the legal benefits to which other workers were entitled, including working contracts in Belgium in 1900 and industrial law in England and Poland in 1928. In countries where domestic work was included in the general laws protecting workers (for example, Spain in 1931), domestic employees were still generally excluded from laws that specified working and resting hours. Some exceptions must be noted, however. In Switzerland, a 1920 law on working hours imposing nine-hour periods of rest applied equally to domestic employees and to other workers. A 1918 Czech law specified daily and weekly rest periods. Throughout the period between the two world wars, recurring attempts were made on the Continent to regulate domestic work by means of public law, but they were rarely successful. In Belgium, five different bills were submitted, but none was approved. Only in the second half of the twentieth century did legislation specifically regulating domestic service appear (in Belgium, for example, in 1970).


One attempt to make domestic work more attractive was the provision of vocational training for girls of rural or working-class origins. Throughout Europe, initiatives were taken to develop the teaching of domestic economy and household skills. But although in the nineteenth century the very idea of a society without servants was inconceivable except to a few visionaries, in the first few decades of the twentieth century the scarcity of domestic help came to be accepted, albeit grudgingly. The idea of scientific work management, already well implanted in the United States, played a key role in this awareness and thus the development of scientific domestic engineering, introduced in Europe by the Americans Lilian Gilbreth and Christine Frederick and taken over by the French Paulette Bernège and the German Erna Mayer, ran parallel to the scarcity of domestic workers.

Domestic service remained a solitary and unstructured form of employment, making it difficult to organize. Only a few unions emerged: in Finland, domestic employees' unions were first organized in 1900 and were grouped into a federation in 1905. Similar unions appeared in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, and Lithuania.

The primary response to the shortage of domestic servants was to draw on an immigrant workforce. Legislation on immigration, although generally restrictive with regard to the workforce as a whole, displayed greater leniency for this category of workers. In Switzerland in 1928, 28 percent of domestic servants were immigrants, compared with 13 percent in other occupations. As a result, the statistics in some large cities show more female than male immigrants. With time, the areas from which domestic workers were recruited grew. Initially, southern European countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal) supplied domestic workers for northern countries. So, later, did Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria), and numbers rose steeply after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the extension of the European Union's borders. But recruitment spread well beyond the European continent as Filipino and Peruvian servants came to be in high demand.

In the early twenty-first century, attempts to evade new laws governing domestic work caused domestic work to become increasingly clandestine, giving rise to the emergence of a substantial blackmarket economy in Europe. The phenomenon is universally acknowledged but impossible to assess statistically. Both national and European authorities are trying to combat this underground economy by various means (see Resolution of the European Parliament on the Normalization of Domestic Work in the Informal Economy, 30 November 2000), but despite their attempts concern over domestic slavery is growing. An uncountable number of servants are locked away in their employers' homes, where they are subjected to catastrophic conditions, including systematic confiscation of their passports upon their arrival, painful working and living conditions, sequestration, and physical violence—conditions against which these modern-day slaves are totally unprotected. In response, the Council of Europe in June 2001 encouraged the governments of member states to severely repress this new form of the slave trade.

See alsoImmigration and Internal Migration; Trade Unions.


Anderson, Bridget. Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour. London, 2000.

Gubin, E., and Valerie Piette, eds. Domesticité. Special issue, Sextant 15–16 (2001).

Sarti, Raffaella. "Da serva a operaia? Transformazioni di lungo periodo del servizio domestico in Europa." Polis XIX (1 April 2005): 91–120.

Valerie Piette

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Although the Great Depression adversely affected a broad spectrum of Americans between 1929 and 1941, the economic calamity was particularly devastating for the millions of workers employed in the domestic and personal service labor force. New Deal programs did little to remedy the financial difficulties of this group. Before the 1929 stock market crash, domestic and personal service employees, such as maids, cooks, washerwomen, and laundresses, comprised 8 percent of the American workforce. The crash, along with falling manufacturing sales, increased debt, the shrinking money supply, bank failures, small business closings, tariff policies, the boll weevil epidemic, and the overproduction of agricultural goods, increased the size of the domestic and personal service sector slightly to 10 percent of the labor force by 1930.

The domestic labor force in the early twentieth century was comprised mostly of immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, Mexico, Japan, and China, as well as many native-born, single white females and married and single African-American women, whose fathers, husbands, and sons faced routine periods of underemployment and unemployment. Between 1900 and 1920, native whites and immigrants from northern and western Europe made up the majority of domestics. However, a gradual racial and ethnic shift occurred during and after World War I. In the northern United States, Eastern European immigrants and African Americans began to replace German, Scandinavian, Irish, and native-born single white women as household help. As native-born and foreign-born white females found better-paying jobs outside the domestic labor sector, the numbers of black servants increased substantially. African-American females comprised 40 percent of all female household workers in 1920, 36 percent in 1930, and 47 percent the following decade. Not surprisingly, they led in the numbers of domestics in the Jim Crow South. In the southwestern United States, Mexican and Mexican-American women comprised a large percentage of household workers. Like African-American women, they increasingly dominated the domestic and personal service sector after their white counterparts found employment opportunities elsewhere. In 1930, Latina household workers comprised 45 percent of all Mexican females employed outside the home. In major southwestern cities such as El Paso, Denver, and Albuquerque, young unmarried female domestics constituted two-thirds of all Mexican women employed outside the home.

Although women overwhelmingly dominated the domestic service sector, men also worked as household help, mainly as butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners, and cooks. Only in California and Washington state, where high numbers of Chinese male immigrants lived, did men lead in the domestic service area. For the duration of the Depression, men made up 10 percent of all household servants in the nation.

White women remained the largest segment of the female domestic service category—54 percent in 1930 and 53 percent in 1940. Still, some of them had other options. Those with skills increasingly found work in the growing female-oriented service sector economy, where they worked in nursing, education, newly created government agencies, social services, and sales, as well as in business as clerical staff. Although they dominated the domestic sector, those working as servants made up only 10 percent of the overall white female labor force.

Black women, of whom 60 percent labored as domestics, had a different experience, and found themselves at the bottom rung of the labor sector. Like their white counterparts, black wives, mothers, and sisters, attempted to supplement the meager earnings of their husbands, fathers, or brothers. During the Depression, however, they faced competition from both whites and other black women for their domestic jobs. Although the white female labor force increased by 17 percent, the black female labor force declined by 5 percent during the Depression. Given a choice, many employers preferred white domestics over black domestics. Furthermore, unemployed African-American high school and college graduates—displaced teachers, secretaries, sales consultants, and social workers—sought domestic work in growing numbers after losing their jobs. Faced with this uncertainty, African-American domestics sought alternatives.

A newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the help of advisers, unleashed a number of programs that attempted to increase industrial profits, improve consumer spending, alleviate unemployment, and relieve destitution: These programs included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Legislation with similar aims included the National Industrial Recovery Act, which improved working conditions and wages and guaranteed employees the right to unionize; the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created maximum working hours and minimum wages; and the Social Security Act, which established unemployment compensation and retirement pensions for the unemployed. Unfortunately, this legislation excluded domestics and farm laborers because many New Dealers, especially southerners, argued that the provisions would have put undue financial strain on the employers of household help and agricultural workers. Domestics, thus, continued to experience economic contraction and widespread discrimination. Many household workers went on temporary relief, provided by such agencies as FERA and the WPA. Other disillusioned household workers abandoned domestic work altogether. Only with the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 did the Depression end for domestic workers.



Blackwelder, Julia Kirk. Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900–1995. 1997.

Bureau of Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Population: Occupations. 1932.

Bureau of Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Population: The Labor Force, Part 1. 1943.

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present. 1985.

Katzman, David M. Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. 1978.

Romero, Mary. Maid in the U.S.A. 1992.

Bernadette Pruitt

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domestic service refers to paid employment as servants in the households of others. The number of such servants depended upon the size of the household and its income. In all periods of history both men and women sought such employment. However, fewer men than women became servants after 1780, when a tax was imposed on all adult male indoor servants. Initially the tax was designed to encourage men into the armed forces or paid work in the expanding non-domestic labour market. Once established it made male domestic workers expensive, so that the typical domestic servant was female.

Domestic service was the most important type of employment for women until after the start of the First World War in 1914, when women took on the jobs of men who joined the services. Simultaneously, many households reduced the number of domestic servants because their incomes were reduced by wartime inflation.

In upper-class households there was often a hierarchy of servants ‘below stairs’, ranging from the butler to kitchen skivvies. Frequently these servants remained with the household for many years, some holding positions of intimacy and trust. Amongst the lower middle class only a ‘maid of all work’ was employed, who often endured very long hours and little prestige. Her lot was superior only to the ‘daily’ helping with the ‘rough work’.

After 1918 domestic service never regained its former importance in private households; since 1945, work similar to that of the domestic servant has taken place in public contexts, through employment as cleaners and caterers in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and universities. The increase in women working outside the home in the early 21st cent. is revivifying domestic service, which is now additionally provided through entrepreneurial small businesses.

Ian John Ernest Keil


Horn, P. , The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant (1975);
Waterson, M. , The Servant's Hall (1980).

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