Victorian Huswifery with the Alcotts: Louisa May Alcott’s domestic service

In anticipation of my presentation of “Victorian Huswifery with the Alcotts,” I thought I would share with you portions of my talk. The essence of the talk outlines the life of the family covering more than eighty years of the nineteenth century. Their wide variety of living arrangements as they struggled through poverty to eventual wealth (thanks to Louisa May Alcott’s success as an author) gives us enticing glimpses into the world of the Victorian housewife.

In this segment I discuss Louisa’s infamous work as a domestic servant for James Richardson and his invalid sister which spawned the essay, “How I Went Out to Service.” 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Abba became the main breadwinner but could not bring in enough money to keep the family solvent. Thus the older girls were called upon to supplement what Louisa dubbed as “The Alcott Sinking Fund.” She and Anna took on those few options open to respectable women: teaching school, and working as governesses and domestic servants (mostly to richer relations and friends). Louisa hired herself out as a domestic servant which she recounted in her essay, “How I Went Out to Service.” This dramatized description of her experience demonstrates the difficulties of service (and her naiveté at eighteen). For seven weeks of the “hardest work of her life” she received a mere four dollars from her employer. (Elaine Sholwater, Alternative Alcott, “How I Went Out to Service,” 353)

illustration by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard.

Louisa’s episode illustrates the difficulties of going out to service. One was the lack of a formal written agreement between employer and employee. This was due to the informal relationship between the two which was personal and sometimes intimate. It left the servant at the mercy of the employer’s whim.

Although Louisa declared that service was better than being idle and dependent, she too found the experience degrading. There was a social stigma attached to being a servant. It also meant that her time was not her own – Louisa found herself at the beck and call of her employer day and night. It was only when she refused, out of pride, to blacken his boots that she discovered how spiteful he could be. Despite this humiliation she hired herself out again in the same year as a residential “second girl” doing laundry for her May cousins out in Leicester, MA.

The home of Louisa’s cousin Samuel May, of Leicester, MA

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Some thoughts on Louisa’s experience

My first impression on reading “How I Went Out to Service” was that Louisa embellished the facts to create a better story. This is typical in her writing which is why she has such a large audience. But at the same time, I never take what Louisa has written on face value. One however can still extract many interesting facts and insights from the piece.

Proud to work

In her essay Louisa’s explained why she would “lower” herself to be a domestic servant: “I am too proud to be idle and dependent, ma’am. I’ll scrub floors and take in washing first. I do housework at home for love; why not do it abroad for money? I like it better than teaching. It is healthier than sewing and surer than writing. So why not try it?” (Alternative Alcott, p. 352)

To me this is revealing of what Louisa might have been thinking and feeling about her family’s poverty and the role of housework in her life:

  1. Her proclamation sounds like pushback against her father (and even against Abbie May whom she wrote in her journal as  “doing nothing but grow.”) She obviously had a big problem with the way Bronson was so willing to live on the dole for the sake of his principles. Her “principle” was to work.
  2. In stating her preference for housework over teaching: housework allowed her to live freely in her own mind. She used that time to work her fervent imagination, creating the stories that she would eventually write down. This time was productive and enjoyable; it was also therapeutic, allowing an escape from the harsh realities of life. As a teacher, she did not have this freedom to be herself. Instead she had to put on a consistent, pleasant front for the children which was difficult with her mercurial personality.
  3. There is also the idea that housework is physical, meaning it is good to work the body which sewing does not do (it only taxes the eyes). Those who regularly work out know the benefits of such physical exercise, lifting the spirits as well as working the body.

How did the rich relations feel?

Louisa further writes, “If doing this work hurts my respectability, I wouldn’t give much for it. My aristocratic ancestors don’t feed or clothe me and my democratic ideas of honesty and honor won’t let me be idle or dependent.” Siding with her mother, Louisa too felt the rich relations should have done more to help the struggling family. Faced however with the stark reality that the head of the family (Bronson) would not work for a wage for its own sake, it is understandable why there was pushback.

The cost of pride

As we can see in “How I Went Out to Service,” even Louisa had her limits. Pride sent her out to work as a domestic servant but pride also led to her downfall. In refusing to lower herself further to blacken Mr. Richardson’s boots, she earned his spite rather than a fair wage. Still, in the end, she was not too proud to go out to Leicester, MA later in the year and do laundry (the lowest form of domestic work) for her cousins.

Presentation information

If you live in central Massachusetts, come on out to my presentation at the Community Barn in Grafton co-sponsored by the Grafton Historical Society and the Grafton Public Library. The talk will begin at 7pm on Thursday, February 8. Click here for more information.

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2 Replies to “Victorian Huswifery with the Alcotts: Louisa May Alcott’s domestic service”

  1. Surely you will mention she returned the four dollars when she got home and told them the insult which I suspect was more than boot-blackiNG.

    🌍702-956-7333 Marianne Donnelly 🏖Theatre Reviews: lasvegastribune.net/author/marianne 🎭Chautauqua Actress: http://nhpr.org/post/marianne-donnelly-beyond-little-women 🌠Alcott, Joplin, Seasonal Celebrations: bestfamilyentertainment.com

    On Feb 4, 2018 7:10 AM, “Louisa May Alcott is My Passion” wrote:

    > susanwbailey posted: “In anticipation of my presentation of “Victorian > Huswifery with the Alcotts,” I thought I would share with you portions of > my talk. The essence of the talk outlines the life of the family covering > more than eighty years of the nineteenth century. Their wi” >

    1. Nope because there is disagreement as to whether she returned the money. Harriet Reisen on page 118 believes she had to keep the money. As to the greater insult … yes, something else went on I believe, creepy insinuations on the part of her employer. I also think she being naturally dramatic, dressed up the story a bit for the sake of a good read. Reisen did note however that Maria Porter made a point of saying that the experience had a deep and lasting impact on her.

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