There is not that household in the land where servants are employed which is not measurably dependent upon them for peace of mind as well as for comfort of body. Every housewife who reads this will recall the sinking of heart, the damp depression of spirit, which has suddenly overtaken a cheerful mood when the kitchen barometer beckoned "storm" or "change." Such an overtaking is not an affliction, but it sometimes comes dangerously near to sorrow. The independent maid of all work has it in her power to alter the family plans with a word, when that word is "going." Should she elect to stay, her lowering brows and sharp or sullen speech abash a mistress who quails at little else. In wealthier households a domestic "strike" involves panic, disorder and suffering.
I know of a wet-nurse whose abandonment of her infant charge, without a word of warning, at ten o'clock one Saturday night, caused a long and terrible illness, resulting in infantile paralysis. A cook who had lived in one family for three years resented the arrival of unexpected guests, packed her trunk and left her mistress to get dinner. The lady was in delicate health and all unused to such work. She became overheated and exhausted, took a heavy cold, which ripened into pneumonia, and died three days after the cook's desertion.
I need not multiply illustrations of the helplessness of American housewives in the face of such disasters, and the possibility that these may befall any one of us. We have no redress. The women who helped organize the "Protective League" know this. The law does not protect the employer. Public opinion gives her no support. The cook whose fit of temper cost a kind mistress her life was recommended to me within a month after an event that should have shocked the moral sense of every housewife in the community, and recommended by a friend of the murdered woman and of myself. When I exclaimed in surprise, I was told: "We can not be judges of our neighbors' domestic affairs."
There is no class spirit among us. For some reasons this is a matter of congratulation to us and the public. All that is needed to make the opening gulf between mistresses and maids impassible is organization on our part, which signifies open war. It is, nevertheless, I note in passing, patent that there should be a code of honor among us with regard to employment of those who have proved absolutely untrustworthy in other households.
We are not true to one another in this matter, and our employees, who are held together by the unwritten laws of a union, none the less strong because nameless and informal, know this as well as we do. The knowledge is one of the most potent weapons in their armory.
Let this pass for the present. I would direct your attention, my sister-worker in the home missionary field, to the brighter side of the vexed question.
After forty years' careful study of this matter of domestic service - study carried on in other lands as well as in our own - I record thankfully my conviction that the domestics in well-regulated American homes are better cared for, better paid and more thoroughly appreciated than any other class of working women in this country or abroad. I record, likewise and confidently, that the proportion of faithful, valued and even beloved domestics among us is much larger than that of indifferent or worthless. Most cheerfully and thankfully I add to this record that, personally, I have a list of honest, virtuous, willing workers, whose terms of service in my family varied from three to thirteen years, and who went from my house to homes of their own, bearing with them the cordial esteem of those they had served. Nor is my experience singular, even in these United States. It is so far from being exceptional that I deprecate, almost as an individual grievance, any attempt to organize those who should be our coworkers into a faction that considers us as "the opposition." It is a putting asunder of those whom a mutual need should join together.
Backed by my two-score years of experiment and action, I dare believe that a leaf or two from my book of household happenings may be of service to younger women and novices in the profession which absorbs the major part of our time and strength.
To begin with - beware of discouragement during the early trial-days of the new maid. Be slow to say, even to yourself: "She will never suit me!" The first days and weeks of a strange "place" are a crucial test for her as for you, and she has not your sense of proportion, your discipline of emotion and your philosophical spirit to help her to endure the discomforts of new machinery.
Looking back upon my housewifely experiences, I am moved to the conclusion that the domestics who stayed with me longest and served me best were those who did not promise great things in their novitiate.
One - "a greenhorn, but six weeks in the country" - frankly owned that she knew nothing of American houses and ways. She was "willing to learn," and - with a childish tremble of the chin - "didn't mind how hard she worked if people were kind to her." I think the quivering chin and the clouding of the "Irish blue" eyes moved me to give her a trial. She did not know a silver fork from a pepper cruet, or a tea-strainer from a colander, and distinguished the sideboard from the buffet by calling the one the "big," the other the "little dresser." She had been with me a month when I trusted her to prepare some melons for dessert, giving her careful and minute directions how to halve the nutmeg melons, take out the seeds and fill the cavities with cracked ice, while the watermelon - royal in proportions and the first fruits of our own vines - was to be washed, wiped, and kept in the ice-chest until it was wanted.
At dinner the "nutmegs" appeared whole; the watermelon had been cut across the middle and eviscerated - scraped down to the white lining of the rind - then filled with pounded ice. The succulent sweetness, the rosy lusciousness of the heart, had gone into the garbage can.