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July 14, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

A survey by a high-end estate agent has revealed that there are more domestic servants in the exclusive London district of Mayfair now than 200 years ago, and indeed, in the élite London neighbourhoods which have been bought up by absentee oligarchs, often only the lights in the servants' quarters are on at night. For those who fancy a life of serving the super-rich, there are courses to prepare them for catering to their masters' exacting whims. But it's not all rosy at the top; the prices of luxury goods (including foie gras, Patek Philippe watches, paintings by artists such as Cézanne and Rothko) in the basket used to calculate the Affluent Luxury Living Index have been rising at a rate exceeding inflation.
posted by acb (53 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
...the prices of luxury goods have been rising at a rate exceeding inflation.
And the incomes of their target market has been rising at about 10-20X the inflation rate. (If yours haven't, you're not really in the 'luxury goods' market.)
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:29 AM on July 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


10 - 20x a 2.7% inflation rate in the UK probably overstates things, but The Guardian article is brain-dead for talking about a "squeeze" on the super-rich w/out even bothering to mention that their incomes have been rising as fast or faster than the 4.9% rise in luxury goods.

In fact, luxury goods have probably been rising faster than inflation generally precisely they're tracking the rising incomes of the wealthy.

... any "poor rich people" article is going to be full of shit in some way.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 11:42 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Courses? They don't need no stinking courses! just a copy of the entire Jeeves and Wooster series. Which will prepare them for their masters' worlds of childish whimsy and eccentricity and help them to guard them from reality for fun and some profit.
posted by Twang at 11:42 AM on July 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I often thought I wouldn't mind buttling for someone with true class. I do a damn fine Stephen Fry, too. Vanishingly small pool of employers though.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:46 AM on July 14, 2013


Is social inequality writing and reading in the Anglo world now a genre? How much can the 99% wallow in such conditions and not be diagnosed as masochistic?
posted by larry_darrell at 11:48 AM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


We're all one butler short on the super-yacht of our lives.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:58 AM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Larry, remember how popular "Lifestyles off the Rich and Famous" was? For Americans at least, the Rich are something to fantasize about, not envy. That's why there will be no revolution, no matter how much shit the Wealthy pull.
posted by happyroach at 11:58 AM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hopefully this will be seen as an apolitical comment: I think the return of skilled butlering/household management/household exec is a good development because it's something people want to do. Running an organization (essentially what these families are) is something many people are good at, the pay's competitive with directing an org of similar size and the experiences are likely more interesting than those found in a typical office. And unlike ~120 years ago, lifestyles vary a great deal, so a household exec has a greater chance to find a close match in values, schedules, skills needed and so on.

Another area that seems to be on the up is private researching. I read a few years ago that Kevin Kelly employs a full-time librarian, and I have heard of others. Such an arrangement seems like a dream come true for both employer and employed (assuming the research isn't completely dull.)

The nice thing is that while most of us, only earning one person's full-time salary, can't afford to pay the same to another, people and companies are getting better at fractional systems to provide some of the same benefits for a greatly reduced fee and without much inconvenience. I am concerned though that the fractions add up to full-time employment for as many workers as possible; to me, a pool of a few full-time execs is better for more people than a pool of several part-time/transient execs, especially if they are not really looking for a career in that field.
posted by michaelh at 12:01 PM on July 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Whats interesting is that it was the rise of manufacturing employment that pulled people away from domestic servitude 100 years ago and now it's the fall of any kind of employment that's bringing them back.

If you think it's scary when some jobs are for domestic servants your kids are going to be envious of those people who have jobs, because buttering will be all that's left.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 12:31 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Back in the eighties, it was the Japanese buying up Manhattan real estate, notable Rockefeller Center.

It didn't last.

Granted, we're talking commercial in that instance, but the principle remains the same. This is a high end bubble, a lot of these properties are "investments", chiefly of the Greater Fool kind. It will pass, both in London and elsewhere.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:36 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Recently, she heard of two yacht stewardesses who jumped into a jellyfish-infested patch of sea to create a clear swimming channel for one of the boat's guests. "She was really in the mood to go swimming, so they swam alongside her – they wanted to make sure she didn't get stung. They got stung to bits, and were in a bit of pain the next day. That's sweet, I think. They got a big tip at the end of the week," she says.

Haha, holy fuck. I had to do a double-take to make sure this wasn't the Onion, because there's a point where it's not so much satire as just fiction, and I feel this just crossed the line.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 12:38 PM on July 14, 2013 [30 favorites]


My butler prints and irons all of the Metafilter posts to read with my eggs benedict in the morning. My social media manager writes witty remarks in response while my driver takes me around town in my Rolls-Royce looking for a beggar to punch.
posted by double block and bleed at 12:43 PM on July 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yeah. Lets remember that most of uhnw folks buying absentee homes around the world are mostly resource oligarchs who rose to wealth along with the current up cycle in Chinese growth. These aren't investment bankers buying these places. It is the Kazakh energy ministry's first cousin.

The FT had an article about these sorts of sales, and one of the agents remarked he hadn't had a finance client in months.
posted by JPD at 12:43 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a high end bubble, a lot of these properties are "investments", chiefly of the Greater Fool kind.

The thing about the Mayfair, is that as more of its residential properties are occupied by absentee owners, the viability of commercial establishments in the area will decrease, as noted in the New York Times article. The area will become less valuable because there will be nothing to do there, and affluence-signaling businesses will be forced to move elsewhere.
posted by grouse at 12:54 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


happyroach: "Larry, remember how popular "Lifestyles off the Rich and Famous" was? For Americans at least, the Rich are something to fantasize about, not envy. That's why there will be no revolution, no matter how much shit the Wealthy pull."

The average idiot* thinks that they are just one lottery ticket from being rich. They don't understand that even hitting $200M+ on Powerball will get them nowhere close to this level.

* - I'm an idiot, too. I buy one a week.
posted by double block and bleed at 12:56 PM on July 14, 2013


I loved in corporate housing in Mayfair ten years ago. It was already pretty moribund. This isn't some vibrant quarter of the city being wound down. It's been like this for decades. What's different is that the magnitude of prices compared to areas of London that just simply wealthy Londoners has changed dramatically.

NYC could be a more interesting example. As we've never had a "Mayfair"
posted by JPD at 12:59 PM on July 14, 2013


Mrs. Slocombe: "It's something I do at home."

Mr. Humphries: "Well, that narrows things down a bit, doesn't it?"

Mrs. Slocombe: "Mr. Spooner, if you're cheeky to me during working hours, you can expect a reprimand. However, any of your lip before we open and you'll get my umbrella up your hooter."
posted by clavdivs at 1:01 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Let's see...
First came slavery and indentured servants, then low paid domestic help, then decent paid domestic help.
Those in power are waiting till that trend reverses itself.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:05 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Its a high end bubble, but the effects ripple throughout this awesome, dynamic, interesting city (each adjective threatened by the moribund aspect of international big hot money empty property buying and holding).

I live in Shepherds Bush, which is experiencing a bubble in small terraced house prices, because the normal working, middle, and professional class people have all been priced out from slightly closer in areas, and the cycle works its way out and down affecting everyone. Smart people have used to situation to either reduce their mortgage or trade for space. In our case, we couldn't afford to move into our street now, but having bought much earlier, we get some of the upside for now.

The upside, is, while Central London Premium property areas lose their life force, their interesting retail, we are gaining ours at the moment. Pawn shops and betting shops turning into butchers, local restaurants, and revitalised local pubs.
posted by C.A.S. at 1:17 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The title of this post makes me want to market myself as a butler who specializes in dropping campy double-entendres at any opportunity.

"I need to put out place-settings for tonight's supper, but Mrs. Forrester's linen cupboard is jammed shut. I've being trying to get into her drawers all afternoon!"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:25 PM on July 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


I caddied for several years at a very exclusive golf course as a teenager. Many rich people like poor people to walk behind them. And then they fart and fart and fart. It was both an eye-opening and eye-watering experience.
posted by srboisvert at 1:33 PM on July 14, 2013 [15 favorites]


"...not to mention I still have all this salad to toss."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:35 PM on July 14, 2013


The title of this post makes me want to market myself as a butler who specializes in dropping campy double-entendres at any opportunity.

I would like to employ you, good sir.
posted by The Whelk at 1:38 PM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


My butler prints and irons all of the Metafilter posts to read with my eggs benedict in the morning. My social media manager writes witty remarks in response while my driver takes me around town in my Rolls-Royce looking for a beggar to punch.

You punch your own beggars? You are not 1% material. Back to middle management with you!
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:52 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's funny that a lot of these servants are earning 50k+. To me, 50k is rich. The level of wealth discussed in this article is unfathomable to me.
posted by windykites at 1:58 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


A new study has uncovered the startling fact that there are more servants now working in the area than there were 200 years ago. The survey – by Wetherell, an estate agent catering to the international super-rich – has revealed that 90 per cent of the 4,500 people who own houses, and 80 per cent of those with flats, have their own servants. In 1790, there were only 48 servants living in Mayfair and working for its 1,500 residents.

The 1790 figures didn't sound right to me (only 48 servants for 1500 residents?) so I did some checking to find out where they came from. They come from a survey of householders in the Grosvenor Estate, compiled c.1789-90, which lists a total of 1526 inhabitants, of whom 48 were domestic servants. However, this survey only includes the householders who were eligible to pay tax, and omits the very large number of servants who lived in their employers' houses.

The statistician Patrick Colquhoun estimated in 1796 that there were 200,000 servants in London out of a total population of 900,000. But the proportion of servants in a wealthy district like Mayfair (where the 1790 survey lists 129 'persons of title' -- Grosvenor Square alone counted three dukes, six earls and a viscount among its residents) would have been much higher, and it's safe to assume there were thousands of servants living there in 1790.

So the headline should really read: 'A new study has uncovered the unsurprising fact that there are fewer servants now working in the area than there were 200 years ago.' Of course there are plenty of domestic servants working for the super-rich in London today -- no one denies that -- but it's not remotely comparable to the number of servants in Georgian London.
posted by verstegan at 2:08 PM on July 14, 2013 [40 favorites]


I'm personal assistant right now, which I suppose is closer to the Jeeves ideal than, say, the Polish lady who lives in your basement and wipes your kid's ass at night while you sleep (which is I think what is mostly represented in these "servant" stats). It's... not glamorous. In fact, as we speak I'm working on a Sunday afternoon while my boss is on vacation, because, well, she really wants these designer clothes listed on eBay and that's how it goes. It can be a pretty dehumanizing line of work, even in a really ideal situation like mine. (Most of my work is not personal errand related, my boss is actually pretty awesome, I work from home a lot, my schedule is flexible, etc.)

There are days when I think it's sort of interesting to be the 2013 equivalent of Jeeves or that one really conniving chick on Downton Abbey. There are other days when I would rather do almost ANYTHING than return this tank top at Bloomingdales.

There are a lot of pretty intense labor considerations that I can't really go into here, and which I assume are far easier for me to deal with than, for example, an unskilled immigrant domestic or childcare worker. A lot of people are very seriously taken advantage of in this line of work.
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's funny that a lot of these servants are earning 50k+. To me, 50k is rich.

I make about half that, if you mean 50K in USD (a quarter of it if we're talking pounds). I can't speak to what salaries are like in Britain, and I don't work for the ultra-ultra rich, just the normal rich. But let me just tell you that, no, I'm not rich.

The worst thing is that my boss pays my salary and still manages to play dumb about what that number actually means.
posted by Sara C. at 2:44 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The statistician Patrick Colquhoun estimated in 1796 that there were 200,000 servants in London out of a total population of 900,000. But the proportion of servants in a wealthy district like Mayfair (where the 1790 survey lists 129 'persons of title' -- Grosvenor Square alone counted three dukes, six earls and a viscount among its residents) would have been much higher, and it's safe to assume there were thousands of servants living there in 1790.

it's apples and oranges though: the "service" sector wasn't very well developed in 1796. i imagine that those six earls and viscounts had lots of "servants" who would be hired out nowadays. does every oil sheik maintain his own diesel garage for the delivery vans that bring him luxury goods from the docks?
posted by ennui.bz at 2:48 PM on July 14, 2013


verstegan is correct - the quoted numbers from the article are grossly understated. Per An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (1845), the establishment of a man worth ten thousand pounds a year (the kind of people living in Grosvenor Square) would have 20-24 servants. A man worth five thousand pounds a year would have seventeen, and on down to about a hundred pounds a year, who would have a maid of all work. You'd have chairboys and more outriders and more groomsman, and I didn't see any reference to confectioners, who would definitely be required at the upper end, as well as the unspecified nursery staff, consisting at least of two nurses, a head nurse, a wet nurse where required and when the child was older a tutor or governess.
posted by winna at 3:17 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


A friend of mine worked for about a decade as a nanny for various rich and famous people. I was kind of surprised to learn that at her last gig she was making about $50k more than I ever made as a corporate lawyer in private practice. But as Sara C. notes above, she had little to no control over her time, and if her employers decided to go to Aruba for three weeks, well, she was off to Aruba for three weeks too.
posted by ambrosia at 3:25 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The area will become less valuable because there will be nothing to do there, and affluence-signaling businesses will be forced to move elsewhere.

The very definition of gentrification. Except for the less valuable part, around the Boston area anyway.
posted by Melismata at 3:39 PM on July 14, 2013


I'm pretty sure most "servants" (or household help, domestic labor, whatever you want to call it) do not make more than people in professional white collar jobs. I imagine a few do, and the sky is probably the limit for certain things, but by and large, no, actually my guess is that mostly people are paid below market rate for similar skill sets.

I know that's the case for me. Using these same basic skills working in an office environment, I was paid much better, actually had benefits, could take time off easily, and had a degree of job security I don't have now. Again, I just work for a regular rich person, not the Sultan of Brunei, so I'm sure the sky is the limit on this stuff. But it bothers me to think that people's thoughts immediately go to what the Sultan of Brunei pays his nanny rather than the actual reality for most people working as domestic help.

I know it's very romantic to think of pop cultural figures like Stephen Fry's Jeeves and to think of them being paid vast amounts of money for relatively easy work. But that's just not the case. It's actually pretty dehumanizing and in my experience is not well-paid at all.
posted by Sara C. at 3:44 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


the establishment of a man worth ten thousand pounds a year (the kind of people living in Grosvenor Square) would have 20-24 servants

Indeed, and there was a great deal of social expectation surrounding these figures. For various reasons the level of transparency was pretty high and it wasn't possible to just park yourself in your manse with a minimal level of servants -- there wasn't much to do, for one thing, and peoples' worlds revolved around social engagements. If you only had twelve servants everyone would know. You might not be considered a suitable husband (women with incomes existed, but were a minority and exception). Novels of the period detail the pressure on a young man to obtain an estate with an income sufficient to support not just his wife, but his social obligations.

Sara C., I think we are talking about the top end of domestic help here, and I don't see anyone romanticizing it. There are those who are psychologically able to hack it and there are probably perks for living that life that make it worth it. But I'd be suspicious of any servants imported from home countries -- there are tinges of indentured servitude and human trafficking there as with the Saudi princess recently arrested in LA. But I've known a few people who enjoy e.g. catering and the odd chance to brush up against celebrities or the very wealthy.
posted by dhartung at 4:22 PM on July 14, 2013


There are those who are psychologically able to hack it and there are probably perks for living that life that make it worth it.

You get that I actually do this for a living right now, right?

I mean, I guess I'm just totally unsuited for this kind of work, but trust me, it ain't that glamorous.

As a personal assistant to a wealthy person:

- No, I'm not paid better than other people. I'm certainly not paid better than I was paid in an office context, and definitely not paid as well as I could be in the corporate world. I suppose it's the prerogative of each individual rich person to pay their help what they think is appropriate, and there must be people who make absolute piles of money doing this. But I don't, and I don't think I'm the exception.

- Yes, there are some perks. As I said, my schedule is flexible, I work from home a lot, and there are other more glam perks like getting to go to cool places I otherwise wouldn't, hear insider Hollywood gossip, and getting the occasional bit of swag/freebies/etc. I work out of a house that was built for a Hollywood starlet. Once my boss took me to lunch and we were two tables over from a Kardashian. Work tasks include booking my boss classes at Soul Cycle and going to Farrow & Ball for paint samples, which are both sexier than some of the more humdrum aspects of being a regular administrative worker in the corporate world.

- There are some pretty serious liabilities, which may be a bigger problem for me as just a "normal" rich person's assistant than for someone working in a large staff. There are aspects of my employment which are not strictly legal, tax-wise. As far as I know, I'm not eligible for unemployment if I'm laid off. I can be let go on a whim. I don't get mileage reimbursed, which makes all those glam errands to Beverly Hills kind of a double edged sword.

- Sometimes it just straight up sucks, like when my boss texts me to have me google something for her. I'm sure this would be cute and funny on an updated Jeeves & Wooster sitcom, but when it's actually happening and you're already swamped with other tasks, you want to SCREAM. Fancy class to train you up to the expectations of the wealthy, or not.
posted by Sara C. at 4:37 PM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Plus sometimes you have to whip up an emergency bed cake.
posted by The Whelk at 4:44 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are aspects of my employment which are not strictly legal, tax-wise.

Your employer texted you that he needs you to commit felony tax evasion? I think you might be taking the assistance thing a bit too far.
posted by srboisvert at 5:14 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The ultrarich don't pay well. They have people to size up exactly what you're worth and how replacable you are.
posted by benzenedream at 5:27 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Your employer texted you that he needs you to commit felony tax evasion?

Haha, no. Though to be honest I have faced some situations like that. Not so much with this boss, and I don't want to write anything on the internet where I'm not anonymous, but yes, I have been asked -- again, by The One Percent -- to lie, cheat, massage the facts, etc. in order to save them a few pennies. Re taxes and all sorts of other things.
posted by Sara C. at 5:29 PM on July 14, 2013


Post should be titled "Upstairs, Downstairs" , not "Are you being served?"

You just can't get good meta-help these days...
posted by Artful Codger at 6:09 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]





My butler prints and irons all of the Metafilter posts to read with my eggs benedict in the morning. My social media manager writes witty remarks in response while my driver takes me around town in my Rolls-Royce looking for a beggar to punch.


Eggs benedict is an upper-class thing now?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:39 PM on July 14, 2013


but yes, I have been asked -- again, by The One Percent -- to lie, cheat, massage the facts, etc. in order to save them a few pennies.

Keep meticulous records. Then ask for a raise.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:54 PM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Heh. This summer - on break from teaching high school English - I'm reading my first Wodehouse Novel (The Inimitable Jeeves?). Cuz they say he's the greatest comedic novelist in the 20th Century. Well, I'm certainly learning some new (1923) Anglicisms!

And, of course, absorbing the idea of having personal servants. (Jeeves: a valet.)

Even in America having "maids" used to be pretty common. I understand, from an older blue-blood relative, that this faded out after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
posted by kozad at 8:29 PM on July 14, 2013


It's worth pointing out that 200 years ago it wasn't just the wealthy who had servants, anyone who could afford them had them, down to the lower middle class had servants. This was partially because in the absence of labor saving devices, servents were necessary for the labor intensive chores of cleaning, t preparing meals, and a hundred other tasks we use machines for now. The Victorian House series just gives a hint of how much labor went even into a middle class household. Servants weren't an ostentation, they were a necessity.

They still might be: my mother was far from wealthy, but through luck and getting into the market at the right time she owned a pretty nice house in Santa Barbara. She was determined to save the house for get daughter and granddaughter to have a place to live and own, but there was no way a single older lady could take care of three floors (well one full and two half floors- it was on a hillside) by herself. So she hired Augustina to come in once a week or so. As the years went by,Augustuba became far more than a servant, she became a close friend of the family; we wrote recommendations for her children to go to college, and she brought in the best tasting tamales ever. Partially it was because my mother was an old school socialist who lost friends in the Spanish American War, and partially because she was a native Pasadenan, and had that strange sort of social fu that many Pasadena women had. But also a big part off it is that both mom and Augustuna recognized kindred spirits in two single women tenaciously fighting against everything the world threw at them, who were doing everything they could to make a better life for their children.

This isn't too excuse rich people (especially the Nouveau Riche), or to say that domestic service isn't full of exploitation. I'm not going to say my mom's relationship with Augustina proves anything. But sometimes the relationships involved in domestic service can be more complex than a simple "master servant“ one.
posted by happyroach at 8:48 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Its just a job. If you have a big house, you have somebody to clean it. Its not any better or worse than any other work.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:50 PM on July 14, 2013


So... about that 1790 survey (for the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair or "the whole of the parish of St. George's Hanover Square") cited by the estate agent press release (full press release here), the headcount it shows is actually for heads of households ("householders") - check out the original data with analysis at this University of London history website.

The 48 "Domestic servants" listed are only those categorized as householders - i.e. they live in their own house. The data apparently omits the presumably large number, and indeed, majority of domestic servants who live in the main house headed by their masters and mistresses.

As the history site explains: "Apart from a few coachmen and other stable-servants, who traditionally lived over the mews stable, there were 48 householders engaged in some form of domestic service 'living out', evidently in their own houses. At first sight this may seem a surprisingly large number; but, as we have already seen, some families employed small armies of servants, more than could possibly be accommodated under one roof. "

Those in the "small armies of servants" who did not get their own Mayfair houses to live in are apparently not reflected in the survey's data. It also does not seem to count those servants who might be living under a servant who counts as a householder (e.g. if the master gardener had his own little house, but his daughters and sons who lived with him were also servants).
posted by Bwithh at 11:01 PM on July 14, 2013


oh, and here is a bonus musical interlude

"Mayfair" by Nick Drake
posted by Bwithh at 11:04 PM on July 14, 2013


"Its just a job. If you have a big house, you have somebody to clean it. Its not any better or worse than any other work."
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants

Yeah because (for e.g.) DG at the BBC is way worse than indentured servitude.
posted by marienbad at 2:35 AM on July 15, 2013


Charlemagne In Sweatpants: Its just a job. If you have a big house, you have somebody to clean it.

But that just masks the burdens and responsibilities of having a big house and encourages people to order larger and unnecessarily complicated dwellings. Having essentially limitless amounts of money to spend on specialists to clean the crystal chandeliers and 24 karat toilets makes you a terrible consumer and interferes with the free market's determination of whether these things are cost efficient or even necessary.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:27 AM on July 15, 2013


Here's a good potted history of the American domestic servant, from Hartford, Conn.
posted by dhartung at 4:48 AM on July 15, 2013


The ultrarich don't pay well. They have people to size up exactly what you're worth and how replacable you are.

Someone has to do the sizing up. Those are the jobs that pay well, because those people are not easily replaceable.
posted by atrazine at 6:40 AM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is a really interesting thought though - personal service is the one thing that absolutely can't be automated, and thus may have the most staying power. I don't know if that's comforting or not.
posted by corb at 7:24 AM on July 15, 2013


It's worth pointing out that 200 years ago it wasn't just the wealthy who had servants, anyone who could afford them had them, down to the lower middle class had servants. This was partially because in the absence of labor saving devices, servents were necessary for the labor intensive chores of cleaning, t preparing meals, and a hundred other tasks we use machines for now. The Victorian House series just gives a hint of how much labor went even into a middle class household. Servants weren't an ostentation, they were a necessity.

So I know I'm splitting hairs here, but I feel compelled to quibble with the wording of that last sentence, and with the use of the word "necessary" throughout the paragraph.

Servants cannot be a necessity. Otherwise all those servants would themselves have at some point, I don't know, dropped dead from sheer lack of service.

More accurately worded, the last sentence above would come out something like "servants were more necessary for the maintenance of an ostentatious lifestyle than they are now," with a chaser of "and if you weren't ostentatious, you were shunned."

Likely I react so strongly to sloppiness in wording here because my people have historically been the people who've been replaced by machines, rather than the people who enjoy the comfort of having people or machines support their lives.

Moreover, though, growing up poor has left me with a deep-down sense that anyone who requires someone else to deal with the mess generated by a person living a life — laundry, dishwashing, cooking, sweeping, mending, returning shit to Bloomingdales — in certain key ways isn't actually living their own life.

I am quite glad I don't live in Victorian England, because there seemed to have been few options available for someone who wanted to exist meaningfully in society and also live their entire lives, even the messy or tedious parts, because existing meaningfully in society required displaying the type of ostentation that reduces other people to tools. However, I am quite uncomfortable indeed about living in early 21st century America, since although I get to do my own cleaning and the like, it's nearly impossible right now for a person to have computers or clothes or dishwashers or cars without becoming complicit in the instrumentalization of people who work at foxconn and the like.

Returning to the narrow linguistic point, it seems worthwhile to try to be careful with that word "necessary," especially when the "necessities" discussed are by definition provided by other people who themselves lack said "necessities."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:31 PM on July 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


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