Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Well Served: Servants in the Eighteenth Century, #1

(Please excuse my little hiatus during October. Between assembling costumes, writing scripts, and rehearsing ghosts, the Ghost Tours quite devoured my time! You may be glad to know that our tours were quite thronged with people and well worth the effort. But back to the history!)

We talk a lot about the Livingstons and the Shippens, and the Van Rensselaers, and the Schuylers in this blog. But it is easy to forget that these folks represented the very wealthiest families. Not everyone could gallivant about in their phaeton and spend three hours getting dressed for a fancy party!

How did the other half--or 99%--live?

I always keep an eye out for references to the other residents of Clermont while doing research. What was it like to live as a servant in the households of the very rich? What were the rules? What were the daily aggrevations? What were the smells, sites, and sounds?

While a complete compendium of their lives would require a good thick tome, I think I will take the next few entries of the blog to share my favorite glimpses of servant life with you:

"Off he tumbled": Nancy Shippen's servants and drinking--Drinking in the eighteenth century did not carry the social stygmas that it it earned in later centuries. In fact, many Westerners still avoided drinking water, favoring instead beers, wines, hard cider and some hot beverages like tea, coffee, and chocolate. In cities or along waterways polluted by animal and human waste water could carry disease. Even though this was not to be understood until the 1840s, it was often thought best to leave the water alone anyway.

So the Temperance Movement was a distant dream when on Thursday, March 10, 1785 Nancy recorded the following incident:

"When I came home about one oclock I was much alarmd with [news] ... of the coachmans falling off the box & nearly killing himself. After he put me down at the assembly he came home, took up the maids & carried them to a Tavern, treated them with wine & cakes & got so drunk himself that off he tumbled. There was every thing done for him that was necessary, but the poor creatures groans still vibrate in my ears."

The night ended poorly for the coachman, but it seemed to start out rather well. Once he'd gotten his mistress dropped off at her party, he had a few hours to kill before he was going to have to go back and pick her up again. In past entries, Nancy described staying out as late as 2am dancing so what was a man to do? He rounded up the maids of the house and went out for a good time.

This means that the anonymous coachman had enough spare money to treat at least a few ladies in addition to himself, and it means that by this time of night (probably around nine or ten o'clock, when he would have had time to return from the drop-off), the maids didn't have any chores they couldn't escape. It also seems to suggest that the maids got a ride in the plush carriage, yet another treat by their friend the coachman.

I can only imagine what life was like for the maids at that point in the Shippen household. Mrs. Shippen was almost certainly clinically depressed, which was also manifesting itself in phyisical ways. Their mistress's estranged husband Henry Beekman Livingston (who had a track record of physical violence towards servants) had been seen lurking around. Nancy was alternately depressed and keeping up an active social schedule to avoid her misery, and she was having ocassional battles with her father about this matter. Things were probably tense. The maids may have needed a drink--or at least some sort of release.

After a few hours of merrymaking, the company set off for home in the early spring night over rutted roads still melting and freezing with each day. They were probably flush with wine, the ladies possibly giggling until over went their drunk driver into the road. Nancy described this incident as "nearly killing himself." Was this hyperbole? Considering that he could easily have been sitting five or six feet in the air and would have had to contend with the danger of winding up under the wheels once he came down, I don't know. Either way, he faired poorly.

Which maid quit her giggling and ran for help? Who drove the carriage home? Were they on a lighted street or was the tavern in a less savory part of town?

Living and working in the household of one of Philadelphia's respected doctors, one can only hope that he received some good care once he did get home. "There was everything done for him that was necessary," says Nancy. Hopefully that didn't involve a little "hair of the dog!"

The coachman's story continues no further. Nancy doesn't see fit to comment on his recovery or return to work. She certainly doesn't mention him getting fired or reprimanded (in fact, she quite pitties him) for the incident so perhaps it was merely regarded as an unfortunate accident--not a deviant behavior. The excitement eventually blended into the background of Nancy's existence, though I imagine he was feeling the reprocussions for some time!

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