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The House Servant's Directory: An African American Butler's 1827 Guide
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The House Servant's Directory: An African American Butler's 1827 Guide

by Robert Roberts

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"In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up."
So begins Robert Roberts' The House Servant's Directory, first published in 1827 and the standard for household management for decades afterward. A


"In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up."
So begins Robert Roberts' The House Servant's Directory, first published in 1827 and the standard for household management for decades afterward. A classic survey of work, home life, and race relations in early America, the book was the result of many years of Roberts' personal and professional experiences. One of the first books written by an African-American and published by a commercial press, this manual for butlers and waiters offers keen insight into the social milieu, hierarchy, and maintenance of the antebellum manor.
As a servant to a prominent New England family, Roberts provided valuable insights into what was expected of domestic servants. His book contains an abundance of instructions for successfully completing household chores as well as suggestions for properly cleaning furniture and clothing; and for buying, preparing, and serving food and drink for dinner parties of all sizes (much of which is still useful information today). The text also contains suggestions for arranging servants' work routines, and advice to heads of families on how best to manage their domestic help — extraordinary recommendations for master-servant relationships and highly unusual for the time.
Among the most famous of etiquette books to provide instruction on proper behavior for domestic servants in the early nineteenth century, Roberts' Directory remains a critical primary source in sociology and African-American history.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover African-American Bks.
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

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The House Servant's Directory

An African American Butler's 1827 Guide

By Robert Roberts

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14943-1



IN order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up; for in this time you can get through the dirtiest part of the work, which you cannot well do after the family rises; for then you always are liable to interruption; therefore by having the dirtiest part of your work executed, it will prove a very great comfort to you. As there is nothing more disagreeable than to run about with dirty hands and dirty clothes; and this must inevitably be the case if you defer this part of your work until every body is stirring and bustling about.

In the next place, you must have a proper dress for doing your dirty work in; for you should never attempt to wait on the family in the clothes that you clean your boots, shoes, knives, and lamps in; for the dress that you wear to do this part of your work is not fit to wait in, on ladies and gentlemen.

There is no class of people to whom cleanliness of person and attire is of more importance than to servants in genteel families. There are many servants, whom I have been eye witness to, through negligence as I must call it, who are a disgrace to the family that they live with, as well as to themselves, by appearing in their dirty clothes at a time of day that they should have all the dirtiest part of their work done. Every man that lives in this capacity should have a sufficient quantity of clothes to appear always neat and respectable; both for his own credit, and for the credit of the family he serves; therefore I shall give you a few hints on what clothes are suitable for his different work. In the first place for doing your dirty work, you should have you a round-a-bout jacket of a dark colour, with overalls, or loose trowsers, of the same colour, with a vest, and a cap of some description to keep the dust from your hair, with a green baize apron. This is a very suitable habiliment for your morning's work, that is, before your family come down to breakfast; at which time you should have on a clean shirt collar and cravat, with a clean round jacket, white linen apron and clean shoes, with your hair neatly combed out. This is a most neat and clean attire for serving breakfasts. You must always make your calculations what time it may take to get through your work, so as to clean yourself for breakfast.

In the next place, I shall give you some directions on your dress for dinner. You should make it a general rule always to have a good suit of clothes or two, for attending at dinner, as a servant should always at this time look neat and tidy, but not foppish; what I mean by being foppish is, to wear a great bunch of seals to your watch, and a great pin sticking out of your bosom. There is nothing looks more ridiculous than to see a servant puff out above his ability; it really puts me in mind of the fable of the frog and the ox; there are many, I know, who never think of laying by a little sum of money against the time of need, but spend it all, as fast as they earn it, on fine dress.

I never find fault with a man for dressing neat and plain; but to go beyond extremes is ridiculous; you should always have a good suit for dinner, and I shall here give you a few hints on a suit which is very genteel and becoming. For the winter season you should have comfortable clothing, such as a good superfine blue body coat, blue cassimere trowsers, and a yellow cassimere vest. This is a very neat and becoming dress to wait on dinner. You should have at least two or three suits of light clothes for the summer season; as they require to be changed once or twice per week, if they are light coloured; but black bombazine is preferable.



As these things are often wanted in a hurry, therefore you should always have them in readiness, if possible. In this operation, you should always have good brushes and good blacking. These are implements that are indispensably necessary; without which, no credit will be given to the operator. In the first place you must remove all the dirt from your boots or shoes, with your hard brush. When perfectly clean you must stir up your blacking with a stick, then apply a little on your black brush, and apply it lightly and smoothly over your boots or shoes, then apply your polishing brush quick and lightly over them, and in a few minutes you will have a beautiful polish. Should any brown spots appear, which often do, by not putting on the blacking even, then apply your blacking brush lightly over it a second time, and by this process you will have a beautiful polish.

When you have ladies shoes to clean, be very clean and careful about them. As the linings are generally white, you must have clean hands, as the lining is apt to get soiled; some of these shoes are cleaned with milk, or the whites of eggs, such as Morocco, or any kind of glazed leather whatever. You must apply the mixture with a sponge, and lay them before the fire or in the sun to dry; then take a soft brush, or a silk handkerchief; this will give them a fine polish.

You will find it necessary, once in a while, to grease gentlemen's boots and shoes, especially in winter time, as the leather is apt to crack with the wet and cold. You will find, by referring to the Index, full directions for rendering boots and shoes perfectly water proof. I therefore proceed to the next branch of work that is requisite to get out of the way as early in the morning as possible.



This is another branch of work that requires the greatest care and attention, as your best knives generally have to bear the inspection of a number of tasteful eyes during the course of dinner. Every servant should see that he has proper utensils to do his work with, as you cannot expect to do your work in proper order, if you have not the means to accomplish it with. How many good things are spoilt through bad management of the man, and the want of convenient tools to work with. Now, in order to clean knives and forks well, you must get you a soft pine plank or board; let it be free from knots, and about six feet long; have feet or standers under it, so as to raise it exactly to the height of your hips, as this is the proportion for you to bear a regular pressure on your knives; then have you a good soft Bristol brick, and rub it a few times up and down your board, then take a knife in each hand and stand opposite the centre of the board, with the backs of the knives towards the palms of your hands, then expand your arms, keeping the blades level on the board, with a quick motion draw your hands to and from you, frequently looking at the side you are scouring, to see when clean. Do not lean too heavy on the blades for fear of breaking them. In this mode you will soon grow tractable, and will shortly be able to clean two dozen where you would only clean one dozen by taking one knife at a time, and scouring it with your one hand. A good set of knives is a valuable thing, and soon spoiled if not properly taken care of by the man who has the charge of them. There is no branch of a servant's business that will gain more credit for him, from ladies of taste, than keeping his knives and forks in primo bono; as they have many spectators.



The best method of cleaning steel forks, is to have a deep box or a small keg, the latter is preferable; fill it with fine sand and chopped hay or straw, either will answer the purpose. To do this perfectly, put some of your hay into the bottom of your keg, then put in some sand, and so on, until it is quite full, then press it close down, and wet it with water, to keep it damp, as it will have more effect in taking the black from off the prongs, as forks often are very black and hard to clean, after having been used in acids, &c.

When you clean them, take two in each hand, and stab them several times in the sand, and so on, until you have them all done; then have an old hard brush for the purpose of brushing the sand from between the prongs; likewise have a piece of buckskin, or an old glove, to polish them off with. This is the true and best method of cleaning steel forks.

Now I shall give you directions for cleaning the handles of your knives and forks, after the blades and prongs have all been cleaned. In the first place take a towel and immerse it in water, then wring it out all but dry; hold this towel in your right hand, with a dry knife towel in the left, to wipe the blade. When you have them all done, then give them a light rub over with a dry towel, including handles, &c. Should you have silver knives, you may clean them with a little gin and whiting mixed together, and rubbed over the handles when dry; if the handles be fluted, you must brush them with your plate brush, and polish with your shamois, or, as it is pronounced, shammy leather.

My young friend, I have always been thus particular about my knives and forks, because they are things that, from the appearance of which, not only the lady and gentleman of the family, but every one that sits down at table, forms an opinion of the cleanliness and good management of the servant to whose care they are intrusted; and I sincerely wish that you may gain the same approbation.



Lamps are now so much in use for drawing-rooms, dining rooms, and entries, that it is a very important part of a servant's work to keep them in perfect order, so as to show good light. I have been in some houses where the rooms were almost filled with smoke and stench of the oil, and the glasses of the lamps clouded with dust and smoke, from the cottons being uneven, or left up too high; this is a very disagreeable thing indeed. But it is not always a servant's fault, for, unless there is good oil, and plenty of it allowed to the man, it is impossible for them to burn well. But it is a man's fault if they are dirty, or not in good order; and to remedy this disaster, when you first hire with a family, let it be your first object to examine all your lamps and see that they are all in order; and if not, let your employers know immediately, that is, if they are so bad that you cannot remedy them yourself, in which case they should be taken to some mechanist to be put in good order immediately.

When you have them in perfect order, by a little care and attention you can have very little trouble with them afterwards, in giving them a proper and thorough cleaning, which you should do at least once a fortnight. When you do this, take two or three quarts of soft boiling water, put into it two or three tea-spoonsfull of pearl ashes, then empty your lamps, and take them all to pieces, observing where each particle belongs, that you may have no trouble in putting them together again. When you have them apart, first fill the cistern, that part which holds the oil, with this boiling water, and then shake it well; don't empty it into the rest of your water, for it will make it dirty. After this, if there should be any gum about them, scrape it off with an old knife, then put it into the tub which contains the rest of your water, and wash it well with a piece of old linen, which you must have for that purpose, with all the other parts likewise. When you have this all done, wipe them dry and put them before the fire or in the sun to dry; and when you have put them together, give them a good polish with a fine cloth or silk handkerchief.

You should wash your lamp glasses every morning, when you are washing your glasses or breakfast things, and put them by in their proper place until they are wanted.

You should always have a clean towel when you are lighting your lamps, in order to dust your lamp glasses before you put them on, as they will show much better light.

When you are cleaning or trimming your lamps in the morning, you should be very particular in emptying the dripper, or that part of the lamp that holds the droppings; for if this part is not kept clean to admit the air, the lamp will never burn well. You must likewise keep your lamp wicks in a dry place; this you may do by having a drawer, which you may keep for this purpose. When you put on fresh cottons, you must be very careful to put them on the thimble quite even. And likewise see that they fit exactly, or the cotton will slip from off the thimble when you go to raise it. You should never cut your cottons with scissors; it is much the best way to let down your oil, and light the cotton; when it burns a little so as to be even, blow it out, and rub off the snuff with a piece of paper even with the burner or socket, which contains the wick. You should always use wax tapers for lighting lamps, as paper generally flies about and makes dirt.



This is another part of a house servant's work, which requires particular care, and the greatest attention. Many are the ways that are practised in cleaning it, by different servants, every one thinks his own way the best, and many times the plate is injured, by different servants, trying different experiments on it; but I shall give you, in the index of this book, two of the best recipes for making plate powder, that is used by one of the best silver smiths in London. Before you clean your plate with this powder, you must wash it well in a great hot suds, that there may be no grease left on it, for you never can clean plate in a proper manner if it is greasy. You may use either of these plate powders wet or dry. If your plate be very dirty I should recommend it wet. To mix it wet, take some of your powder and wet it with spirits of wine to the consistency of cream, then take a piece of fine soft sponge that is free from grit or dirt of any kind whatever, dip it in this mixture, then squeeze it a little so as you will not waste it, then apply it quick and even all over your plate; do not rub over too much at a time, as it ought to be polished before it gets too dry.

To polish your plate, you should have some soft linen rags or cloths to rub off the mixture, and then polish them off with your shammy leather. When you have dishes, salvers, salts, and other articles that are ornamented, that is, etched and beaded in rough ornamental work, you must have three good plate brushes; one must be hard as a tooth brush, and another something softer, and the third quite soft. The hard brush is for the rough work, and you must recollect never to brush any silver that is plain, with the hard brush, as you are sure to scratch it; the soft brushes are for the handles of your silver knives and forks, which generally want brushing.



This gives plate a most brilliant lustre, if it is only well done; and should be rubbed on with your naked hand, such as spoons, forks, and dessert knives that have silver blades. These small articles are cleaned by taking some of the powder between your finger and thumb, and the longer you rub, the better it will look; any article of your plate that is ornamented, this part may be rubbed with a piece of leather dipped in the plate powder, and rubbed quick and hard; then it should be brushed with your plate brushes, as in the other directions, and polished off with your shammy or wash leather; and I will warrant your plate to look beautiful.

In the next place you must remember to keep your plate in a dry place, for if you let any articles that are only plated, lay about dirty, or in a damp place, they are sure to rust if plated on steel; and if plated on copper, they are sure to canker; therefore you should be particular, and not leave salt or acids of any kind on plated ware, as it is sure to take off the plate, and leave a stain, and by rubbing this stain, the plate will rub off; by which means the article is perfectly spoiled. I very well know that there are many articles of this kind, that are often spoiled through the neglect of servants, and especially young hands, that have had no experience of those things; therefore, my young friends, I have here given you such directions as I trust will enable you to keep your plate in such order as may give general satisfaction to your employers, and gain credit for yourselves.

I shall point out to you the next part of your work, in the following pages.


Excerpted from The House Servant's Directory by Robert Roberts. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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