After fighting broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, things got hot for wealthy Loyalists such as the Barneses, who fled to England and left their servants behind. Whether Daphne and Prince were freed then is unclear, but letters show that Prince spent summers with a Hingham family, and may have painted the two period portraits displayed in Hingham’s Old Ordinary house museum.
Though the Barneses remained in England, Daphne and Mrs. Barnes corresponded (with Daphne dictating her letters), sharing news about their activities and acquaintances “as if they were family,” Bagger said.
After slavery disappeared in Massachusetts, following a court ruling in 1780, some African-Americans continued to work in domestic service, but immigrants from Europe and white Americans played a bigger role in the 19th century.
“A young woman coming over from Ireland and working in a household got room and board, and got paid, so you could save money to bring your sister over or your parents, and start a new life,” said Pustz.
She cites the example of Irish-born John and Ellen McGalley, who were the head butler and house mistress for many years in a Lincoln property now owned by Historic New England, Pustz’s employer. They filled the roles at the top of the domestic servant hierarchy occupied by Downtown Abbey’s head butler Carson and house mistress Mrs. Hughes.
Donna Curtin, who will speak on South Shore servants in the 19th century, said that slightly more than half of Plymouth’s domestic servants were listed as native born in the town’s 1860 Census records. An overwhelming majority of the immigrant workers in domestic service — almost all of them women — were Irish at a time when the town had a very small population of Irish.
Curtin, who heads the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, said the Hedge House (her organization’s largest house museum) appears to have had a few live-in servants. In the society’s smaller Spooner House, a single servant roomed in an unheated attic garret.
But the hardest domestic labor was far removed from the glamour of an estate like Downton Abbey, or even a more modest South Shore mansion. Doing the laundry, described by Curtin as the “most detested and demanding household chore of the period,” was often the domain of single mothers and older women with no other means of support.
Curtin cites the example of washerwoman Mary Banks Johnson, a fugitive slave before the Civil War who supported her family after the loss of two husbands. Her son William became the first black graduate of Plymouth High School.
Having a cook or a maid remained a middle-class aspiration in America well into the 20th century, Pustz said. She cites pop culture examples such as the maids in “The Brady Bunch” and “The Jeffersons” TV series.
But finding and keeping “good” servants could prove a difficult task, especially since they were expected to hold themselves to almost laughably high standards. Pustz cites the exhausting list of desires presented by one prospective employer to an employment agency: “I want a waitress, just an ordinary one . . . honest, neat, strong, quick, capable, earnest, willing, trained, good-tempered, not impertinent, sober, willing to resign all the attentions of men, religious, and willing to wear a cap.”
Those requirements might have made for good servants, but less so for good stories. Judging from episodes of “Downton Abbey,’’ few servants (and none of the younger ones) were willing to “resign” all interest in romance.
Registration for “Upstairs/Downstairs: Servitude and Slavery on the South Shore” begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Pilgrimage in downtown Plymouth; the admission price includes breakfast refreshments. For more information, visit www.brss.org.
Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com.