Turn down the bed -- origin?


Jim Cooley

Member
Feb 9, 2009
21
0
31
Got watching Julian Fellowes' _Titanic_ last night and at one point the chambermaid asks if a passenger wants her bed turned down.
It seems like silly custom -- I mean, how hard it is to turn down your own bed? Yet it persists to this day: at nicer hotels or the cruises I've been on the maid/steward will come by and turn down your bed.

I can see it as a check if the customer or master needed something, and perhaps back in the day of bedwarmers it might have been useful, but wonder why it still persists? Any other reasons a servant might have been required to turn down a bed?
 
Jan 6, 2005
276
6
113
Iowa, USA
Servants were once required to perform many tasks that would be seen as unnecessary today. They ironed newspapers that had been read, making them 'like new' again for the next reader. They polished perfume bottles on Milady's dressing table, leaving no fingermarks whatever. They squeezed out the preferred amount of toothpaste onto Sir's toothbrush, and ran his bath water at precisely the temperature he liked.

The reason for all this was job justification. A hundred years ago, most servants - in both grand households and humble ones - were live-in, getting room and board as well as payment. Given that simple survival was fairly iffy for poorer people, servant's jobs were considered very desirable - whatever the downsides, you weren't on a farm or in a coal mine or starving in Whitechapel. And given that a servant could be dismissed for any reason or no reason at all - without recourse - it was natural to make good and damned certain that your employers got plenty of positive proofs of your devotion to their well-being.

In grand houses, such services were instituted by the butler, who had overall executive responsibility for the house. In smaller houses in large cities like London, simple fear of the street was often the motivator; for a young, uneducated lower-class woman, the choice was often between being comparatively warm and safe - if somewhat overworked - in someone's house, or prostitution. It is very hard to be "decent" in a truly impoverished environment, and many a servant accepted almost incredible amounts of abuse to avoid such a fate. If you want to know more about the lot of a servant in a small house, look up the Lizzie Borden murder case in Fall River, Massachusetts - the Bordens' "hired girl," Bridget Sullivan, had been ordered to wash windows on the 100-degree day of the killings in August, 1892, in addition to all her other duties.

Some vestiges of yesteryear's services like turn-downs survive for reasons similar to those for which they were created - to make guests feel cared-for, and therefore more content with spending the money they are splashing out on lodging.
 
Jan 7, 2013
31
0
46
Saxony, Germany
What I always wonder about is: Could any woman become a servant? I mean there were so much restrictions in the society back then. It's pretty hard to imagine that e.g. the daughter of a factory worker could work in the household of a noble family.
 

Bob Godfrey

Member
Nov 22, 2002
6,045
61
308
UK
Becoming a domestic servant was often the only job available for young women born into a working class family. Certainly there were more women employed as servants than in any other field of work. But even 'below stairs' there was a social hierarchy, with a lady's maid or governess, for instance, considering herself to be the social superior of a housemaid or scullery maid. For liveried 'footmen' the main requirement was that they looked impressive. Especially in a noble household. So a labourer's son who was tall and handsome could be considered as very suitable for such employment, and they would often be engaged, like horses, as matched pairs of the same size and colouring.
 

Bob Godfrey

Member
Nov 22, 2002
6,045
61
308
UK
Keep in mind too that a housemaid born into even the lowest of socio-economic classes would not have much opportunity to betray her precise origins. From whatever background they came, they all wore a standardised uniform and kept themselves well scrubbed and well groomed. In the presence of her employers the housemaid would not be allowed to speak unless spoken to, and that would be seldom if ever. She would be expected to avoid even looking at the master or mistress, to be as far as possible invisible as she went about her work. More senior personnel like the butler and housekeeper, and personal servants like a maid or valet, would need to communicate with their employers during the course of their work, but most of these developed refined manners and speaking voices in keeping with their roles. To the extent that except for their standards of dress it was often hard to tell the masters from the servants.
 
Dec 29, 2006
729
6
113
Witney
What I always wonder about is: Could any woman become a servant? I mean there were so much restrictions in the society back then. It's pretty hard to imagine that e.g. the daughter of a factory worker could work in the household of a noble family.
I suppose that, in theory, anybody could become a servant, though in reality there were certain basic requirements - such as cleanliness and of course honesty. Not everyone could fulfil these requirements.
 

Bob Godfrey

Member
Nov 22, 2002
6,045
61
308
UK
True, apart from Edmund Blackadder few would have welcomed Baldrick into their service. Dishonesty, if you weren't known locally as a wrong 'un, didn't stop you from getting a servant's job - just from keeping it. It was a common reason for dismissal.
 
Dec 29, 2006
729
6
113
Witney
I posted a somewhat longer reply over the weekend, but seem to have lost it when the site went off line. Briefly, however, I mentioned an exchange of letters in (I think) the West Briton newspaper, in which somebody asked why redundant tin miners could not find work as domestic servants, and another correspondent replied that most of them would be totally unsuitable for employment as indoor servants because of their habitual use of foul and profane language, and general lack of social refinement.
 

Bob Godfrey

Member
Nov 22, 2002
6,045
61
308
UK
I did see the post you mentioned, Stanley, and was in process of responding when the site went down. Clearly our posts didn't make it into the lifeboats!

I can't see the Cornish miners adapting to life as footmen either, but most people 'in service' had started out on that path as little more than children and soon learned, if it hadn't been knocked into them already by shoolteachers and their canes, that behaviour and language which was acceptable among their peers wouldn't do in the presence of their betters. Which included the senior servants, and woe betide any new recruit who questioned their authority. For those who really couldn't make the adjustment, there was always the possibility of 'skivvying' for a neighbour. It was surprisingly common for working class households to include a young girl (aged about 12-13 and recently left school) who was the child of a neighbour with too many mouths to feed. The skivvy was expected to work from dawn to dusk cleaning, cooking and looking after the younger children, and in return received bed & board and maybe some occasional pocket money. If her appearance and manners weren't of the finest order nobody would notice, because those of her 'employers' were much the same!

Regarding the tin miner recruiting scheme, I've seen similar suggestions in letters columns during the 1920s and '30s, following any announcement of increased unemployment. Usually the suggestions were aimed at young women, and offered by those who were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit servants for their own households. The problem by then wasn't that there weren't enough women prepared to keep their hands and their language clean, but rather that many fewer were prepared to offer the level of servility expected of them, or to accept the very low wages and poor conditions of service. Many of course had left service during the Great War to find well-paid jobs in munitions factories, and though that line of work was no longer available more opportunities were opening up in offices, retailing and light industry. Here's a cartoon from a 1919 issue of Punch. The prospective servant (on the right) is interviewing the lady of the house and making it quite clear that she has plenty of offers to choose from if the terms aren't to her satisfaction!

222 sm.jpg

222 sm.jpg
 

Similar threads