How to dress American servants in 1828: Roberts’ Guide for Butlers

RobertsGuideRoberts’ Guide for Butlers & other Household Staff
By Robert Roberts
Original Publication: Munroe & Francis, 1827
Reprint: Applewood Books, 1993

This week’s editing job required me to revise a scene from the point of view of the butler in order to give it a much needed dose of humanity. For various reasons, the butler was the best choice for this. But as I hadn’t ever planned to have him say much more than “Very good, sir,” I had only done the most cursory research into the life of butlers in 1800s America.

That meant I needed to brush up on some things stat. Fortunately, at some point in my many years of meandering around Boston, I had acquired a reprint of Roberts’ Guide for Butlers and Other Household Staff.

Originally published in 1827, as The House Servant’s Directory, Roberts’ Guide for Butlers goes into exhaustive detail about every moment of a servant’s working day.

At the time he wrote the book, Robert Roberts was employed as the butler for Christopher Gore, the former Governor of Massachusetts. Governor Gore’s high opinion of Roberts and his book was instrumental in making Robert Roberts one of the first African-Americans to be published by a commercial press.  In a letter to the publishers written just weeks before his death in 1827, Gore praised the book as being of “much use” to servants and the families who employed them:

“The directions are plain and perspicuous; and many of the recipes I have experienced to be valuable. Could servants be induced to conform to these directions, their own lives would be more useful, and the comfort and convenience of families much promoted.”

As if that weren’t assurance enough, Gore asked the publishers to

“Consider me as a subscriber for such number of copies as six dollars will pay for, and I think that many more would be subscribed for in Boston.”

It is comforting in an odd way to see that some things about the publishing industry have remained constant over the past two centuries. To get a publisher’s attention, you still have to paint a rosy picture of your well-heeled and extensive potential market. Good connections help too.

But I digress.

Introductory page to Roberts' Guide to Butlers spelling out the very many topics that are covered in the book. (Source: Roberts' Guide for Butlers)
Introductory page to Roberts’ Guide to Butlers spelling out the very many topics that are covered in the book. (Source: Roberts’ Guide for Butlers)

Nowadays Roberts’ Guide is a handy reference for those of us who need to paint a picture of a day in the life of an American servant without the luxury of having lived it. Roberts goes into great detail about the proper method for completing everyday tasks like polishing boots, cleaning silver, trimming lamps, laying a coal fire, removing stains from mahogany, and setting the table for dinner, supper, and other family parties.

Late in the book, Roberts spends nearly an entire page talking about the only proper way to use a poker to stoke a fire. Coal is such a vital aspect of a butler’s life that Roberts devotes several pages to a discussion of the relative merits of the types of coals available for purchase in Boston in 1828 and the effects using each will have on your freshly whitewashed walls.

I may be able to use a detail here and there, but by far the most useful bit of information for me was the fact that butlers were expected to change clothes nearly as often as their employers. I had always just assumed that they wore basically the same thing all day–except maybe for dinner. As it turns out, in 1828 the experienced butler was expected to have (and to use) at least three distinct sets of clothing, depending upon the time of day.

“An hour before the family arises is worth more to you than two after they are up.” — Robert Roberts

The quiet hours before the family wakes were the perfect time for doing what Roberts called the “dirty work” — tasks like polishing the silver, setting the fires, cleaning the boots, and trimming the lamps.

During this time, a good butler wears his most relaxed clothing:

  • Roundabout jacket, dark
  • Overalls or loose trousers
  • Vest
  • Cap to keep dust from hair
  • Green baize apron
A sampling of roundabout jackets. (Image:  Custom Vestments
A sampling of roundabout jackets. (Image: Custom Vestments

Those roundabouts might seem formal by our standards–especially that middle one–but under no circumstances, should a butler ever attempt to serve the family in the same clothes he cleaned his boots in. By the time the family starts stirring, a good butler will have already changed into something more presentable.

“There is no class of people to whom cleanliness of person and attire is of more importance than to servants in genteel families.” — Robert Roberts

By the time the family emerges for breakfast, Roberts expects that their butler will have already neatly combed out his hair and put on a clean shirt, collar, cravat and jacket, and exchanged his green baize apron for one of spotless white linen.

Yet another change of clothes was required to serve at dinner. In winter, this meant donning a superfine suit with a blue body coat, blue cashmere trousers, and yellow cashmere vest. In summer, the well-dressed butler would have on hand two to three lighter weight suits of black bombazine.

Roberts’ rules create bountiful narrative possibilities

America in 1828 was very different from America in 1880, so I will have to be very careful about how I use the information in this book. But Roberts’ directions are so very precise and cover so very many topics, that they create the potential for all sorts of delightfully miscreant behavior–much of which could be put to good use to drive a narrative. For example, Roberts rather sternly admonishes his readers never to wear pins, seals, or flashy watches, as it will make their employers think that their butlers consider themselves too good for their station in life. I don’t need to spell out the possibilities here, do I?

Roberts also has a lovely long section chock full of advice for cooks and other household servants. Reading it, I could easily imagine Mrs. Patmore bristling at the notion that a mere butler would have the audacity to tell her how to shop for the best cuts of meat or lecture her on the unwholesomeness of unripe fruit. Or Miss O’Brien on hearing that she needed to stop indulging her penchant for gossip around the servants’ dinner table.

“Never begin any vulgar conversation at such or any time. I have known some servants who were so rude, and void of all discretion as to use the most vulgar conversation during meal times, which was a disgrace to any being, and ought not to be suffered in a gentleman’s family.” — Robert Roberts

I am never vulgar. (Photo of Miss O'Brien via Downtown Abbey Wikia)
I am never vulgar. (Photo of Miss O’Brien via Downtown Abbey Wikia)

How lovely would it be to create a bit of inter-servant tension by having one servant give this book to another at Christmas? The butler could give it to an errant footman, with the relevant bits underlined in pencil. Or the housekeeper to a butler who in her opinion has more flash than skill.

Of course, there’s no reason to restrict yourself to sowing discord among the servants. A disapproving mother-in-law might give Roberts’ Rules to a newly married but in her opinion clearly incapable bride. Even better, an emotionally incompetent husband might bestow this lovely bit of writing on his wife for their paper anniversary. “Not saying you’re doing it all wrong, my dear, but my mother did think you’d find this book helpful.”

Just the sort of thing to make a character’s hackles rise. So many lovely possibilities.

Time to get back to writing.

Related Links:


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.