Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Butler Did It!

"The Butler's Guide To Running the Home and Other Graces" by Stanley Ager and Fiona St. Aubyn   Clarkson-Potter Publishers   205 pages   $21.99

Mr. Ager, as he was known downstairs; simply "Ager" to the upstairs, moved up from starting as a hallboy (errand runner) at age 14 in 1922 to a career of 53 years "in service" as it was called then.  He had advanced steadily up the masthead, so to speak, in various great houses.

A butler was the CEO of the household, followed by the head housekeeper (always a female) and then the cook.  Some of these great homes had a staffof 40 people encompassing all sorts of jobs from dairymaid to ironer to valet to the master of the house or lady's maid to the lead female.  Upper and lower staff were expected to conduct their business and be silent about it.

At the butler's level, they could be choosy about where they chose to serve.  The ideal was an owner who had a London house (for amusements on their day off,) another in the country and who traveled extensively.  The butler wanted to see the world, too!

The lower staff worked like donkeys for very low wages, but they considered themselves lucky.  They were warm, well-fed and housed, comforts that not every uneducated person might have.

Times have changed in lots of little details.  Ager cursed the person that insisted on copper pots and pans for the kitchen.  He politely said that daily polishing of them was a pain in the arse.  "In the old days," he said, "when our people were away and we had time on our hands, we polished the bindings of the books in the library" and then proceeds to tell us how to do it!  He marveled that they used sea salt in bulk for various cleaning jobs because it was cheap but  today is considered a valuable addition to the dinner table!

Servants were not meek people who docilely did what they were told.  They had their means of revenge, too.  When the house hosted a jerk who ran them rudely around on pointless errands (to show off)  why then at the nightly polishing they would cut every other stitch holding the sole onto the shoe.  Days later and miles away, the sole would come off of the shoe and they were never suspected.

Butlers could be rude with impunity.  Ager was seeing to the comforts of a guest.  He came into the guest's room to find he had simply strewn his clothes all over the floor.  Haughtily, Ager told the guest, "You made this mess; you pick it up for I am not going to do it," spun on his heel and departed.

Living in an atmosphere of "class hath privileges" must have been an interesting experience.  Ager remarked more than once that it was a good system.  Everyone knew their place in the scheme of things and there was no confusion about who did what.

Would never work today, sadly.

No comments: