Elizabeth Everett and Otis Blake Everett were both in charge of servants in their homes. For Elizabeth, she employed two Irish female servants, Ann and Esther, to care for her home in the South End and Otis Blake employed several Indian servants in Calcutta.
In the 1850s, it was common for Irish servants working in the houses of Boston’s upper and middle class. Irish girls emigrated to America because after the potato famine, Ireland held nothing but poverty for them. Landowners found it was more profitable to turn their land to pasture and evicted their tenants, leaving thousands of Irish with no home or vocation. Many, with only enough money in their pocket for boat fare, set off for Boston. In 1849, Boston became home to 28,917 immigrants, most from Ireland. By 1855, 500,000 Irish called Boston their home. With few skills, Irish immigrants worked unskilled jobs. Irish men worked as waiters and dock workers, while the Irish women found jobs in domestic service. America gave Irish women a chance to earn money and many came with jobs already in place through their friends and relatives who had already immigrated. The young Irish women knew there was a demand for domestic servants and native born American girls did not want the job.
Despite the long hours, Irish women preferred domestic work because servants usually had a room in the house by themselves or shared with only one other girl. Without worry of paying rent, Irish servants could do with their earnings as they wished. They could send some home, save some, and spend some on amusements for themselves.
Unlike religious leaders in Ireland, Irish leaders in America discouraged marriage for the young female immigrants because it would prevent them from earning wages. Most domestic servants left their employment once they married to settle into a domestic life, something their mistresses did not want because it meant replacing a well-trained servant with an unknown entity. In August 1855, Elizabeth Everett wrote of her shock and dismay to Otis Blake when she learned that their cook, Esther, married while the Everetts were on vacation in Nantasket Beach.Mistresses like Elizabeth Everett once again took their cue on how to deal with their Irish servants from Godey’s Lady’s Book. They believed they had a responsibility over the character of their servants because their innate “Irishness” made servants incapable of reforming themselves. Godey’s taught the mistresses to rule over their servants with a firm hand to keep the rebellious nature of the servants in check, but also learned how important it was to reward their servants for performing their jobs properly. Despite her dismay at Esther’s marriage, Elizabeth eventually rejoiced in her servant’s happiness and sent off to housekeeping with tokens of appreciation from the family. Popular culture and nativist sentiment made the advice Godey’s gave to middle class mistresses seem necessary. By 1850, newspapers, magazines, and novels had begun to popularize the figure of the “Biddy” in order to construct a common stereotype of laziness, ignorance, and insubordination that came to characterize Irish domestic labor. Middle class women used this figure of Biddy to keep the Irish as the “other” and help them align their domestic governance with the broader goal of transforming Irish immigrants into useful members of society. South Enders like the Everetts saw the beginnings of Irish immigrants moving in droves to their neighborhood and feared the outcome. When a neighbor rented the Chickering Piano Company’s warehouse and turned it into apartments close to the Everett’s home, Elizabeth complained to Otis Blake that the intention was to rent out to Irish immigrants: Elizabeth Everett was not the only one dealing with problem servants. Otis Blake wrote so often to Elizabeth about his Indian servants in Calcutta, that she often wrote back with words of advice as to how to handle them. She must have recognized that her Irish help were more obedient than Otis Blake’s Indian servants because she joked with him in a May 1855 letter that she should send him Irish servants.
All servants in India were men and landless laborers and American merchants living in Calcutta took their cues about how to treat Indian servants from the British, who had created an image of the Indian servant class. Domestics were dispensable to the merchants and they often wrote at great length about their servants in their correspondence to their family, especially to their female family members. Female family members often commiserated and offered advice as to how to deal with unruly servants.
But there were big differences in how domestic servants in India behaved and worked from the Irish servants in Boston. Indian servants performed specialized tasks and one person performed a task that could only last an hour or two. Upon completion, the servant would rest. This was perceived as being lazy by the American employers who were used to having servants work from early morning to late evening with few breaks. Otis Blake seemed to expect his servants to work long hours and abandon their normal style of working. During a particularly hot dry season, he hired two servants to pull the punka, a large swinging fan, over his bed all night in order for him to sleep comfortably.
Indian servants were seen as inherently criminal who would steal from their employers and carried disease into their employer’s homes. They were often called “dirty” and “immoral” because it was believed they took bribes, sold their stolen goods, and cheated their employers when dealing with other tradesmen. Unfortunately, beating Indian servants was common among the British and American merchant employers. Employers used ropes and canes as a form of chastisement and many issues of the Calcutta Gazette in the 1850s were filled with advertisements for runaway slaves and domestic help. Otis Blake wrote several times of beating his servants for suspected theft and laziness.
Otis Blake wrote so much about beating his servants that Elizabeth wrote back and asked him “but pray don’t whip your ‘help,’ for good house keepers never do” in her letter from September 1854.