I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the wealthier young ladies and lads of the nineteenth century had servants for a variety of purposes, from scullery maids in the kitchen to butlers and housekeepers. There’s even a position called spider-brusher to the Master! Marissa and I hope to do a series of posts on servants this year. But no matter if you were the lowliest of the low among the serving class or at the tippy top of the servant hierarchy, you had one thing in common. At some point, someone was going to have need of your services. How did they go about notifying you?
As you can imagine, simply shouting “Hey, you! A little help here!” was far too vulgar and generally unnecessary. A personal ladies’ maid would attend her mistress if there was company and at other times of the day if needed. A valet might be on hand to tend to his master. At other times, her ladyship or his lordship might ring a hand bell to summon assistance. These could be simple brass bells or more fancifully designed like little windmills or gracious ladies.
In many of the more formal great houses, footmen were stationed at strategic points throughout the house. If you needed the fire refreshed, perhaps a cup of tea, or even to take dear little poochy for a necessary walk, you might wander to the door of the room you were in or even clear your throat and a footman would stride to your rescue. The footman might do the task himself, or, if it were of a more personal nature, locate your body servant (ladies’ maid or valet) to come assist you.
As the century wore on, it become more common to use a bell pull to summon the servants, and it was accounted chivalrous to be the one to ring for a lady who required assistance. Generally you would tug on a cord on the wall, which was connected via a wire that ran through the house to the servants’ hall where it rang a bell. Although bells were usually mounted to the wall with notes underneath to indicate which room they represented, some servants were so attuned they could tell which room just by the sound of the bell. Later in the century, bell pulls were replaced by bell buttons: ceramic or metal circular knobs set on the wall that might be pushed to call for a servant.
Now, there’s a thought: pull a cord and have bell ring for each of my sons, our dog, and maybe my husband. Think anyone would answer?