Good Help (Was Hard to Find)

The Oranges were once home to large country estates, high society and a housekeeper-shortage. A "servant school" tried to sweep that problem under the rug.

Servants in a scene from TV's "Downton Abbey."
The British Way: Servants at the ready in a scene from TV's "Downton Abbey."
Photo courtesy of photofest.

When Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Patmore needed to hire kitchen help, she placed “a card” in the village shop. By the next week’s episode, scullery maid Ivy was on the job.

For families of the Oranges in the late 19th century, finding competent help was an ongoing challenge. Indeed, the New York Times reported on “the servant girl problem.” Orange at the time boasted country estates, such as the Colgate family compound. Wealthy owners of hat factories and breweries also called Orange home. For them, the servant shortage was a crisis.

In 1895, the Orange Improvement Society, a women’s group, seeking to address the issue, voted to establish a school for servants. As envisioned by society president Katharine Gallison, the school would enroll a class of 20 girls in June 1896 and “thoroughly train them in the various branches of domestic service.” The length of the course would vary “according to the degree of intelligence of the girls.”

The school planned classes in household management for society members. It also established a placement service, “where the qualifications of all applicants will be investigated before they are placed on the list of desirable domestics.”

After raising funds for the operation, the society hired Sarah E. Craig as the school’s superintendent. When the Domestic Training School opened for business in a rented house on South Main Street in Orange, the event was reported in newspapers across the nation.

Just months later, however, the same newspapers reported a falling-out between Craig and the society. For all the plans put forth to train model servants, only 12 young women enrolled in the school. When Craig left the school in late 1896, the two remaining servants-in-training left too.

Ironically, just as the women of the Oranges needed assistance, so did the school superintendent. The New York Sun reported that Craig left her job because maids had not “been furnished to do the household work [of the school] and that she [was] obliged to do most of it herself.” Good help, even at the Domestic Training School, was hard to find.

Downtown Abbey premieres on January 4 on PBS.

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