SALEM — Anyone who’s seen “Downton Abbey” knows that domestic workers have stories to tell, regardless the size and wealth of the household. But in New England these stories have been as hidden as the back staircases domestic staff members were expected to use.
Jennifer Pustz, Ph.D., former Historic New England historian, comes to The House of the Seven Gables on Wednesday, September 6, 6 p.m., to share stories she uncovered while working on her book, “Voices from the Back Stairs: The History of Domestic Staff in New England.” The presentation is part of The Gables’ Seven Lectures at Seven Gables series in the Visitor Center at The House of the Seven Gables, 115 Derby Street, Salem, Massachusetts. The presentation is free for members and $7 for nonmembers.
“I think people will be surprised by how complex and how different domestic work could be, depending on who you worked for,” says Pustz. “Like any other job, domestic work had its ups and downs. In my own research, I tried to get at the fact that this is a relationship.”
Although domestic servants made everyday life possible, their identities and roles within the household have long been hidden. Pustz investigated domestic manuals, wills, census data, account books, personal letters and other materials to bring the lives of servants and relationships with their employers to the foreground. Pustz looks at historic properties in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Woodstock, Connecticut, and Wiscasset, Maine, to highlight the diversity of domestic service in New England from 1860 to 1910.
Depending on the locale, domestic workers were either immigrants or locals. In Maine, for example, the workers were usually American-born girls from American-born parents. In Massachusetts, domestic workers were more likely to be foreign-born and white due to Irish immigration in that era. Connecticut and Rhode Island saw a higher percentage of people of color, in part due to the slave trade. Pustz says that few house museums include information about domestic staff, which can vary widely in expertise, roles and numbers.
Dr. Jennifer Pustz is the former museum historian at Historic New England, where she conducted and coordinated social history research for the organization. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Iowa and M.A. and B.A. degrees in art history. Prior to moving to New England, she was the historian at Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is the author of “Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums” (Northern Illinois University Press, 2010) and a contributing author of Historic New England’s “America’s Kitchens” publication (2009). Pustz is currently pursuing an additional degree in nutrition science from Tufts University.