Beyond the home: new histories of domestic servants

by Dr. Sacha Hepburn (IHR, London) and Olivia Robinson (University of Oxford), conference organisers

Two weeks ago, the conference we had been planning for the last 10 months finally came into being. When we first drafted the Call for Papers, we wondered just how many people we could get around a table for a day of discussions about servants’ lives ‘beyond the home’. We were not prepared for how popular this call turned out to be: by the deadline in March, we’d received more than 40 abstracts from researchers on 6 continents. By 7th September, as conference delegates took their seats and we began our opening address, the event had grown to a two-day conference of papers and special sessions, including a keynote address from Carolyn Steedman. We now know that the subject is of interest to a wide audience, including those within and outside of the academy. We share here our thoughts on what we’ve learned, and what comes next.

Sociability panel: Stephen Sparks, Kathryne Crossley, Sacha Hepburn, Paul Borenberg, courtesy of “Beyond the Home 2017”

Aims & ethos of the conference

The conference aims were twofold: to place servants’ lives centre-stage and push beyond the boundaries of existing research on domestic service, and to gauge the appetite for developing a network of researchers to continue working on this topic. While servants have never been accorded the place in social and economic history that their numbers deserve, there is a rich body of scholarship on domestic service for many parts of the world, and particularly Western contexts. Existing studies have successfully explored the servant experience in their place of work, with servant-employer relations central to most analyses. While there are still exciting things to be done in these areas, there is another aspect of the history of domestic service which has received far too little attention: servants’ lives beyond the homes in which they laboured and the contributions that servants have made to social, cultural, economic and political life. We were motivated to understand how others have considered these issues so that we can better understand our own specific research areas, and we were guided by three central ideas: to explore a broad range of chronologies and geographies; to engage with diverse voices, including those working outside of the academy; and, ultimately, to ensure our findings are shared as widely and freely as possible.

Papers and panels

Speakers explored servants marital and familial relations (Butler, Keithan); servant participation in the immediate and wider communities around the places in which they worked, and the friendships and activities they developed in those communities (Clapperton, Hepburn, Mansell, Wallace); what servants did in their limited spare time, be that attending fairs, dancing, gambling, fighting or writing poetry (Borenberg, Crossley, Davidson, Dyer, Louvier, Rastén, Steedman); servants’ involvement in unions and struggles for suffrage and civil rights (Dussart, Hansen, Haskins, Klots, Schwartz, Sen); servants’ experiences of mobility and travel, whether across racial boundaries in segregated societies or across oceans and continents (Robinson, Sparks, Walchester); and the ways in which servants are represented today, either in museums (Chynoweth and Humphreys) or through other cultural mechanisms such as film (Randall). We were delighted to welcome speakers from the USA, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, South Africa, India and Australia; from historians of the early modern down to postcolonial periods; from those who focus specifically on servants to those who do not; and from those working in History but also Anthropology, Area Studies, Literary Studies, Geography and Cultural Heritage. Such diversity made for lively and engaged discussion and we thank everyone who attended for their contributions and ideas.

Overarching themes

The papers on each panel spoke both usefully to each other and to those in other panels, and a number of overarching themes emerged. These included elements of the spatial (what constitutes the home, or the domestic? A room? A house? An estate?); considerations of time (when were servants engaging with non-work activities? On days off? While at work?); and the impact of the global on the individual servant (how did servants engage with ideas and concepts from other parts of the world and, particularly, with Empire?).

A series of engaging and thought-provoking discussions on these issues led us to ask new questions about servants’ lives beyond the home. It became clear across the papers and discussions that in order to develop a more holistic understanding of servants’ lives, we need to think more carefully about the impact of domestic work itself. Mere access to free time is governed by working hours; writing letters relies on access to writing technology; the ability (and indeed desire) to engage in sports or other leisure pursuits is determined by the level of exhaustion caused by performing hours of manual labour. The list goes on. A major learning outcome was therefore that the contributions made by servants beyond the home cannot be fully understood in isolation from their work contexts. This is one of the key issues that we hope to explore further in future.

Conference pack, courtesy of “Beyond the Home 2017”

Learning points

Two broader points for reflection relating to our approach became apparent during the conference. Firstly, we found that exploring diverse chronologies and geographies, while illuminating in many ways, can be a barrier to engagement, especially given the constraints of presenting via 20-minute papers. Important parallels and points of comparison between our work can at times get lost in translation if delegates are unaware of the political context, economic conditions or social constructs relevant to each paper’s argument. This is, of course, a key challenge to collaborative approaches, particularly when a global framework is adopted. We aim to address this by developing the scope and content of the conference website, of which more below.

Secondly, it became clear that accessing servant lives beyond the home was invariably dependent upon highly personal source material. Letters, diaries, oral histories, interviews, individual legal records, etc., painstakingly pieced together, offer a glimpse into the ways in which servants interacted with and shaped the world around them. This common approach bound much of our work together but, as is true of researching marginalised groups more broadly, this is a challenging task. Thankfully, the rewards are worth it. We plan to reflect further on this issue on our website in due course.

Next steps

The enthusiasm for the subject of servants’ lives beyond the home and the supportive atmosphere of the conference have left us convinced that there is scope to develop this project further. We are currently working on an online hub designed to both keep the conversation going among those who attended the event and to bring in a wider range of voices: from within and beyond academia; those working in and on geographically diverse areas; researchers across disciplines; and those not necessarily working directly on servants. This should enable us to grow and sustain a network of people working on servants, a central goal of which will be to foster individual and collaborative scholarship. There is certainly scope to build on the themes addressed at this conference. Some ideas raised by our delegates included social and geographic mobility; servants’ cultural and artistic practices; representations of servants beyond the academy; and the impact of the labour process and the materiality of domestic labour on servants’ lives beyond the home.

We hope the conference and online hub will encourage historical research, writing and, indeed, teaching that takes a holistic approach to servants’ lives, considering not only their experiences of work, but how they as individuals interacted with and shaped the world around them. More broadly, we hope to encourage historians of all places and themes to consider how servants have impacted social life, politics, and culture in the places and periods on which they write. There is still so much to explore, and we invite anyone with an interest in this area to join the ‘Servants Beyond The Home’ network via our website.

This blog post draws on ideas that emerged from conference discussions and delegate feedback forms. Sacha Hepburn and Olivia Robinson both welcome enquiries relating to the conference and to the online hub.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and others like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars at all stages of their careers. Additional support to run Beyond the Home was received from the Royal Historical Society, The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), and the University of Oxford Faculty of History.  

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