In a box somewhere in my attic there is an unusual gift given to me years ago by a distant aunt.
The box itself is simple: an embossed, gold foil affair.
When you remove the lid and fold back the pale, cream tissue paper inside, the eyes settle on a piece of cloth whose weave is fine, much finer than most of what we see nowadays, as if it won the competition for sheerest fabric and could boast it had been spun from angel kisses, fairy dust, and dragonfly wings.
The revered object inside the box is one of three family heirlooms I’ve been given. The first, a beautiful christening gown worn by my mother, Joanna.The second, my mother’s wedding dress and going away outfit to be framed with her wedding invitation. And the third, an item I don’t expect anyone will ever wear again: a maid’s apron.
The apron itself is small, thin, made of dotted swiss, a fabric of sheer muslin and regularly placed dots which was once the rage for curtains, wedding dresses, baby clothes, and in this case, a parlor maid’s apron.
My aunt, Natalina Penna, wore this apron when she worked as a maid for Senator McAdoo. A smart, hardworking immigrant woman of notable style, she’d worked her way from humble origins as the oldest daughter in a large Piemontese family to successful businesswoman. Eager to prove herself in America, she sent money back home to bring her family to America, and took stock tips from the senator and his friends. Soon, she owned her own apartment building, beautiful clothing, and the affections of a dapper man she lived with. Sadly, she died at the age of forty from peritonitis.
When I first received this apron, I was stunned that such a delicate thing could withstand any kind of daily wear. The tiny flocked dots on the paper-thin, transparent fabric would have complemented a traditional back uniform. I don’t have a picture of her at work, though the uniform probably looked like this. Natalina was in service from about 1910 until her death in the late 1930s. Her working life spanned the same period as my favorite period show, Downton Abbey.
Fans of the BBC and those who grew up near England in the 1970s may think of Downton Abbey as a sort of redo of the original series Upstairs Downstairs. As a young teenager, I watched Upstairs Downstairs enthralled by its raciness, sopping up every lurid detail, ready to discuss it the next day at school. What I remember of it in hindsight is the wonderful character acting, the beauty of Lesley-Anne Down (we all wanted to be like her), the allure of sex and some handsome, brilliantined, dark-haired cad of a son.
Over the past few weeks, I binge-watched Downton Abbey first thing each morning in the hopes of inspiring housework. I’ve found that by contrast, cleaning the Keurig, vacuuming the carpets, and adding boiling water from an electric kettle to a pouch of desiccated, gluten-free oatmeal is nothing compared to grinding Java beans by hand, using a carpet sweeper, or worse still, a carpet beater, or simmering steel cut oats into porridge. I can honestly say that these shows are much more inspiring than watching Hoarders, my show of choice while handling my mother’s estate.
Having run out of shows about people who lived lives of quiet servitude, today I listened to Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, a memoir of a very intelligent, amusing and articulate woman who was in service from the age of 15. The book is entertaining in its own right and has been credited as a source for the shows Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. More importantly, along with a few other books of this kind, they constitute a body of work about the lives of the men and women who worked in service and their enslavement at the hands of their “betters”.
As I watched Downton Abbey, I couldn’t help but think how nice it was that the relationships between servants and masters are depicted as formal but friendly. In reality, this was a rare occurrence. Margaret Powell has been accused of being bitter for her biting, accurate recollections, but who can blame her? She was right. The life of domestics would today violate employment law.
It makes a pretty picture to think that servant/master relationships were equal and respectful, but that’s much like saying that before the Civil Rights Movement, all Americans were treated equally. We know for a fact it isn’t so, and no amount of whitewashing will change it. The problem is that as history is accessed less often through primary sources such as Powell’s memoir, it is all too easy to conclude that things are more like Downton Abbey, with an understanding family graciously learning to adapt to the times.
I, for one, am grateful for Margaret Powell’s contribution to history. She enjoyed a measure of celebrity later in life and pursued the education for which she had always been qualified and yet was unable to afford as a young person, and went on to write two more memoirs and several novels. Writing was her third career after domestic/cook and, later, mother.
Margaret Powell started her writing career at the age of 60 and published her first book in 1968.