9. House servants often worked longer days than the field hands and artisans
Being assigned as a house servant meant freedom from the back-breaking labor of the fields. But the enslaved house staff were needed at all times their owners and guests were awake. It also meant some of them were frequently away from the plantation, Virginians at the time usually taking personal servants with them when they traveled. Though not necessarily working all the time, house servants could be called upon at all hours to welcome unexpected guests, replace spent candles, light fires, or even simply prepare tea. The butler’s work day ended when the owner dismissed him for the evening, but it began before dawn. So did that of the owner’s personal valet, who needed to be available to assist his owner’s morning ablutions and dressing. Cooks arose before dawn to ensure the kitchen fires were lighted and breakfast prepared.
House maids spent the day cleaning, dusting, sweeping, polishing glassware, silver, and pewter. Their efforts were inspected by the butler, who spent most of the day in morning coat, of the colors associated with his owner’s. The butler also bore the responsibility of keeping the owner informed of the state of his wine cellar, and what other beverages were available, such as ale, beer, brandy, and rum. Cooks collected fresh eggs each morning. Throughout the day, cooks churned butter, harvested vegetables and fruits from the gardens and orchards, and prepared the meals requested by the lady of the house. Should any of the owner’s household desire a bath, it was the cooks who heated the water, which was then borne by housemaids or valets to the appropriate chamber. It was also the responsibility of the housemaids to empty the chamber pots of their noxious contents each day.