The Servant Problem in the 1860s
Here are a few more cartoons from Punch, in 1861 and 1862. One thing I like is that the cartoonists are sympathetic towards honest ignorance, and aim their wit mostly at pretension.
I would love to find anyone today who remarked on “dreadful effluvium.”
Before this time, dinners had been presented with service à la française — “every man helps the dish before him, and offers some of it to his neighbour…If he wishes for anything else, he must ask across the table, or send a servant for it — a very troublesome custom,” explained a traveling German prince in 1832.* This style of service caused problems when people who were too shy to interact with the other diners limited themselves to the dish in front of them, which sometimes was a great delicacy that others were waiting to share. It also disrupted conversation as braver diners called out requests and offers of food.
In service à la russe, “the serving dishes were laid out on the sideboard and the servants handed them round to guests in strict rotation. The first servant would come, offering meat, then another with a dish of potatoes, then a third with a platter of vegetables and a fourth with the sauce boat. No exercise of judgement was required on the servants’ part and even the rawest recruit could be expected to grasp the routine. The lady of the house was able to breathe at last and dinners ceased to resemble feeding time at the zoo.” (Reay Tannahill in Food in History, 1988, 1973, p. 302)
Punch shows us that the lady of the house still had a few things to worry about!
*quoted in Reay Tannahill’s Food in History.