The Lady’s Maid

I found the following information in E.S. Turner’s What the Butler Saw.

Turner gives a specific chapter to the lady’s maid. It was a cushy and well-respected job, if you could get it (at least in the hierarchy of servants), but what specific skill set did you need to obtain such work? First of all, you have to be young and stylish. Contrary to what they show on Downton Abbey, older and frumpy women rarely became lady’s maids. Let’s not even talk about O’Brien and her weird-ass hairstyle that was at least 20 years out of date.

No self-respecting countess is going to hire someone whose own hair and clothes look like shit, so you’d have to have decent hairdressing skills and the ability to mend, launder, and press delicate clothing. But you also had to be a dermatologist, doctor, and chemist.

Turner writes, “Although there were cosmetic preparations on the market … the skilled lady’s maid was expected to know how to make her own washes, balsams and lotions. She was responsible for removing her mistress’s pimples, smoothing her wrinkles and purifying her breath. She would know that white paint was to be avoided, on the grounds that it caused swollen eyes, changed the texture of the skin, created [acne] eruptions, loosened the teeth, produced rheums, heated the mouth and throat, corrupted the saliva, corroded the lungs and took on the smell of liver and garlic; but if her mistress was prepared to face these inconveniences it was for the maid to apply the paint as ordered.

“Dangerous, too, was nitrate of silver or lunar caustic, as used in certain hair dyes. It was warranted to make the hair black if carefully applied, but ‘you must take care to to burn yourself with it as it will eat through your skin like a piece of red-hot iron‘ (doing the same, no doubt, to the mistress’s scalp). One disadvantage of this treatment was that the hair soon changed from black to purple. A dye like this could be bought, but ‘it will be better for you to make it for a few pence than  give away shillings and pounds to the perfumers and patentees,’ said the guide-book.

“To make her various concoctions and decoctions, the lady’s maid required something very like a laboratory, with alembics, pestles and Bunsen burners. In practice, she used the still-room. When not dissolving steel filings in vinegar she would be pounding musk with amber, counterfeiting Rowlands’ Hair Oil with Bears’ grease, stirring quicklime with yellow litharge and white lead, or making eau-de-Cologne.

“A recipe for alum water ran: ‘Take three calves’ feet chopped small, three melons of middling size, three cucumbers, four or five fresh eggs, a slice of gourd, two lemons, a pint of skimmed milk, a gallon of rose water, a quart of juice of water lilies, a pint of juice of plantain and wild tansy and half an ounce of borax. Distil the whole in a balnea mariae …’

“To make Italian pomatum: ‘Take 25 pounds of hog’s lard, eight pounds of mutton suet, six ounces of oil of bergamot, four ounces of essential oil of lemons, half an ounce of oil of lavender and a quarter of an ounce of oil of rosemary.’ The result was to be stored in gallipots.

“For black spots and freckles on her mistress’s complexion the maid would apply bullock’s gall, which housemaids used to less effectively to clean dirty marble. Sunburn could be counteracted ‘with asses’ or even women’s milk,’ no indication being given as to how the latter commodity should be obtained” (130-31).

“Because of the wickedness of tradesmen, it was probable that many ingredients would be supplied in adulterated form. The lady’s maid would know how to make the appropriate checks. To test a purchase of musk, she would draw a silk thread two or three times through a clove of moist garlic, then through the musk. If the latter was genuine, it would at once kill the smell of garlic. Carmine made from cochineal was also much debased, notably by the addition of red lead. The test was to take two small silver thimbles and fill one with genuine carmine, the other with suspect. The weight of the pure brand would be half that of the adulterated brand. To test Balm of Mecca, alias Balm of Grand Cairo, alias Balm of India, the method was to pour a drop in water and put an iron knitting-needle in. If all the drop adhered to the needle, the Balm was pure” (131).

To all of my chemistry PhD friends out there, move to the UK. There is probably a ROARING trade in being a lady’s maid, because it sounds like you need a damn PhD to do the job in the first place.

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One Response to The Lady’s Maid

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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