The Quest for Servants

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

* The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion.*

For many who visit the Barker Mansion, including myself, the building itself can be an overwhelming experience. We all appreciate the great beauty and historic value that the Mansion is, and I am thrilled by being in its presence and learning about its stories. However, I don’t think that I am alone in thinking that the Barker story feels a bit distant. Surely most of us are not, nor will be ever become, high-profile, orphaned heiresses or presidents of multi-million-dollar companies. The Barkers were a form of American royalty for their time, and their mansion is a testament to that position. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Barkers certainly experienced hardships and suffering of various forms, but it can be a challenge for the heritage interpreters and those wanting to connect with this history more to find a relatable, common ground sometimes. Who were the people during the Mansions prime who were perhaps more familiar folks, as it were, like us?

I believe that many of these feelings and questions can be remedied by information about the domestic servants and staff of the Barker Mansion. A home as grand as the Mansion required quite the team to care for the building, gardens, and family. Interest in the servants and their lives does crop up among guests here, and I am certainly intrigued to know more about the group that really ran the show. Unfortunately, this can be quite challenging to do, and multiple house museums like the Barker Mansion face similar difficulties [2]. Firstly, their primary space has been disturbed by the hands of history. Our administrative offices and behind-the-scenes spaces needed for running the Barker Civic Center were once the servants’ quarters– renovated, updated, and altered multiple times throughout history. These rooms simply don’t look like they would have when servants were utilizing them so much of the information typically gathered by looking at the rooms, their state, what is in them, etc. has been lost. This is also an unfortunate reality for similar American museums [2]. The servants’ quarters are “the first to go,” likely because they are less valuable, less aesthetically pleasing, have less documentation about them, or have not held up as well due to poorer quality materials used in their construction. It depends on the building. For the Barker Mansion, besides having been somewhat neglected, that area was updated and heavily altered during the era that Purdue owned the house, allowing students to use it.

Even with all of their changes, the basics remain the same– the hallway, walls, and, most strikingly, the doors. All of the doors on the second floor that were used as servants’ bedrooms and the bathroom have Dutch-style doors, with a little door within the top half of the main door covered by shutter-like slats. As these rooms were part of the original 1857 home, our heritage interpreters speculate that they are most likely served as an attempt to create airflow. Even to this day, there is no air conditioning and little ventilation up here (a fact that the modern staff is painfully aware of). Recently, some servants’ rooms and the bathroom and linen closet have been decorated to serve as an example and are now wonderfully open for the public to view. So, that is our modern setting for research on the servants, changed and renovated, serving a different purpose, but still offering a little glimpse and hints into their lives here.


The next direction to turn for research to find out more about these people is documentation. Unfortunately, very little survives concerning the Barker servants. In our archives we have a few handwritten letters from Mrs. Katherine Barker to different servants in the house, including Christine Hult, who was the head housekeeper at the time, and a maid referred to as Tilla. Other names are mentioned in the notes and even the menus written by Mrs. Barker, such as Gus, Agnes, Matilda (perhaps she is Tilla?), Mat, and Alice. Luckily for us here at the Barker archives, Christine Hult’s granddaughter offered us some wonderful information and artifacts concerning her grandmother back in 1994. This is often the only way that the names and information regarding lesser known people, our fellow “folks,” are researched by modern historians– through the dedication and preservation work done by their respective family members.

In addition to personal family archives, the Barker Mansion has turned to historic census records to find out more about these people. While the census takers at the time would hardly know it, having created them for taxation purposes, census records are a treasure trove of information for modern historians. It is important to keep in mind that, although the census records were government documents, they are riddled with many errors. Census takers frequently anglicized and/or misspelled people’s names and allowed their own personal biases to come through. Nevertheless, the census has much to offer for historians, as the dated documents tell us (more or less) who was living where, with whom, how old everyone was, what everyone’s names were, where they were born, where their parents were born, what their occupation was, if they spoke English, if they were married, and much more. That being said, the U.S. census records have provided a great bulk of the Barker Mansion’s information on the servants here. We know more information about the servants from those, but the picture is still incomplete. What were their lives like? What was their daily schedule? Were they happy here at the Barker Mansion?


Luckily, other domestic servants’ stories from those in a similar era and situation have survived in forms of letters, diaries, and otherwise. From these, historians have been able to paint a general picture of the lives of servants during the Gilded Age. I, in turn, read these to gather a story for our servants.

The most noticeable aspect about domestic servants was that they really did not fit in, in that the position of servant and servitude in this manner was not comfortable in American culture. Wealthy families, particularly those of “new money,” who had made their fortunes in the Gilded Age were trying to emulate families of “old money” and the European aristocracy. The more rigid social status and norm of domestic servants familiar to the British did not cross the ocean neatly [1, 2]. American ideals and sense of individuality, and for many the recent memories of American slavery, kept the keeping of servants from establishing [4]. This may be the primary reason for the high turn-over rate of the serving staff at large houses. At the Barker Mansion, with each ten-year gap between the censuses, an entirely new collection of names is listed. While the censuses may not have the complete list of servants living with the Barkers at the time, that fact still recommends the idea that no individual was working here for more than ten years. It seems that this was a national trend, as servants were continually being sought out and new staff needing to be trained even in Washington, D.C. [3]. As a Driehaus Museum article puts it: “…servants were hard to find, and even harder to keep” [2].

Another reason for the irregularity in the staff could have been the indisputably hard work that all of the servants had to do. The staff was in charge of every aspect of running the house, from caring for any children, helping the family members get dressed, cleaning, gardening, starting and maintaining the fires, laundry, cooking, and more. In addition to the tough labor aspect of the work, the schedule was incredibly grueling. Many of the servants lived in the homes of those they served (a la our modern-day offices at the Mansion), and were working from dawn to midnight at least. Some servants, including some at the Barker Mansion, were “day servants,” and so could return to their own home and/or families at the end of the work day [4]. This practice seemed to be more common in Southern states, where a live-in style of service was too reminiscent of slavery [4]. As the Barkers were of the North, this was less likely a motivator. Additionally, all of their known serving staff were white people of European descent. Still, wages were low and time off was limited to typically one afternoon a week and every other Sunday [2, 5]. It is hard to compute the psychological toil from being at the constant beck and call of a family with all of their rules, quirks, and expectations as well. Clearly, being a servant was not for the weak or faint of heart.

The reason for becoming a servant in the Gilded Age was quite different for Americans than was common in England. Serving was not the means to raise one’s social status as it was in England [2]. Serving was a job, a means to an end, and a more dignified way to earn a wage. During the era in American history, immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe and Ireland, was at a very high rate, with nearly 750,000 people entering into the United States each year [5]. Many of these immigrants, frequently of the lower classes, found work as domestic servants. In the early 1900s, nearly a third of women working as domestic servants were foreign-born. The average percentage of immigrants working as domestic servants during the first half of the 1900s was about 10%, but the number did decline after the 1920s [5]. Specifically, 60% of all Irish-born working women were servants [6]. Many of the domestic servants were immigrants or the children of immigrants who needed to make a wage, moving on quite frequently if they get married or something better comes along. This high percentage of immigrants and first-generation Americans working as servants carries over to the Barker Mansion– the census lists some of the servants as being born in or whose parents were born in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Ireland, England, Prussia, Poland, Canada, and France. The census records the servants as all able to speak English, but we don’t yet know how fluent everyone was or what dynamics may have arisen as a result of these diverse backgrounds. It was very common for domestic servants of Irish descent or nationality to suffer stereotypes and discrimination, particularly Irish Catholics [6]. This seems unlikely to be manifested at the Barker household, as Mrs. Barker herself was the daughter of Irish immigrants.

It is through little clues and intuitions like these that historians are able to piece together as truthful and accurate of a story as they can of the servants of the Gilded Age with supporting information from the national norm. However, it doesn’t feel quite sufficient. As someone researching social history, I want to know every detail of the lives of these people who were perhaps less glamorous but no less important than those of high-profile families like the Barkers. The lifestyle of the Gilded Age rode on their hard-working shoulders, quite literally in some cases and historians seek to do them justice. This again brings me to my initial lament that there is so little evidence documented for many of the common folk, like us, who lived back then. At least, there is relatively so little that has been shared and made available to the public and historians. It is once again a reliance on personal collections and family stories that help bring these people’s experience back to light. Perhaps that letter and photograph from your grandparents is precious is more ways than you know.


Thank you for reading this week’s blog post. Tune in on Friday to the Barker Mansion podcast in which I will go more in detail about what information we have regarding the specific servants of the Barker Mansion. Who knows? You may hear a familiar name. 


[1] Anderson, Jon. “For Servants, Every Day was Labor.” Chicago Tribune. Last modified September 5, 2000.

[2] “Below America’s Stairs: Domestic Servants in the Gilded Age.” The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Last modified June 14, 2012.

[3] Heard, Amy.

[4] Spainhour, Jaclyn. Gilded Age Norfolk, Virginia. Charleston: The History Press, 2015.

[5] Stigler, George J. Domestic Servants in the United States, 1900-1940. NBER, 1946. Courtesy of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

[6] “The Irish Domestic Servant.” Courtesy of American Studies at the University of Virginia.


Ursula Kremer 7.16.19

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