Sunday, January 18, 2015

Powelton's Army of Servants

           Running a Victorian household was hard work.  Powelton was fortunate to have running water and gas for heating it but without electricity everything required physical labor.  Without vacuum cleaners, floors were swept and washed and carpets were taken outside and beaten.  Windows were often open in the summer which allowed in dust and smoke from the streets.  Until the development of Fels-Naptha about 1893, there was no good laundry soap.  There also were no electric wash machines.  Somebody had to empty chamber pots.

            Almost every middle-class Victorian home in Powelton had at least one servant.  Almost all (97%) were female and most were young and unmarried.  Seventy percent were under age 30 and half were 23 or younger.  In 1880, more than half were Irish, either born in Ireland (42%) or native-born with a parent born in Ireland (12%).  About 17% were non-Irish whites born in Pennsylvania and another 17% were black.     There was a great deal of turnover of servants which led to the well-known “servant problem” that “plagued” most cities.  Evidence from elsewhere suggests that many servants left to work in factories.  Although the conditions in factories were often harsh, factory work involved more regular (though long) hours and may have paid more.  Others left to get married.  For example, Julia Donavan emigrated from Ireland in 1894 at age 16.  She started her life in the U.S. as a servant for a small family in North Philadelphia.  At age 23, she married Timothy Callahan, a contractor born in South Philadelphia.  In 1910, they lived at 3632 Warren St. (just below Lancaster Ave.)  In 1919, they purchase 3619 Powelton Ave. (and the adjoining lot at 3618 Pearl St.) and moved in with their nine children.  Julia still lived there in 1940 with four unmarried daughters and three grandchildren.  The family owned the house until 1951.
Washing cloths was an arduous, messy process. There were no washer women living in Powelton proper, but there were 39 nearby.  Most lived (and worked) just below Lancaster Ave. on the 3600 and 3700 blocks of Warren and Cuthbert St.  (Many of those houses were torn down to build the high school.)  Forty percent were black and 40% were foreign-born.  Most were married to laborers.  For example, the Jackson family lived at 3626 Warren St.  George was a 40 year-old mulatto laborer who had been unemployed for 5 months in the previous year.  His wife, Julia, was a servant for another household.  Their two daughters, Annie and Hester (ages 20 and 19) took in wash.  Hester was married to George Williams, a laborer.  They shared the house with George and Hester Laws and their infant son.  George was a mulatto cart driver who had been unemployed for 3 months and five daughters, and an Irish servant girl.  Hester took in laundry.
            A few of the larger homes had several servants and had a housekeeper to oversee the staff.  Deborah Roberts was the housekeeper for the Scattergood household (3515 Powelton Ave.).  She was born into a good Quaker family in Medford, New Jersey in 1849, the daughter of Samuel H. Roberts, a farmer, and Abigail Haines.  In 1860, their family included four sons, five daughters and an Irish servant girl.  In 1869, Samuel moved his family to Philadelphia where he became sexton of the Arch St. Quaker Meeting House.  Deborah was housekeeper for the Scattergoods for more than 20 years.  She oversaw (at least) two Irish servant girls and a nurse.  She retired in the 1920s and in 1930 (when she was 80) lived with her sister, Margaretta Roberts, as a boarder at 3609 Baring St.
            A few of the wealthiest families in Powelton had a coachman.  They were generally black.  For example, the carriage house (3400 Pearl St.) behind the Burnham’s mansion (34th and Powelton) was the home of the Hollians family.  In 1900, William (age 53) was the Burnham’s coachman and his second wife, Edith (35), and only child, Della (14), worked as servants.  Even with electricity, the Burnhams needed four servant girls in 1920.  Around 1910, William Hollians left to buy his own home and work as a gardener.  The carriage house then became the home of Fred and Anna Richter.  Fred was born in Germany.  Anna was born in Austria; her parents were ethnic Germans born in what became Czechoslovakia.  Fred was the Burnham’s chauffeur.  In 1940, they were still living in the Burnham carriage house, but the main house had become an apartment house.  Fred was a self-employed auto mechanic.  His two daughters, Caroline (21) and Anna May (19), were working as bookkeepers.
            These were a few of the house servants who were listed in the censuses.  They were just a fraction of the army of support personnel needed to keep Powelton running.  Households constantly received deliveries from grocery stores and coal dealers.  There were gardeners, livery drivers and stable hands, messenger boys, street sweepers, lamp lighters, and other miscellaneous support people.  Without electricity, telephones, and automobiles, Powelton’s streets must have been swarming with a constant stream of pedestrians, peddlers, carts, carriages and horse-drawn trolleys.

[Tabulations of the 1880 census based on data from IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota,]

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