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"Back Stairs at Brucemore: Life as Servants in early 20th-Century America" invites students to explore the clues revealing the stories of servants at Brucemore, as well as the pros and cons of working in a factory versus domestic service. The following activities are designed to help students understand servant stereotypes, the housework needed to maintain a local historic home, working women in early 20th-century factories, and different uses for historic buildings.

Activity 1: The Ideal and the Real
Images of servants were included in magazines and newspapers around the turn-of-the-century and provide insight into the way others viewed servants. Have students research and photocopy advertisements, articles, advice columns, and cartoons that depict servants during this time period. Have students create bulletin boards using each of these categories as titles: realistic, idealized, or negative. Hold a class discussion with students defining the three categories, determining the point-of-view being represented, and deciding on which bulletin board each image should be posted. Discuss and consider the stereotypes that these images encourage.

Then, students should research the contemporary "Help Wanted" section of the local newspaper and copy ads for different servant positions. As a class, compare and contrast the want ads to the bulletin board of images using the following questions. Considering that the most common houseworker was a maid-of-all-work, were the students able to locate ads for that position? What were the responsibilities listed for a maid-of-all-work? What were the responsibilities for other positions such as butler, cook, chauffeur, nanny, etc.? What responsibilities might a male servant have compared to a female worker? Are the images of servants accurate? Do the advertisements depicting servants meet the needs and duties listed in the help wanted sections? How might stereotypes presented in the media effect relationships between servants and their employers?

Activity 2: Built-in Service
Whether it be a turn-of-the-century mansion with built-in space designed for servants or a log cabin and farm that housed a single family unable to afford hired house help, all historic homes had someone who worked hard to maintain it. Have students visit a local historic home and determine how the work was done and who did it. Students should collect floor plans and bring them to class for discussion on the following questions. What is the style and size of the house? What class of people lived in the home? Who maintained the housework for the home and how? How does the technology used to do housework differ from what is available today? Can you tell whether there were servants? Why or why not? What "work" spaces can you identify in the home? What are they used for now? How does this compare to Brucemore? What architectural characteristics do these homes share with Brucemore? How are they different? How is the use of space different? Does the present-day interpretation staff discuss how the work was done at the home or if there were servants? If not, why? If it is not possible to visit a site, contact a local historical society or library to find out where you can write and request information about a site that meets the needs of this project.

Activity 3: Factory Work vs. Domestic Service
Mary Trueblood, author of the article "Housework versus Shop and Factories" investigated women's working conditions for Massachusetts' Bureau of Labor. Most states had similar departments that conducted safety inspections and recorded accidents as well as the numbers and wages of men, women, and children working in factories. Their published reports are gold mines of information about working conditions of the past. Have students visit their local library and research women's work opportunities in early 20th-century America. Students should find out if reports of their state's Bureau of Labor Statistics are available. If statistics are broken down by city, have them look at local industries. Ask the librarian for further research resources related to the topic. A list of suggested books is available in this lesson's Supplementary Resource section. Contemporary "Help Wanted" sections of the local newspaper should also provide a wealth of information. There are also many online resources, such as the information presented on the Triangle Factory in Supplementary Resources. Ask students to take notes on what they find. Have them determine what factory work entailed as well as what the working conditions were like. Labor statistics information may include descriptions of injuries or fatalities in factories, violations of safety codes and child labor laws, and the numbers of women working in certain industries.

Upon returning to the classroom, hold a class discussion on the following questions: Were women more common at certain kinds of factories? What wages did they earn compared to men or children? How do those salaries compare to the salaries listed in the account ledgers of Brucemore in Visual Evidence? Did any of the information found on women's labor relate to household work? If so, what jobs were discussed? What were the responsibilities? How did the descriptions compare to work at Brucemore? Based on what students learned, was housework preferable to factory work?

Activity 4: Preserving the Past
Explain to students that Margaret Douglas Hall was the last private owner of Brucemore. She inherited the estate from her mother Irene Douglas. Margaret, who did not have children, wanted her home to be used by the community. When she died in 1981, Brucemore became a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her home was to function as a community cultural center and also became a house museum. Identify buildings in your community that are used in a way that is different from their original purpose. Have each student create a display using historical and current photographs of a local building. Students should provide captions for the photos, explain how the building has changed over time, and how the building is being used today. Students should present their display in class and give an explanation of what the building tells them about their community's past. Have students respond to the following questions. Do you think it is important to preserve historic places? Why or why not? How would you decide which buildings to preserve in your community? After the class presentations, either contact the current owner of the building or business in that building and coordinate with them to display the students' projects or offer the exhibits for display at the local library, museum, or historical society.

 

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