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Setting the Stage

The introduction of railroads in Iowa in the late 1850s created opportunities for industry to develop in rural areas. By the early 20th century, Cedar Rapids housed several large agriculture-related industries: meatpacking, cornstarch processing, and oatmeal milling. The railroads and plentiful factory jobs also resulted in significant population growth for Cedar Rapids. Many of these new residents were immigrants, the largest group coming from western Bohemia (now a region of the Czech Republic).

The increasing number of factories producing goods and department stores selling them had a major impact on the labor market between 1850 and 1925. As America's middle-class population grew, so did the demand for servants in their households. Although a middle-class family could not hire a large staff, the ability to hire at least one servant was a badge of status. The "maid-of-all-work" in the middle-class household was responsible for everything from cooking to childcare to laundry.

In the mid 1800s, many housewives hired "help" (often American-born girls) to assist with physically demanding chores. However, as cities and industries began to flourish, local women who worked as house help could easily find other jobs in shops and factories. By the end of the century, immigrants and African Americans increasingly made up the highest percentage of servants in the Northeast and in the larger cities in the Midwest.

Some of these national trends are reflected at the Brucemore estate in the lives of the Douglas family and their servants. The family's cornstarch processing plant benefited from access to railroads, which brought their product to national markets. The wealth they gained provided the family with a 33-acre estate at the edge of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like other wealthy families living on country estates, the Douglases were able to escape the commotion of the industrialized city. Their leisurely lifestyle depended upon the work of servants.

The lives of individual servants often can be difficult to trace. In some cases, city directories and census records may provide the only source of information. Fortunately, the stories of several servants at Brucemore have been better preserved. These stories can be pieced together through sources like the nanny's diary, photos, letters, account books, and other documents.

 

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