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The lady’s maid was the servant who attended to the appearance of middle- and upper-class ladies. Employed directly by the lady of the house, duties included helping her mistress with her hair, cosmetics and wardrobe. Lower-class and poorer women would not have had the means to hire staff. Instead, they would have dealt with all aspects of their appearance and the running of the household. Here we look what being a lady’s maid involved and the skills needed to be a proficient personal servant.
The Lady's Maid
The lady’s maid was a personal servant employed by the mistress of the house. Therefore, she would report directly to – and only to – her mistress.
In the UK, the mistress would usually refer to her lady’s maid using her surname, but in some other countries her first name may have been used. All the servants of the household would call the lady’s maid “Miss”. The lady’s maid would refer to her mistress as “Milady”.
Pay & Perks
The lady’s maid position came with pay, perks and status. It was a senior servant position, just like the housekeeper, butler and head gardener were. In addition, it was looked upon with relative respect by other servants. No uniform was worn (unlike the lower servants), but simple, clean and neat attire was expected.
As well as receiving a wage, the lady’s maid would also have her own room, full board and accompany her mistress on any travels (both at home and overseas). She would also receive her mistress’s cast off clothes to do with as she pleased.
The lady’s maid was the female equivalent of the valet – who was the manservant to the gentleman of the house. A royal household, or one with substantial wealth, would have employed the services of several personal attendants.
Character & Skills
A good lady’s maid was cheerful, honest, discrete, organised and obedient. Likewise, she had to possess many skills, including a good standard of reading and writing, hairdressing, dressmaking, needlework, millinery and cosmetic knowledge.
Duties of a Lady's Maid
One of the most important parts of the lady’s maid’s duties would be the washing, brushing, trimming and styling of her mistress’s hair.
Even though rich women could employ the regular services of a hairdresser, the lady’s maid would be expected to be proficient in hairdressing between those appointments.
Training may have been provided for those who needed it, or the lady’s maid could organise lessons for herself. Ultimately, keeping up with the latest hair fashions was important.
Hair fashion was extremely important for the mistress of the house. Certainly, her hairstyle could be changed several times during the day. For example, she may start with an appropriate morning style, and later change to something more elaborate for an evening function.
Furthermore, the lady’s maid would also keep the brushes and combs clean. Appropriate cleaning methods would be used to ensure the items were not damaged in the process.
Until plastics became more common in the early 20th century, hair accessories and dressing items would be made from various natural materials such as bone, tortoiseshell, metal, horn, leather and wood. Consequently, all needed careful handling.
Any false hair or “transformations” (the named used for wigs) that were used would be under the care of the lady’s maid.
Cosmetics & Personal Care
The lady’s maid would deal with all aspects of preparing her mistress’s toilet, including drawing a bath and organising hot water for washing. Likewise, she would buy or make all the cosmetics required by her mistress. This included dealing with the perfumers and other suppliers, and having recipes for making hair washes and pomades.
The lady’s maid would assist her mistress with dressing and undressing. She would lay out the clothing and accessories required during the day for the all activities taking place. Activities could include, for example: riding, walking, hunting, driving, social outings and any evening events.
In addition, she would maintain her mistress’s entire wardrobe, including everything from dresses and shoes to undergarments, hats, and gloves. This would involve removing stains, brushing off any dirt, ironing, darning, mending and altering garments as needed. Subsequently, she would need to know how to deal with different materials and jewellery, and how to wash fine linens, silks and lace.
The lady’s maid may also have made dresses for her mistress, which meant buying all materials with the suppliers. Because of this it was important to keep abreast of the latest fashions and accessories.
The lady’s maid would keep her mistress’s personal rooms and possessions in good order. This included keeping items clean and tidying away anything left out by the mistress. Likewise, the lady’s maid would keep a list of items that needed replacing or purchasing.
Other tasks could include attending to fresh flowers, candles and lamps. She would also pack for any overnight journeys, empty the chamber pot and bring her mistress breakfast in her room. Attending to the mistress’s pets, such as walking dogs, would also fall to the lady’s maid.
Other household duties such as preparing meals, fire lighting and general laundry may be performed by other servants, should the household have the means to employ a larger staff.
If so, the lady’s maid would have overseen the tasks to ensure they were carried out proficiently. However, she was not in charge of those servants.
This diagram shows the structure of household servants. As you can see, the lady’s maid was independent of the other servants and reported solely to her mistress.
Other Female Personal Attendants
A lady-in-waiting was a personal female assistant at a court (royal or feudal) who attended on a queen, princess or other high-ranking noblewoman. She was considered to be more of a companion to her mistress, rather than as a servant. In addition, she was often a noblewoman herself, from a “good family”, but of a lower social standing than her mistress.
Although it was not always a paid position, it was certainly a prestigious position to be attending to royalty at court. As a result, it could give the lady-in-waiting privileges and enhanced marriage prospects.
Ladies-in-waiting did not perform menial tasks, as these were carried out by servants. Duties varied from court to court and the requirements of the individual mistress. Generally a lady-in-waiting would need to be proficient in a wide range of skills, including:
- knowing the etiquette, languages and dances commonplace at court;
- reading correspondence to her mistress, writing on her behalf and relaying messages;
- participation in pastimes such as embroidery, painting, horse riding and music making;
- wardrobe care;
- supervision of servants;
- keeping her mistress abreast of activities and personages at court.
A woman may have been able to select her own ladies. However, even when she seemingly had free choice, her choices were usually heavily influenced by those around her. This included her husband, parents, and even the king (or his ministers).
Notable ladies-in-waiting include Anne Boleyn (to Queen Katherine of Aragon), Jane Seymour (to Queen Anne Boleyn), and Catherine Howard (to Anne of Cleves). Interestingly, all became Queen Consort to Henry VIII.
A lady’s companion was similar to a lady-in-waiting, but it was always a paid position. She was not regarded as a servant and, therefore, was considered higher in status than the lady’s maid. She also lived in the family’s quarters, rather than with the servants.
The woman employed as a companion would be someone of high social standing, similar to that of her mistress. However, she needed the financial benefits of a paying position.
Until around the mid-20th century, many upper- and middle-class women spent a lot of time at home, so a lady’s companion was employed to provide conversation and company. She would also help with entertaining guests and give directions to servants, just as the lady of the house would.
The lady’s companion has become obsolete in most developed countries, as women no longer spend their day at home. Also, the work opportunities that emerged for women during both world wars gave them far more employment choices.
Maids of Honour
Maids of honour were junior, and often younger, attendants of a queen in royal households, especially those of England and later of the United Kingdom. A maid of honour would be a maiden (that is, unmarried) and the role was in preparation of eventually being a lady-in-waiting.