Manassas Museum to Host Traveling Exhibition on Domestic Service
From Morning to Night Reveals Hidden History of Gilded Age South open March 9 – April 21 - Although the work of early 20th century domestic servants has been romanticized lately by the likes of Carson and Mrs. Hughes of Downton Abbey fame, the reality for Virginia’s largely African-American domestic service corps was starkly different. Their story is the subject of a new Manassas Museum exhibit, From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South, opening March 9 and running through April 21.
The traveling exhibition, developed by the Maymont Foundation, presents a distinctly southern perspective on domestic service. Those African Americans who worked primarily in white households as cooks, maids, laundresses, nursemaids, butlers, and chauffeurs, were often hidden from view and largely hidden from history, but it was their labor that made their employers’ lifestyles appear effortless.
For black southerners, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were anything but gilded. Slavery had ended, but subordination continued through social custom and increasing violence. A series of Jim Crow laws blocked the black vote and enforced strict racial segregation. African Americans, with limited education and employment opportunity, were compelled to take low-paying jobs in agriculture, some industries, and domestic service. African American women, who were excluded from most other occupations, dominated domestic service in the South, comprising 90% of the work force.
Those who made their living “in service” faced long hours, low pay, and hard work. Domestic workers often struggled to balance employers’ expectations of long days or live-in service with the needs of their own families. Although their profession required deference, drudgery, and even invisibility, domestic workers strove to maintain dignity and self-respect. Many took great pride in their work. Their modest wages helped raise families, support churches, and build vital communities.
With nearly 70 photographs and illustrations, interpretive text, and numerous period quotations, From Morning to Night takes you into the home as workplace to examine the divergent perspectives of both server and served. For employers, domestic servants were a visible sign of the family’s social and economic status. Performing ceremonial tasks such as waiting at table and announcing visitors were an important part of this display. And of course, domestic servants met the more practical need of easing the burden of housekeeping. Without plumbing, electricity, prepared foods, and other modern conveniences, routine chores were unending and tedious. Even families of modest income often scraped together enough money to hire someone to assist in the home.
From Morning to Night was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed with the assistance of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the Virginia Association of Museums. It was curated by Elizabeth O’Leary, consultant to Maymont Foundation and Associate Curator of American Arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She is the author of From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South (University of Virginia Press, 2003). The traveling exhibition is a component of a larger permanent exhibition in the newly restored service areas of Maymont House Museum in Richmond, Virginia.