© Cor Snabel
At very young age a family hired girls as servants. Early in the morning
she had to get up to light the fire and make breakfast. After the family
had eaten she had to ventilate the rooms, make the beds, clean the
clothes and polish the tin and copper. She had to shine the ironwork on
the shutters and especially scrub the floors and the doorstep.
Due to the very low wages and a surplus of women in the cities almost
every housewife from the middle class could afford a servant.
In general the servants were willingly, depending on the relation
between mistress and servant, but normally she was almost part of the
family. She ate with the family, but had to know her place. In comedies
servants were often ridiculed as the ones who talked most at the dinner
table. But they were subordinates and impudence was not tolerated, if
things got out of hand, even verbal, it could well become a matter for
the Sheriff. It is striking, that so many foreigners wrote about the
fact, that the Dutch never did beat their servants.
Things changed as we reach the times, that merchants got richer, did not
eat with their hats on anymore and started to use French words, like
Confrere and Monsieur. Twenty or more servants were needed to run the
household and the same number on his estate. The special one-to-one
contact between the mistress and the servant was gone and so were labor
Loyalty and discretion were not obvious anymore and the bad reputation
servant girls had throughout centuries seemed to be confirmed.
According to their reputation they were a threat to every household,
unreliable but indispensable, single but marriageable, devious, lazy and
Of course history has its reports about the servant, who was punished
for stealing a silver spoon and about seduction and adultery, but one
should not forget, that her intimate position within a family made this
young girl extra vulnerable. Most of the time they were the victims,
they had hardly any defense against accusations of their more superior
employer. In case of pregnancy they rarely had the means and the social
confidence to accuse the natural father and in most cases the shame and
scandal landed on her head and not on his.
Sometimes servant girls did live together with their employers and got
married like in the case of Descartes or stayed as concubine, like
Hendrickje Stoffels with Rembrandt.