Recently I plowed through Not in Front of The Servants: Domestic Service in England 1859-1939
, by Frank Dawes. It was fascinating reading. The author, the son of a former indoor servant, collected reminiscences from former servants via a newspaper advertisement, and combined that with archival materials and printed instructional and statistical sources from the period. Some editions were subtitled "A true portrait of upstair/downstairs life." It's a fascinating portrait of the kind of work indoor domestic servants were expected to do, and their average working conditions.
It's pretty clear that indoor servants had very long working hours, and that their employers expected them to be ready to jump to service at a minute's notice. Housemaids, tweenies, and scullery maids as young as 10 or 12 worked steadily all day at a variety of physically demanding tasks. Working conditions could be, and often were, uncomfortable and degrading.
However, I couldn't help comparing the information given in Dawes' work about the work of domestic servants, with that given in other sources about women's work in their own homes in the time period described. It's certainly true that many of the upper-class women who employed multiple servants were women of leisure, and did not do any of their own housework. However, other sources suggest that the division of laboring to non-laboring women was not concise and clear as Dawes paints it, and that no matter what the public facade might be, a significant number of women both employed domestic help and did housework themselves. It's possible that this division was far more cloudy in America than it was in Britain.
But Dawes is not very familiar with the history of domestic service in the 16th & 17th century; some of the customs he suggests are unaccountable would be illuminated by a look at earlier custom- and ettiquette sources. My impression is that he also doesn't seem to grasp the scale of domestic work in even working-class households of the period. It never occurs to him that the tracts encouraging the domestic servant to be happy with her lot because she would work just as hard in her own home if she had one might have some truth in them. (As a male writing in 1974, Dawes would be unlikely to be familiar with the unending nature of housework.) As difficult and disadvantaged as employment 'in service' might be, there were some advantages (division of labor, for instance, so that one would not have to be chasing children and blacking the same time) and having a roof over one's head and, in a good situation, food on the table. Dawes quotes Florence Faux, "Most people thought service, where food and lodging were assured, a better proposition than working in a shop or factory under sweated conditions," despite the danger of being turned off without a reference.
Some of the letters that Dawes reproduced are on the web here:http://www.swallowcliffehall.com/letters.html