June 30, 2011


Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South

From Morning to Night Reveals Hidden History of Gilded Age South



Popular notions of “upstairs-downstairs” relationships bring to mind grand estates where a small army of bustling, uniformed staff catered to the lavish lifestyles of American “robber barons” or the British gentry.  A new traveling exhibition, opening June 30, 2011 at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History offers a different view.  Developed by Maymont Foundation, this 14-panel exhibition presents a distinctly southern perspective on domestic service at the turn of the twentieth century.

From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South tells the story of a predominantly African American labor corps—barely a generation removed from slavery—that worked primarily in white households as cooks, maids, laundresses, nursemaids, butlers, and chauffeurs.  Often hidden from view, and largely hidden from history, their labor made their employers’ lifestyles appear effortless.  With nearly 70 photographs and illustrations, interpretive text, and numerous period quotations, the exhibition reveals the daily rhythms of service as well as its broader context in the turbulent Jim Crow South.   The exhibition’s focus on everyday interactions between black and white southerners gives visitors an intimate view of this pivotal period in American history.

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.

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.

Those who made their living “in service”—whether as a maid of all work or as part of a specialized staff—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. 


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.

A National Register Historic Place and Virginia Historic Landmark, Maymont is an intact, 100-acre Gilded Age estate, created in 1893 as the home of Virginia railroad magnate James Dooley and his wife Sallie.  Open year round, elaborate gardens and the opulent “upstairs” interiors of Maymont House Museum convey the taste and lifestyle of wealthy Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.  The new 3,000 square-foot “downstairs” exhibition, In Service and Beyond: Domestic Work and Life in a Gilded Age Mansionprovides visitors the opportunity to understand Maymont as not only a showplace but also as a workplace.


From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South will remain on exhibit through September 7, 2011.