Cleaning Out the Basement–Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants

Directions to Servants coverYou know Jonathan Swift as the man who recommended that, during the Potato Famine, starving Irish eat their babies, but this flint-hard satirist also explored power relationships in household employment.

To anyone who straightens up before the house cleaner comes or who looks on helplessly as the washing machine is declared unfixable, these “instructions” will be recognizable–wrigglingly familiar.

Swift’s extensive directions cover all the servants and functions of a grand house. At the top of the hierarchy are the butler and cook, advised to make an alliance, for the cook has the larder and the butler has the cellar. The various maids–chamber, children, dairy, waiting, and house–are advised to flirt with footmen, lie about broken mirrors, and leave books near open windows.

He’s clearly addressing all the frustrations of an employer faced with or fearing careless employees. Swift advises servants to become the master of excuses–a dying cousin, a turned ankle, or being pressed into sea-service. Backstairs muttering, pocketing change are all tools of an effective servant–and just what a master/employer dreads.

But it works both ways. When faced with a high-handed master–in the house or in the office cubicle, we are tempted to make league against a common enemy. I’ve worked in places like that, odds are you have too.

Swift writes, “…you may quarrel with each other as much as you please, only bear in mind that you have a common enemy, which is your master…”. Heartening and justifying words for anyone who’s ever nicked paper clips from the office. And what fuels this alliance but gossip. Swift sees the kitchen as the gathering point, “where the grand affairs of the family ought to be consulted.”

The difficult cook

The difficult cook

And he offers particular instructions for the cook, whether a fashionable French import (male) or a more home-spun “Mrs. Cook.” As well as being in league with the butler, ready to share a bit of cold meet that the Lady of the house has forgotten, Swift advises that soot in the soup gives it a French flavor, grease left on an uncleaned spit moistens the next piece of meat, and saving time by combing your hair while stirring the pot.

This version was illustrated by Joseph Low, who’s loose style and dark lines perfectly capture household anarchy.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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