Stand in the center of the walk-through closet, and look to one side: A bright dining room furnished with fine chairs and tables, wooden floors covered with decorative rugs, a chandelier dangling above, and walls inlaid with elegant molding.
Now glance to the other side: A kitchen with an enormous stove and soapstone sink, worn brick floors, simple woodworking and fixtures. Dim and utilitarian. No fancy flourishes.
The two rooms in Salem’s Phillips House provide a tangible example of the disparity between early 20th century families and their servants. Cooks, maids, and housekeepers were meant to remain as shadowy, fleeting figures who kept the house in order behind the scenes, rarely seen and never heard.
Jennifer Pustz, of Historic New England, has dedicated herself to bringing form to these silhouettes, to giving voices and stories to the servants who so often remained anonymous. She has done extensive research throughout Historic New England’s 36 properties, including at the 1821 Phillips House on Salem’s Chestnut Street, unearthing the artifacts of domestic American life.
“Bringing people out of the shadows creates a full story,” said Pustz, who wrote the 2010 book, “Voices from the Back Stairs.”
In the case of the Phillips House, that story includes not only owners Anna Phillips, her husband, Stephen Willard Phillips, and their son, Stephen, but their first-floor maid, Delia Cawley, their cook, Bridgit Durgin, and Caddy Shaughnessy, their nursemaid and attendant. They also employed two part-time male staff: coachman, gardener, and handyman Cornelius Flynn, and chauffeur Patrick O’Hara.
The Phillips bought and renovated their home in 1911, and it stayed in the family until the 1970s. The museum focuses on 1919 and 1920.
According to Pustz, the 11,500-square-foot, three-story gray mansion with black shutters is particularly interesting. Unlike other museum houses where servants quarters were later cleared out, renovated, or turned into office or storage space, its staff spaces have been relatively well-preserved.
In addition to its large soapstone sink, the kitchen still contains the Walker and Pratt cooking stove, a wall of glass cabinets, and gas-electric light fixtures.
Through a door at the back of the room and down a set of rugged wooden stairs is the basement laundry room, with a long sink set with wringers and washboards, a stove loaded up with irons, and a set kettle used to boil clothes.
“It was a really messy, hot, sticky, long, job, and physically taxing,” Pustz said.
Going up from the kitchen is a long, narrow, rather ominous staircase to the third-floor servants quarters. The three small bedrooms are empty and unfurnished, but scratches on the floor and marks on the wall tell of the life that was once there.
Back on the main floor, a china closet separates the kitchen from the rest of the house, with its exquisitely furnished bedrooms, parlor, library, and dining room.
Yet although the servants were very deliberately separated from all this, they were never truly alone. As Pustz noted, theirs was a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job.
“There was a constant amount of work,” she said.
A call-bell system installed by the Phillipses was common at the time, but remains an uncommon artifact, as they were often removed from historic houses during later-century renovations. Doorbell-like buttons in nearly every room of the house were wired into boxes high on the wall of the kitchen and on the third floor; when pressed, a loud bell would ring and a flag would fill a round circle underneath room indicators, such as the “library,” “parlor,” or “dining room.”
Even though it meant the staff had to stop everything and attend to the call, “it was an incredibly efficient way for them to work with the family and meet their needs,” said site manager Julie Arrison.
Although the relationship the Phillips family had with their servants was rather harmonious compared with other households, according to Pustz, clearly defined barriers separated the two halves of the house.
For example, Arrison said, just what to call them was a “sticking point” for the family — they were referred to as “the staff” or “the girls,” rather than “servants.” Meanwhile, anecdotes — such as Mr. Phillips’s propensity for stepping to the threshold of the kitchen, but never going inside — stress just whose domain was whose, and who should be where, and when.
On the other hand, although the servants heard and saw almost everything that was going on, “they were expected to be invisible. It was a very complicated visibility/invisibility,” said Pustz.
Ultimately, in exploring and presenting all that was found, the goal is to create a “balanced perspective of what living here was like,” she said. “It was two worlds under one roof.”
By telling all the stories of a house – or at least attempting to by piecing together the scant bits of history — “it adds to the overall narrative of New England’s history,” said Peter Gittleman, visitor experience team leader for Historic New England. “Everyone’s history matters.”
To that end, Historic New England also is unveiling a new, permanent installation this month at the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm in Newbury. It looks at the Stekionis family, natives of Lithuania, who lived in a tenant farmer house on the property from the 1920s to the 1990s, raising food for the Littles.
Gittleman said it is just another example of the many narratives beyond those of the “rich and famous” property owners to be discovered in any given place.
“The stories are much more nuanced when you look at them from multiple perspectives,” he said.
Pustz agreed, stressing that, when analyzing history, people need to be aware that there were “all kinds of layers and relationships,” and there are also many things we’ll never know, no matter the amount of digging into research.
Ultimately, she said, our shared past isn’t neat and linear, easily fitting into timelines and generalizations.
“History is a really messy, complicated thing,” she said.