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Behind the Scenes

Area historians to tell servants’ tales in Plymouth

An undated photo shows servants mingling with “upstairs” family members on a yacht owned by their employer, Hingham resident John J. Moore.

Plymouth Antiquarian Society

An undated photo shows servants mingling with “upstairs” family members on a yacht owned by their employer, Hingham resident John J. Moore.

Viewers drawn to the loves, losses, and quarrels of the privileged folk in “Downton Abbey,” the hit PBS television series set on a large English country estate, found themselves equally wrapped up in the human dramas taking place downstairs in the servants’ quarters. With an eye to the show’s popularity — some 24 million viewers watched the third season’s seven episodes this winter — local historians are holding a conference on the lives of the area’s domestic workers.

“You don’t have to wait until the next season of ‘Downton Abbey’ to learn more about the lives of domestic servants,” says Backroads of the South Shore, a consortium of area historical societies that is staging “Upstairs/Downstairs: Servitude & Slavery on the South Shore” on Saturday in Plymouth.

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The daylong event will include presentations titled “Daphne and Prince,” on two Revolutionary War-era slaves; “Farmhands and Groundskeepers,” with stories from 19th-century estates in Hingham; “South Shore Servants,” drawn from 19th-century census records; and “Parlors and Garrets,” from Marshfield’s historic 1699 Winslow House.

“Clearly, the American public is interested in the lives of the people behind the scenes,” said Jennifer Pustz, the conference’s keynote speaker and the author of “Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums.”

It’s time, she said, for local house museums to tell the stories not only of the mansions’ “rich and famous” inhabitants but also the servants who took care of them.

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“Mr. and Mrs. did not shovel out the fire scuttles, they didn’t make those wonderful meals,” Pustz said. “Their servants did.”

Local historians agree that the house museums in towns such as Plymouth, Marshfield, Duxbury, and Hingham have been showcasing the lives and possessions of the families who owned the historic properties. Efforts are made to preserve the houses’ furnishings and lovely decors; historical archives keep their owners’ letters, wills, and vital statistics; guides offer accounts of the ups and downs of famous long-ago figures.

It’s a much harder job to tell their servants’ stories.

The modest back rooms and spare garrets where servants lived have been turned into utility rooms, and written records for domestic servants are few and far between. But some pieces of the servants’ stories have emerged from the research of area historians.

As communities south of Boston grew and prospered in the 18th century, well-off families tended to employ African servants or slaves (their status is often unclear in the records).

The Winslow House, built in Marshfield by Judge Isaac Winslow at the beginning of the 18th century, was served in its early years by two African slaves and a Native American female servant named Nab Nowitt, according to historian Karin Goldstein. The house’s second master, General John Winslow, was served by Briton Hammon, known to history as the first African-American with a published book, titled “A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man — Servant to General Winslow, of Marshfield, in New England; who Returned to Boston, After Having Been Absent Almost Thirteen Years.’’

Published in 1760, the book is an account of Hammon’s shipboard capture by Native Americans in Florida and captivity in Cuba before his chance reunion with “his good master in London” and his return to Massachusetts, where he married a Plymouth woman.

Hammon’s story testifies to the “just-like-family” closeness that grew up between the master and servant classes in some wealthy households. Just as Downton Abbey family members shared confidences with their personal servants, slaves in Massachusetts households were in many respects “part of the family.”

Goldstein said Hammon’s account of his reunion with Winslow testifies to their mutual fondness:

“I asked ‘what General Winslow?’ For I never knew my good Master, by that title before,” Hammon wrote. “In a few days’ time the truth was joyfully verify’d by happy sight of his person, which so overcame me that I could not speak for some time. My good master was exceeding glad to see me, telling me that I was like one arose from the dead, for he thought I had been dead a great many years.’’

A similar attachment emerges from Paula Bagger’s research in the Hingham Historic Society archives, which led her to the story of two African slaves, Daphne and her son, Prince, in the household of Christine and Henry Barnes. Barnes thought so much of Prince’s talents as a painter that he took him to England to study with a respected portrait artist.

After fighting broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, things got hot for wealthy Loyalists such as the Barneses, who fled to England and left their servants behind. Whether Daphne and Prince were freed then is unclear, but letters show that Prince spent summers with a Hingham family, and may have painted the two period portraits displayed in Hingham’s Old Ordinary house museum.

Though the Barneses remained in England, Daphne and Mrs. Barnes corresponded (with Daphne dictating her letters), sharing news about their activities and acquaintances “as if they were family,” Bagger said.

After slavery disappeared in Massachusetts, following a court ruling in 1780, some African-Americans continued to work in domestic service, but immigrants from Europe and white Americans played a bigger role in the 19th century.

“A young woman coming over from Ireland and working in a household got room and board, and got paid, so you could save money to bring your sister over or your parents, and start a new life,” said Pustz.

She cites the example of Irish-born John and Ellen McGalley, who were the head butler and house mistress for many years in a Lincoln property now owned by Historic New England, Pustz’s employer. They filled the roles at the top of the domestic servant hierarchy occupied by Downtown Abbey’s head butler Carson and house mistress Mrs. Hughes.

Donna Curtin, who will speak on South Shore servants in the 19th century, said that slightly more than half of Plymouth’s domestic servants were listed as native born in the town’s 1860 Census records. An overwhelming majority of the immigrant workers in domestic service — almost all of them women — were Irish at a time when the town had a very small population of Irish.

Curtin, who heads the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, said the Hedge House (her organization’s largest house museum) appears to have had a few live-in servants. In the society’s smaller Spooner House, a single servant roomed in an unheated attic garret.

But the hardest domestic labor was far removed from the glamour of an estate like Downton Abbey, or even a more modest South Shore mansion. Doing the laundry, described by Curtin as the “most detested and demanding household chore of the period,” was often the domain of single mothers and older women with no other means of support.

Curtin cites the example of washerwoman Mary Banks Johnson, a fugitive slave before the Civil War who supported her family after the loss of two husbands. Her son William became the first black graduate of Plymouth High School.

Having a cook or a maid remained a middle-class aspiration in America well into the 20th century, Pustz said. She cites pop culture examples such as the maids in “The Brady Bunch” and “The Jeffersons” TV series.

But finding and keeping “good” servants could prove a difficult task, especially since they were expected to hold themselves to almost laughably high standards. Pustz cites the exhausting list of desires presented by one prospective employer to an employment agency: “I want a waitress, just an ordinary one . . . honest, neat, strong, quick, capable, earnest, willing, trained, good-tempered, not impertinent, sober, willing to resign all the attentions of men, religious, and willing to wear a cap.”

Those requirements might have made for good servants, but less so for good stories. Judging from episodes of “Downton ­Abbey,’’ few servants (and none of the younger ones) were willing to “resign” all interest in romance.

Registration for “Upstairs/Downstairs: Servitude and Slavery on the South Shore” begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Pilgrimage in downtown Plymouth; the admission price includes breakfast refreshments. For more information, visit www.brss.org.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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