Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/A Kitchen College

First published in Nineteenth Century, July 1887, Vol.22, pp. 55-59.



KITCHEN College! Well, why not? We have a College of Music, of Surgeons, of Physicians, of Preceptors; why not a College of the Kitchen?

It seems a little absurd at first sight, and yet the only absurdity is, that no one ever thought of it before. For many years the servant-grievance has been before the public. The scarcity and inefficiency of domestic servants have been talked about till we are almost as weary of the subject as of our incapable cooks and house-maids, but nothing seems to have been done to remedy the evil; there has been no improvement except in wages, for, no matter how incompetent the servant may be, she demands and gets high wages, and gives very general dissatisfaction.

I do not mean to touch here on the facilities offered of late years by classes and schools of cookery—doubtless servants can learn much from a course of clever practical lectures—but I would venture to point out that in the majority of cases the persons attending the classes are not servants, but ladies—mistresses in many instances—who go with the praiseworthy intention of learning how to be practical cooks by seeing a practiced instructor roll out pastry, or bake fancy bread in a gas-stove, and then go home and attempt to teach their own cooks; the second-hand instruction frequently taking a negative form, such as, "Cook, that's not the way to make puff pastry, that's not the way to make a custard, or truss a chicken"; the mistress herself having only a very indistinct recollection of what is the way.

However much good the schools and cooking-classes may have done, they do not seem to have reached the real root of the domestic-servant difficulty; they have caused no perceptible improvement in servants as a class. Servants are still scarce and unsatisfactory, and there is still the same evident distaste for service among the young women of the working-classes from which we naturally expect to draw our supply. Business of any sort, no matter how unhealthy, precarious, fatiguing, and unremunerative, is preferred to domestic service. A girl will work twelve hours a day and half starve rather than become a house-maid or kitchen-maid, with good food, a comfortable home, and comparatively easy work.

Now, there must be a strong reason for this very wide-spread dislike for service. It is not the love of personal liberty and feeling of independence. No working-woman in the world has less liberty, independence, and comfort than the out-of-door business girl in London. She has to serve not one but many masters; her work gives her neither time for pleasure nor means of enjoyment; her life is one long round of toil, the only variation being from seams to button-holes, from button-holes to seams, yet she clings to "business" with the strongest tenacity! Why? In the first place, she thinks it respectable; "business" is such a delightfully vague term! It may mean anything. But "service," there is no mistaking the meaning of that word. "Only a servant" is considered the most contemptuous designation. To an uneducated and untrained girl the rules and regulations of service seem very rigid. Service entails neatness, order, politeness, industry, truth, honesty, morality—in short, all the qualifications that go to form a good woman and a good citizen; and where, we may reasonably ask, are young women to acquire all those good qualities before going to service? Failing in them, they fail to give satisfaction to the employer, and hence the everlasting complaints. Besides considering it a disgrace to be a servant, girls have an idea that in domestic service there is no chance of "getting on," while "business" of any sort is full of possibilities; and a third and prevalent objection is that they lose all opportunity of bettering themselves by marriage—their prospects are limited strictly to their own class. Those are the weightiest objections young women have to service, and it must be confessed they are not entirely unfounded. No doubt there has been much done of late years to help servants, both physically and morally, but I am not aware that anything has been attempted from a sociological point of view; their position is in many respects worse than it was a hundred years ago. Then, though a servant was ill-paid and more frequently not paid at all, there were compensations, there existed a certain amount of intimacy between master and man, mistress and maid; there were kindly feeling, interest, confidence on the one side, fidelity on the other, the servant was not unfrequently the counselor, and very generally the companion of the master, and took a keen personal interest in all his affairs. Now there are mistrust and suspicion on both sides; the maid thinks the mistress makes it the pastime of her idle moments to worry and find fault with her, while the mistress believes the maid's chief pleasure in life is to cross and annoy her; both misunderstand each other, and the result is mutual discomfort. Without exactly wishing to recall the days of "Caleb Balderstone," one can not help desiring a better feeling between persons who have to live in such very close contact as mistresses and servants. In no other calling whereby a woman earns her bread is she brought into such strictly personal relations with her employer as in service; under no other circumstances is an employer bound to be so careful in investigating the character of the person employed. Our children, at the most tender and impressionable age, are left almost exclusively to the care of servants; our food, on which so much of the health and happiness of our lives depend, is entirely at their mercy. We intrust them with everything we value most, with no better guarantee of their efficiency than the word or the letter of a complete stranger. In short, we expect a great deal from our servants, and it is reasonable to ask, What do we give in return, what have we ever done for a class on whom we are so dependent, what effort has been made to raise the tone of service, what inducements are offered to respectable young women to enter the ranks? None, or comparatively none! High wages do not prove a sufficient attraction; in no case is the remuneration high enough to secure a competence for old age, without many, many years of toil; there are no fortunes to be made, no special advantages even to be gained, by special skill or integrity. An extravagent, inefficient cook gets as well paid as a capable, economical one, specially among the middle classes, who can not afford to pay for the very best service.

Most people will admit that average servants of late years have deteriorated, partly owing to the fact that they are drawn from an inferior class, and partly because in the terrible march of mind of the last twenty years they have been left behind, their position as a class absolutely ignored; though their failings are ever before us, nothing has been done for their improvement. In one respect the middle classes are unfortunate, they have to suffer for the faults of the upper classes; the kitchen-maid of Belgrave Square becomes very often the cook of a less aristocratic neighborhood, and the waste and extravagance permitted in the kitchen of a rich man are ruinous in the professional man's semi-detached villa, and the cook gets blamed for what, after all, is only the result of improper training. In short, at the present time servants are either badly trained or not trained at all, and therefore we want a Kitchen College.

In other words, we want a thoroughly organized and recognized center, school, college—the name is immaterial—where servants can study and pass such an examination and gain such a certificate as will be a proof of skill and competence not only in one special department, but of general capacity and respectability; that qualifications should be given according to merit; and that the institution should be so managed that a woman would feel as proud of a degree from the "College for Domestic Servants" as from any other college open to women. Cooks, house-maids, parlor-maids, and nurses have all well defined duties, and a competitive examination is the best method of testing their skill. A nurse frequently knows less about children than any other living creature; she has the haziest ideas about draughts, the most supreme contempt for ventilation, and firmly believes a baby never cries unless it is hungry, and forthwith gives the inevitable bottle, frustrating Nature's efforts to exercise and expand the lungs. A general servant who can cook tolerably and knows a little about housework is the exception; as a rule, she is deplorably ignorant of both. Up to the present a good character has been the only guarantee of efficiency, but it is clear that it is by no means an infallible test; a servant that one mistress may have thought satisfactory may prove quite the reverse to another. But a trained and certificated servant, who knows her work and does it, would be in a position to ignore faultfinding, or, still more satisfactory, not deserve it, she would be less liable to dismissal for imaginary faults, and she would be to a great extent independent of "characters." As it is, the domestic servant is a sort of shuttlecock tossed from one mistress to another, leaving a different impression on the mind of each. In short, the servant has no standing, no ideal of excellence, no ambition; her life is monotonous and often sordid in its details, her mental and social condition are both uncared for. Surely this ought not to be, and the wives, mothers, and daughters of England should consider it. We live with our servants as if they were aliens, and then wonder they do not serve us with love and gratitude.

It may be objected that training, general education, and the granting of degrees would make a class already difficult to deal with still more so, and that servants would consider themselves the equals of their employers. I think the effect would be just the reverse: a sensible and liberal education would teach women not only what is due to themselves, but what is due to others; and a feeling of independence that the thorough knowledge of his business gives to every worker in every craft would make servants much less suspicious and less resentful. Honest service without servility, cheerful politeness without 'undue familiarity, cleanliness, economy, and truth, are what we most desire in our domestics; and without education and training how can we reasonably hope to get them? It may be argued against this college scheme, that the effort made years ago to induce better-class women to enter servitude under the name of "lady-helps" proved a failure. A little reflection would have shown that it could not have proved anything else. The lady-help was an artificial growth, and could not possibly meet a real want. We do not want ladies to become servants, neither their habits nor instincts fit them for the occupation: pride and prejudice, sensitiveness, and I might add ignorance, are bad foundations; but it may not be too Utopian to hope that servants may become more like ladies, or at least that the ignorant, slipshod, sullen "slavey" who works without hope, and idles without enjoyment, may disappear from among us, and that the time is not far distant when a domestic servant can hear herself spoken of as such, if not with honest pride, at least without shame or discontent.

Therefore, we want a Kitchen College for women, not a school of cookery or conglomeration of unorganized "classes," but a school of everything a servant ought to know; a school or college with exhibitions and scholarships and diplomas, with clever lecturers, and clear, simple text-books, and fees that will come within the means of women who have to work for their daily bread.

The starting and conducting of such a college ought to be woman's work: women suffer most from the ministrations of inefficient servants, women benefit most by the attention of good ones; and I have no doubt that there are in England women enough—generous, warm-hearted, thoughtful women—to found such an institution; women enough, from the very highest lady in the land, down to the poorest mother of a family, waited on by a nameless little maid-of-all-work from St. Luke's, to stretch out a helping hand to their sisters in service, and give them what every woman has a right to, the means of improving their social standing.

One word more: Kitchen College must be no charity. To make it a success, it must be as much a national institution as the University of Oxford; its degrees, certificates, and prizes must be worked for, fought for, and won, by the most deserving, not as an "imperfect favor, but a perfect right."—Nineteenth Century.