Nostalgia

Downstairs at Winterthur: The Servants

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In previous posts we’ve already visited the estate known as Winterthur, built to its grand 175-room state by Henry Francis du Pont. I’ve been there over a dozen times and still haven’t seen all the rooms! Accompanying this post are some photos of Winterthur in the fall and a few workers’ houses, buildings and back passages.

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Not so long ago I went on yet another tour (you have to keep going on tours because they bring you to new rooms each time!) and for the first time they showed me a bit of the behind the scenes. Not of the museum, but where the large staff worked and ran the house. Of course, I forgot my camera….

This was a little bit after their Downton Abbey costume exhibit where they contrasted the life of the aristocratic British with Americans, specifically how the du Ponts lived at Winterthur.

Both of these things had me curious and I thought a little post on the staff of Winterthur would be interesting. Unfortunately, there’s not much information digitally available and I haven’t had time to sift through papers in the library for what is probably a wealth of information {because I just published my first podcast episode, if you want to listen to it, it’s here}. This is what I did find:

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DIRTY WORD

The first set of staff at Winterthur, when it was a significantly smaller house, was a nurse for Henry Francis’ older sister, Paulinette’s, and just a few others. The nurse was engaged for look after the baby while the couple were honeymooning in France and she stayed on after the baby’s death to work as a chambermaid and seamstress.

As Winterthur grew into 9 stories and 175 rooms* under Henry Francis after he inherited the property, it required more and more help to support it. Thirty-four workers ran the house inside, not to mention all those that worked the land, gardens, farm, dairy and other estate operations {like the post office and train stop}. Many of the employees at Winterthur served the du Ponts for a long time.

*What do you do with 175 rooms? Many were always display rooms of Americana antiques before the house was ever officially a museum, but there was also a shoe shining room, two flower arranging rooms and a fish closet…no I’m not sure what that last one is 😉

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In early 20th century America there was a scarcity of domestic help but an expansion of employment opportunities, meaning wages, working conditions and comfortable living quarters all improved.

At Winterthur, Henry oversaw the men and his wife Ruth the female staff, though Henry liked to have his hand in every aspect of the house. He was endlessly on the pursuit of perfection and meticulously planned table settings for his many dinner parties. One maid was driven to give her notice as soon as she had completed Henry’s “table-waiting training.”

But American “servants,”* or staff as they were more often called, had a vastly different experience than those you’ll see on Downton Abbey.

*“Servant” was kind of a dirty in America, viewed as too demeaning. Henry and the du Ponts actually used “help” or “staff.” Ruth du Pont said of her father Henry: “Servant is a word I am unable to use. I can’t imagine my father using it.”

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There were push buttons to call for a maid or butler, instead of the British bell pull system, and there were other time-savers too like elevators, telephones and electric bells. The British sniffed as such excesses as “status-lowering.” The du Ponts incorporated all of these new systems.

Americans saw it more as an interest in using the newest labor-saving technology in their homes. Unlike the British, they weren’t emphasizing family ancestry or a tradition of their grand house.

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A British lord is really only the estate’s caretaker, whereas the du Pont houses, and other American ones like it, were about the achievements of the man or the family who built it. As writer Kate Dolan explained: “His taste, accomplishments and interests dominate everything from construction to décor.”

Despite their differences the two sides of the Atlantic were borrowing from each other and taking notes. The Brits were enjoying American jazz, heiresses and the emerging Hollywood’s films. Americans were looking towards Britain for the gin, Savile Row tailoring and British accents. The high-maintenance Henry wore wool blazers tailored by Henry Poole & Co. on Savile Row.

Manners were another stark difference. In Britain, servants were trained by other lifelong servants and skills passed through the generations. In America, servants were often new to the trade and immigrants just like Henry’s valet Victor Swanson, who had been born in Sweden. They used etiquette books like Emily Post to learn their expected behavior. And while a bevy of help ran Winterthur, the structure that was in place in Britain wasn’t quite as stringent in America. Henry’s valet Victor kept a pet squirrel and even traveled with it.

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DOWNSTAIRS

I am kicking myself for not writing down more during the Downton exhibit where more Winterthur staff were mentioned but I did find some excellent starting points. My favorite one was a tantalizing detail Henry wrote in a note in 1922 that I couldn’t find anymore information about yet:

     “The husky Hungarian has been replaced by a Norwegian, Charles the Giant by a sturdy Swede, and poor Juanita was taken away quite insane.”

Earlier, I mentioned Henry’s faithful valet*, Victor Swanson, who traveled with his pet squirrel. He served Henry for 30 years from 1917 to 1948.

*By the way, Americans used to pronounce “valet” as [val-let], differentiating the pronunciation from the British and French versions.

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John Wesley Chapple was the superintendent of the Farms for 40 years and August Dauphin, from France, was their first butler, hired in 1896. He served the du Ponts until his death in 1917. One of his primary responsibilities as butler was to oversee the wines and liquors…which absolutely flowed at Winterthur as they did at all the best houses.

During Prohibition all of the wealthy du Ponts stocked up on so much booze that they made it safely through 13 years of the liquor sale ban without ever resorting to bootlegged versions. In today’s money they spent millions on libations.

Not everyone was a recent immigrant who worked at Winterthur. A farmer’s daughter from Pennsylvania became their cook and other locals worked for the du Pont estates too.

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LIFE WITH THE HELP

When Henry and Ruth’s guests came, and they sometimes stayed for weeks, the du Ponts relied on a 52-person staff to keep their friends in absolute comfort. A chauffeur greeted them at the train station, they donned country tweeds and flats during the day (as Winterthur had an extensive farm and estate), and at night they’d do it up in black-tie for a multi-course supper.

Formal suppers where when Ruth could bring out her iridescent pearls, carved emeralds and whoppingly large diamonds.

At the end of each day a menu card was delivered to each room and guests ordered their breakfast, which was conveniently brought to their rooms the next morning. Ahh, luxury.

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The du Ponts traveled as much in style as they lived. Mrs. du Pont’s maids prepared her traveling case with gold-plated crystal bottles, lipstick, stationary and an oil can and hair crimper (the curling iron wasn’t around just yet). This would all have been packed into her custom-made crocodile leather traveling case made by the same London company who served King George V. It was 17 pounds empty!

Her steamer trunk would have held everything else: clothing, undergarments, accessories, shoes, handbags, hats, scarves, parasols and hair ornaments.

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1409319533002-082514-0830-DuPontPacking-jc0039 1409319533004-082514-0830-DuPontPacking-jc0047Photos of Ruth du Pont’s travel cases from the Downton Abbey exhibit, by Delaware Online.

Women, and men, were held to more rules in their behavior and dress. Ruth’s maids packed stacks of various gloves because she was supposed to have different ones for every occasion: golf, tennis, afternoon tea, and formal dinners.

Ruth wasn’t being fussy, actually she was the opposite and often didn’t bring her lady’s maid on long weekends or when she thought she could do without…in absolute contrast to her husband. Henry once said that he couldn’t even shave without his trusted valet!

1409319533014-valet-louis-bortnik-and-ladies-maid-lucie-meyer-1964-disembarking-w-du-pontValet Louis Bortnik and lady’s maid Lucie Meyer traveling with the du Ponts in 1964.

Henry’s packing was just as elaborate, if not more so, than his wife’s. Amongst his accessories, his valet packed for a trip to England once: nine coats, 10 hats, 20 suits. For a cruise, which the du Pont’s took often as it actually saved money with running such a large house, Henry had 15 suitcases and bags packed. Two of those were steamer trunks and two were boxes just for books.

Victor the valet was certainly up to Henry’s meticulous standards. He used four monogrammed silver clothes brushes for different types of fabrics and he kept a catalog of his employer’s shirts, numbered and sorted by fabric swatch.

When Henry and Ruth “downsized” to their 50-room cottage, which you can read about and see in a previous post here, they also downsized their help…to 13 live-in staff.

winterthur-dupont-autumn-fall-green-houseThe gatehouse, repurposed today.

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Former Winterthur historian, Maggie Lidz, will be publishing a book this year about the “back rooms” of great houses. All the places the staff used and lived in and, of course, there should be some good tidbits about Winterthur. If there’s anything really interesting, I’ll add it to this post and let you know! In the meantime, check out a great blog post on Winterthur that has some photos of Henry’s private elevator and the servant’s quarters, here.

Sources: “Life at Winterthur” by Maggie Lidz, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11