Forgotten Crafts: Dienstmeid

There was a time when virtually every unmarried girl from the lower classes was a maid. And there was a time when every middle or upper class housewife employed one or several maids. In 18th century Holland, maids were almost considered part of the family. They lived in with their employers and were treated almost as an equal. Almost, because even though she would sit at the table with the family for supper and her masters would speak to her kindly (so much that it surprised foreign travelers), she did not have much rights, let alone a salary.

Most maids did not have a room of their own but would sleep in the kitchen or the attic. She was supposed to work seven days a week and would only get time off to go to church every Sunday and to visit her family once a month. She would be paid with food and clothing and an "education" in keeping house. The fact that she could live in, get fed and learn how to run a household that would serve her well once she got married, made the job very popular in spite of the disadvantages. In most cases, she would be better off as a maid than as a burden to her family.

And a burden she was. Most lower class families would live with a family of ten in a one-room house. Poverty was widespread and an adult girl would bring in no money but waste much of the little food and space the family had. Seen in that light, being a maid was a very good deal.

This is why when researching female ancestors you will very often find "dienstmeid" as their occupation during their single, adult years. Once a woman got married, she usually was fired and her occupation changed to "huisvrouw" meaning housewife.

But with the industrial revolution in the 19th century, jobs came available to unmarried girls that gave her more perspective. In the factory, she could earn a real income and even get time off in the evening. With the money she earned she could contribute to the family income and save to set up home for herself. This posed a problem for upper class ladies. It became difficult to get good maids that would agree with living in, no privacy, no salary, and no time off. They referred to it as the "dienstbodenprobleem" (maid problem), and many books were dedicated to solving it.

The result was that at the beginning of the 20th century being a maid was institutionalized. Girls were sent to domestic science school to learn housekeeping, and laws were drawn up to guarantee certain rights such as privacy, free time and a decent salary.

And so a maid had become a real job, one that became too expensive for the lower middle class. Therefore, outsourcing of only certain tasks to a maid that did not live in, a so-called "werkster" (cleaning lady) became popular. However, with the first automation of housekeeping in the 1950s and 1960s, even the cleaning lady disappeared from most middle class households. Being the perfect housekeeper yourself had become the ideal of every Dutch housewife, and with it the maid became an extinct occupation.

However, when housewives started taking jobs outside the home in the 1970s and 1980s, the "werkster" became popular again. She still is today: almost every working woman that can afford it has one and you can say that, in a way, she replaced the maid.