Once part of an elaborate hierarchy in great houses, today a single maid may be the only domestic worker that upper and even middle-income households can afford, as was historically the case for many households. In the contemporary Western world, comparatively few households can afford live-in domestic help, usually compromising on periodic cleaners. In less developed nations, very large differences in the income of urban and rural households and between different socio-economic classes, fewer educated women and limited opportunities for working women ensure a labour source for domestic work.
Maids perform typical domestic chores such as cooking, ironing, washing, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, walking the family dog, and taking care of children. In many places in some poor countries, maids often take on the role of a nurse in taking care of the elderly and people with disabilities. Many maids are required by their employers to wear a uniform.
Legislation in many countries makes certain living conditions, working hours, or minimum wages a requirement of domestic service. Nonetheless, the work of a maid has always been hard, involving a full day, and extensive duties. Historically many maids suffered from Prepatellar bursitis, an inflammation of the Prepatellar bursa caused by long periods spent on the knees for purposes of scrubbing and fire-lighting, leading to the condition attracting the colloquial name of “Housemaid’s Knee”.
The word “maid” itself is short for “maiden”, meaning “virgin”. In great houses of England, domestic workers, particularly those low in the hierarchy, such as maids and footmen, were expected to remain unmarried while in service, and even highest-ranking workers such as butlers could be fired for marrying.
Types of maid
Maids traditionally have a fixed position in the hierarchy of the large households, and although there is overlap between definitions (dependent on the size of the household) the positions themselves would typically be rigidly adhered to. The usual classifications of maid in a large household are:
- Lady’s maid: a senior servant who reported directly to the lady of the house, but ranked beneath the Housekeeper, and accompanied her lady on travel.
- House-maid or housemaid: a generic term for maids whose function was chiefly “above stairs”, and were usually a little older, and better paid. Where a household included multiple House Maids they were often sub-divided as below.
- Head house-maid: the senior house maid, reporting to the Housekeeper. (Also called “House parlour maid” in an establishment with only one or two upstairs maids).
- Parlour maid: the parlour maids cleaned and tidied reception rooms and living areas by morning, and often served refreshments at afternoon tea, and sometimes also dinner. They tidied studies and libraries, and (with footmen) answered bells calling for service.
- Chamber maid: the chamber maids cleaned and maintained the bedrooms, ensured fires were lit in fireplaces, and supplied hot water.
- Laundry maid: the laundry maids maintained bedding and towels. They also washed, dried, and ironed clothes for the whole household, including the servants.
- Under house parlour maid: the general deputy to the house parlour maid in a small establishment which had only two upstairs maids.
- Nursery maid: also an “upstairs maid”, but one who worked in the children’s nursery, maintaining fires, cleanliness, and good order. Reported to the Nanny rather than the Housekeeper.
- Kitchen maid: a “below stairs” maid who reported to the Cook, and assisted in running the kitchens.
- Head kitchen maid: where multiple kitchen maids were employed, the “head kitchen maid” was effectively a deputy to the cook, engaged largely in the plainer and simpler cooking (sometimes cooking the servants’ meals).
- Under kitchen maid: where multiple kitchen maids were employed these were the staff who prepared vegetables, peeled potatoes, and assisted in presentation of finished cooking for serving.
- Scullery maid: the lowest grade of “below stairs” maid, reporting to the cook, the scullery maids were responsible for washing cutlery, crockery, and glassware, and scrubbing kitchen floors, as well as monitoring ovens while kitchen maids ate their own supper.
- Between maid: roughly equivalent in status to scullery maids, and often paid less, the between maids in a large household waited on the senior servants (butler, housekeeper, and cook) and were therefore answerable to all three department heads, often leading to friction in their employment.
- Still room maid: a junior maid employed in the still room; as the work involved the supply of alcohol, cosmetics, medicines, and cooking ingredients across all departments of the house, the still room maids were part of the “between staff”, jointly answerable to all three department heads, butler, housekeeper, and cook.
In more modest households a single maid-of-all-work or skivvy was often the only staff. It is possible this word originates from the Italian for slave (“schiavo”—”owned person”).