On this page, we have gathered some interesting facts about butling and the private service profession. We also try to shed some light on the history of butling. The word butler derives from the old French bouteillier, and identified the cup-bearer or the one in charge of the bottles in large households. Bottle and the French equivalent both come from the medieval Latin buticula, a diminutive of buttis, a cask, which is also the origin of the English word "butt", given to large wooden container for liquid. The beer cellar in medieval times would have contained butts or wooden casks, not glass bottles. So the buttery originally had nothing to do with butter but was the place for storing the butts. Only later was the word extended to mean somewhere that provisions in general were stored, perhaps because people mistakenly made that association.
Through a complicated process that had to do with the loss of gentlemen servants and changes in social organization, the butler slowly rose to be in charge not only of the buttery, but also of the ewery (where the napkins and basins for washing and shaving were kept) and the pantry (where the bread, butter, cheese and other basic provisions were stored), and later still he took over the cellerer's duties of looking after the wine. This eventually became one of his principal duties. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the role of the butler reached its full flowering as head of the male domestic servants, in larger households sometimes the butler was given a whole suite of rooms dedicated to his various functions.
The biblical book of Genesis contains a reference to a role precursive to modern butlers. The early Hebrew Joseph who interpreted a dream of the Pharaoh's שקה (shaqah) (literally "to give to drink"), which is most often translated into English as "chief butler" or "chief cup-bearer". Eventually the European butler emerged as a middle-ranking member of the servants of a great house, in charge of the wine and liquor stored in the buttery.
The International Guild of Professional Butlers estimates that there are yet again a few million professional butlers in the world today. Note that the term "butler" is defined differently by different people. According to The Guild there has been a steady increase of butlers the past 30 years with a surge during the past 10 years. The Guild has some 10.000 active members from around the world. More than 35% of these members are from the USA.
In the early twentieth century, social change meant the butler almost vanished as a breed. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the butler has been reinvented as a kind of Swiss-Army-knife, all-purpose household manager, often the sole permanent servant. The primary duty of a butler is to oversee the household staff, many times at more than one residence. This requires a knowledge of high social etiquette and protocol in order to receive guests and supervise the reception of visitors. The modern butler may double as house manager, personal assistant, valet, chef, body guard, and a number of other positions in a household. Other responsibilities include things like organizing duties and schedules of domestic staff, scheduling and overseeing household maintenance, organizing parties and events, performing light housekeeping duties and booking hotels, restaurants and theatres.
The butler could also be taking care of the household accounting and creating household budgets, maintaining the wardrobe and clothing inventory for the gentleman, packing and preparing for the gentleman for travel, assisting with maintaining household security, staff hiring and firing and staff training. The butler is knowledgeable about wines and spirits and oversees the wine cellar and liquor inventory. Thus, the modern butler needs strong communication, organizational and management skills, and an ability to multi-task.
Salary is usually based on a number of factors such as the job location, the duties, responsibilities and hours included in the job description, the amount of experience and formal training of the candidate, and possibly a few other factors as well.
A butler usually earns a salary between $50.000 and $150.000 annually, plus benefits. We realize that the salary indication is very broad but it is what it is. A butler can be a live-in or live-out employee. Room and board can be considered part of the salary package, including a car, mobile telephone, 4 weeks annual leave, once a year airline ticket home, etc. Note that most butlers work an average of 60 hours per week, or more.
Because of the many British TV series and movies featuring butlers, many people believe that butling is a "British thing". This is an unfortunate myth, just like "British style butling". This notion comes from a rather overwhelming number of books, TV series and movies, all featuring a British butler. Due to the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey, British domestic service is yet again a trending topic.
The French invented the butler and the Americans invented the modern butler. Most butlers are employed in the USA and in the Middle East. Most successful butlers are Swiss. The best butler school in the world is located in The Netherlands. The best service in the world can be found in the Far East.
Often we are asked which nationality is best for butling. This is difficult to say, but based on our experience with recruitment and comments from clients from around the world we assist with their recruitment needs, and based on the same information from The Guild, we can say that the most successful butlers are from Switzerland, with butlers from the USA and France making up the second and third place.
During a very long and fun discussion at our Academy, students and faculty concluded that the best butler, ever, was François Vatel. He was head butler of Nicolas Fouquet and Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé. Vatel was born in Switzerland in 1631. He served Louis XIV's superintendent Nicolas Fouquet in the inauguration at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (France) that took place on 17 August 1661. Vatel was responsible for an incredible banquet for 2,000 people hosted in honor of Louis XIV by Louis, the great Condé in April 1671 at the Château de Chantilly, where he died. Vatel was so distraught about the lateness of the seafood delivery, that he committed suicide. He was discovered when someone came to tell him of the arrival of the fish. Vatel's story was depicted in the film Vatel, with Gérard Depardieu playing the role of Vatel.
Beginning in the early 1920s, employment in domestic service occupations began a sharp overall decline in western European countries, and even more markedly in the United States. Even so, by World War II there were still around 30,000 butlers employed in Britain alone. Following varied shifts and changes accompanying accelerated globalization beginning in the late 1980s, overall global demand for butlers since the turn of the millennium has risen dramatically. The most immediate cause for this rise is that the number of millionaires and billionaires has increased in recent years, and such people are finding that they desire assistance in managing their households. The number of wealthy in China has particularly increased, creating in that country a high demand for professional butlers. In 2004, Buckingham Palace announced for the first time that it was actively recruiting females for the position. Which brings us to "gender and butling".
Butlers have traditionally been male, and this remains the norm. Probably the first mention of a female butler is in the 1892 book Interludes being Two Essays, a Story, and Some Verses, by Horace Smith. In it Smith quotes a certain Sydney Smith who had apparently run into lean times: "A man servant was too expensive, so I caught up a little garden girl, made like a milestone, christened her Bunch, put a napkin in her hand, and made her my butler. The girls taught her to read, Mrs. Sydney to wait, and I undertook her morals. Bunch became the best butler in the country." Today, female butlers are sometimes preferred, especially for work within Middle and Far Eastern families where it may be culturally problematic for males to work closely with females in a household. Western female celebrities may also prefer a female butler, as may households where the wife is driving the decision to hire a butler.
In ancient times, the roles leading to butling were reserved for those confined within heredity-based class structures. In the medieval era butling became an opportunity for social advancement, even more so during Victorian times. Butling today has frequently taken over many of the roles formerly reserved for lower ranking domestic servants. At the same time it has become a potentially lucrative career option.
The Victorian era corresponds with the reign of Queen Victoria in England from 1839 to 1901. The period is beloved for its attention to high morals, modesty and proper decorum, as inspired by the Queen and her husband, Prince Albert. The Victorian era was also an optimistic time in which scientific and industrial invention thrived. Developments in printing produced a proliferation of Victorian scrap art, cards, and magazines.
The importance placed on civic conscience and social responsibility engendered notable developments toward gender and racial equality, such as the legal abolishment of slavery in Britain and in America. In addition, humanitarian and religious organizations such as the Salvation Army reflected the Victorian concern for the poor and needy of the period. Poverty was overwhelming.
In 1901, when the British population was 38 million and every middle-class home had at least one servant, there were 1.7 million women and 140,000 men in domestic service. Even a modestly prosperous household could expect to retain the services of a general domestic servant, and mostly these were young single women. In fact, right up until the start of the First World War, domestic service was the largest single occupation for women. However, it was fading in popularity by 1891. The hours worked were very long, the work was arduous and often lonely and it did not provide the freedom which was available to factory and shop workers. Large households could expect to employ dozens of servants.
From the beginning of slavery in America, in the early 1600s, African Americans were also put to work as domestic servants inside plantations. Some eventually became butlers. Gary Puckrein, a social historian, argues that those used in particularly affluent homes authentically internalized the sorts of "refined" norms and personal attributes that would reflect highly upon the social stature of their masters or mistresses.
One of the first books written and published through a commercial U.S. publisher by an African American was by a butler named Robert Roberts. The book, The House Servant's Directory, first published in 1827, is essentially a manual for butlers and waiters, and is called by Puckrein "the most remarkable book by an African American in antebellum America". The book generated such interest that a second edition was published in 1828, and a third in 1843. A modern reprint is available.
When the President says he wants cocktails and dinner at 8, he gets cocktails and dinner at 8, even if the kitchen staff has to be tracked down by the Washington D.C. police. President Truman had been enjoying a relaxing family weekend in Independence, Missouri when he first learned that North Korea had invaded South Korea. This knowledge prompted him to fly back to Washington on June 25, 1950 and order a dinner meeting. The problem was the kitchen staff had taken the afternoon off because the First Family was out of town. Alonzo Fields, chief butler for the White House, was called at 4 p.m. and told to prepare cocktails and dinner for the President and his fourteen senior advisors by 8 p.m. Fields planned the menu on the drive over to the Blair House (the President's residence at the time while the White House was being renovated) after mentally surveying the on-hand ingredients. He also enlisted the help of the Washington D.C. police to find two of the White House chefs.
For more than three decades Eugene Allen, a black man unknown to the headlines, worked in the White House as butler. During some of those years, harsh segregation laws lay upon the land. Mr. Allen trekked home every night, where his wife, Helene, kept him out of her kitchen. At the White House, he worked closer to the dirty dishes than the large desk in the Oval Office. Mrs. Allen didn't care; she just beamed with pride. President Truman called him Gene, while President Ford liked to talk golf with him. He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. "I never missed a day of work," he says. His is a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print; the man in the kitchen. He was there while America's racial history was being remade: the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.
When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn't even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. "We had never had anything," Mr. Allen, 89, recalled of black America at the time. "I was always hoping things would get better." Before he landed his job at the White House, Mr. Allen worked as a waiter at a resort in Virginia, and then at a country club in Washington. In 1952, a lady told Mr. Allen of a job opening in the White House. "I wasn't even looking for a job," Allen says. "I was happy where I was, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields. Forest Whitaker plays Eugene Allen in the movie The Butler (released in 2013). A remarkable movie indeed.
Readers of historical novels are familiar with some of the servants that large houses employed to do all the work required to keep the place running smoothly. Some had an army of outdoor servants (gardeners, gamekeepers, and grooms) and an equally large army of indoor servants. The number and kinds of servants varied depending on the social status of the employer and the size of the estate.
Male servants ranked above female servants and non-liveried servants. Those who did not wear uniforms, ranked above those servants who did. The highest ranking male servant (who in some ways was more a professional employee than a true servant), was the Land Steward. He was often the son of a minister or businessman. Some Land Stewards were attorneys and had their own homes and own businesses on the side. The Land Steward was the manager of the estate. He hired and fired workers, settled tenant complaints, saw to the harvesting of crops, managed the timber, collected the rents and kept all the financial records. Very wealthy men with more than one estate had several Land Stewards.
A few, very wealthy homes employed a House Steward. The House Steward was an administrative position. He was in charge of the keys. He and he alone had access to the pantries where food was stored, to the wine cellars where the wine was stored, and to the storerooms. The people who needed to access these areas had to ask his permission. He would let them in, then lock the door after they were finished. He was responsible for making sure repairs were carried out, that seamstresses were hired to make or repair the clothing and that there were enough laundresses.
The next highest ranking male house servant was the Butler. The butler's duties varied depending on the size of the house. He was in charge of the wine cellar and in the days before refrigeration, that was a delicate task. He was in charge of the silver and gold plate, china, and crystal. He supervised the cleaning of this valuable silver and gold and guarded it against thieves. As time passed, the position of the butler gained more and more prestige until he became the top servant in Victorian times, in charge of the men and women under servants. While the Butler did not wear livery, he did alter his clothing slightly while on duty - he wore a black tie rather than a white one for instance. It would not do to mistake the butler for a gentleman.
Highest ranking male house servant, next to the butler, was the valet. He cared for his employer's clothing, shined his shoes and boots, did the hairdressing and barbering and made sure the gentleman looked good. A valet had to be well-dressed himself, but was not to outshine his employer. When the gentleman went shopping or traveling, the valet went along since there were men who literally could not dress or undress themselves without assistance.
The highest ranking indoor liveried servant was the footman. Footmen did many jobs around the house, both indoors and outside. Inside, he laid the table, waited at table, served tea, answered the door and assisted the butler. Outside, he rode on the carriage, opened doors, served as an escort when a lady paid calls, and carried torches to deter thieves when the lady and gentleman went out at night. The footman carried letters to and from, and special footmen called "running footmen" ran in front of or beside a carriage. These running footmen had mostly died out by the time of the Regency, but in their prime, they were colorful characters, both literally and figuratively. They often wore very bright and luxurious livery and some noblemen would organize footraces between their running footmen. The qualifications for being a footman were good looks and a good physique. Their livery was knee breeches, often plush ones with silk stockings (footmen had to have good legs) and coats of satin and velvet with starched shirts.
A page or "hall-boy" was a young boy who was sort of an apprentice footman. He performed odd jobs and tasks and was put into livery to stand around and look good when the lady chose to entertain. Sometimes the page was a young black boy who was put into an especially fancy livery and treated almost like an ornament.
Women servants did not rank as high as men and were not paid as much even though their work was often harder. While a footman carried letters, a chambermaid often had to climb flights of stairs with loads of coal for the fire or cans of hot water for the bath. The highest ranking woman servant was the housekeeper. She kept the keys to all the storage closets and supervised the maids and cook. She served as the butler's right hand helper. She kept books and household accounts, and ordered food and other supplies. She very much ran the practical side of the house.
The next highest woman servant was the personal maid, or Lady's maid. She dressed and undressed the lady of the house, cleaned, pressed and mended clothing and did the lady's hair. In the Victorian age, when clothing was very heavy and elaborate (and buttoned and laced up the back) a women could literally not get dressed or undressed without assistance. Personal maids also looked after the jewelry and served as a companion and confidante. It was very much "the thing" to have a personal maid who was French, but if a lady could not find a French maid, a personal maid who could speak a few French phrases was almost as good.
The cook was considered to be of better quality if she had trained with a male chef. Not many people were wealthy enough to afford a male chef, so they searched for female cooks who had trained with men. The cook was the dictator of the kitchen. The cook had many kitchen helpers to assist her in the massive amounts of cooking that had to be done. There were always scullery maids (the lowest of the female servants) whose job it was to clean the pots and pans. These poor girls spent their days with their hands in hot water and harsh washing soda. After a large party, there could be hundreds of greasy pots and pans to clean before the girls could go to bed.
There were several other kinds of specialized maids, chambermaids, parlor maids and maids-of-all-work. These young women were the ones who swept, dusted, polished, cleaned, washed, fetched and carried from early morning till late at night. The schedule of the week for maids has them working from 6:30 am till 10:00 pm with one half-day off a week. They had to do all the cleaning and polishing with none of the labor-saving devices we take for granted today. There was no such thing as prepared polish in a tin for instance. Furniture polish had to be made from linseed oil, turpentine and beeswax.
Carpets had to be brushed by hand or taken outside and beaten. Lamps had to be cleaned and filled and fires had to kept lit and tended. This necessitated maids lugging large amounts of coal up flights of stairs to all the fireplaces, and with no central heating, a large estate could have many, many fireplaces. The sheer amount of work involved in a maid's job is difficult to imagine. Maids wore two kinds of clothing. In the mornings when most of the heavy work was done, they wore cotton print dresses and heavy aprons. Later in the afternoon, they changed into black dresses with ruffled aprons and caps with streamers.
The era of large estates with many servants died out after World War I. For a long time, a job as a servant was the only one a respectable young woman could get, and after jobs in offices and factories became available, few young women or men wanted to spend long hours working for little money and little chance to have a life of their own. More job opportunities, smaller houses and more labor saving devices finally put an end to the huge numbers of servants who used to work in stately homes.
The real-life modern butler attempts to be discreet and unobtrusive, friendly but not familiar, keenly anticipative of the needs of his or her employer, and graceful and precise in execution of duty. The butler in fiction, by contrast, is typically larger-than-life and has become a traditional plot device in various literature, film and theatre. In potboilers and melodramas, butlers provide comic relief with wry comments, or clues about the perpetrators of various crimes, and are represented as being at least as intelligent, and often more so, than their "betters".
Butlers figure so prominently in period pieces and whodunits that the catch phrase "The butler did it!" has become commonplace. Regardless of the genre in which they are cast, butlers in fiction almost invariably follow the "British butler model" and are given an appropriate-sounding surname. The best-known fictional manservant, and the prototype of the quintessential British butler, Reginald Jeeves, the iconic creation of author P.G. Wodehouse, is not a butler at all, but a "gentleman's gentleman" or valet.
Not all fictional butlers portray the "butler stereotype", however. Alan Bates, in his role as the butler in the film Gosford Park, was coached in brooding detail by Arthur Inch, a longtime real-life butler. Mr. Stevens, the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in the film Remains of the Day, was also acted with remarkable realism. A female butler, Sarah Stevens, is the principle character in Linda Howard's 2002 Dying to Please, a murder/romance novel. Howard gives detailed and generally accurate descriptions of butling.
Probably the best-known fictional butlers are Alfred from the Batman comic and films, Hudson of Upstairs, Downstairs television series, and Crichton from J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton. Other characters include Mr. Belvedere from the Belvedere television series, Lurch, from The Addams Family television series, Beach, from the Wodehouse series about Blandings Castle, Benson from the series Soap and Benson, Geoffrey from the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Niles from the television series The Nanny.
This little short comedy is an annual tradition in many families around the world on New Year's Eve. People never get tired of it. The comedy is universal. Plot, pacing, acting and characters in this version are all top-notch, starring comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden. German Television station Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) recorded a performance of the piece in 1963, in its original English language. This short comical play went on to become the most frequently repeated TV program ever.
The sketch presents the 90th birthday of elderly upper-class Englishwoman Miss Sophie, who hosts a dinner every year for her closest friends Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby, and Admiral von Schneider to celebrate the occasion. The problem is that given Miss Sophie's considerable age, she has outlived all of her friends, and so her equally aged manservant James makes his way around the table, impersonating each of the guests in turn. James finds himself raising (and emptying) his glass four times per course.
Miss Sophie decides on appropriate drinks to accompany the menu of the evening, consisting of Mulligatawny soup (Miss Sophie orders sherry), haddock (with white wine), chicken (with champagne), and fruit for dessert (with port). The drinking by James takes its toll, increasingly noticeable in James' growing difficulty in pouring the drinks, telling wine glasses from vases of flowers, and refraining from bursting into song. Even before the alcohol begins to exert its influence, he has trouble avoiding the head of a tiger skin laying on the floor between the dinner table and the buffet. Watch this delightful comedy below.
Sources/references; The International Guild of Professional Butlers, Victorian Household Hints by Elizabeth Drury, Not In Front of the Servants by Frank Dawes, Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant by Pamela Horn, Etiquette by Emily Post, Victorian life and Victorian fiction: A companion for the American reader by Jo McMurtry Hamden, US News and World Report. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. Stephen Ewen: A Brief History of Butlers and Buttling, NDR Germany, Wil Haygood (Washington Post).