From Morning to Night Reveals Hidden History of Gilded Age South
City of Manassas, VA . . . Although the work of early 20th century domestic servants has been romanticized lately by the likes of Carson and Mrs. Hughes of Downton Abbey fame, the reality for Virginia’s largely African-American domestic service corps was starkly different. Their story is the subject of a new Manassas Museum exhibit, From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South, opening March 9.
The traveling exhibition, developed by the Maymont Foundation, presents a distinctly southern perspective on domestic service. Those African Americans who worked primarily in white households as cooks, maids, laundresses, nursemaids, butlers, and chauffeurs, were often hidden from view and largely hidden from history, but it was their labor that made their employers’ lifestyles appear effortless.
For black southerners, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were anything but gilded. Slavery had ended, but subordination continued through social custom and increasing violence. A series of Jim Crow laws blocked the black vote and enforced strict racial segregation. African Americans, with limited education and employment opportunity, were compelled to take low-paying jobs in agriculture, some industries, and domestic service. African American women, who were excluded from most other occupations, dominated domestic service in the South, comprising 90% of the work force.
Those who made their living “in service” faced long hours, low pay, and hard work. Domestic workers often struggled to balance employers’ expectations of long days or live-in service with the needs of their own families. Although their profession required deference, drudgery, and even invisibility, domestic workers strove to maintain dignity and self respect. Many took great pride in their work. Their modest wages helped raise families, support churches, and build vital communities.
With nearly 70 photographs and illustrations, interpretive text, and numerous period quotations, From Morning to Night takes you into the home as workplace to share the perspectives of both server and served.
From Morning to Night was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed with the assistance of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the Virginia Association of Museums. The exhibit is open at The Manassas Museum from March 9 through April 21, and is included with admission.