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The Morals And Manners Of The Kitchen
by [?]

The plain truth of the matter is, that the whole native population of the United States has almost suddenly, and with one accord, refused to perform for hire any of the services usually called “menial” or indoor. The men have found other more productive fields of industry, and the women, under the influence of the prevailing theory of life, have resolved to accept any employment at any wages sooner than do other people’s housework. The result has been a demand for trained servants which the whole European continent could not supply if it would, and which has proved so intense that it has drawn the peasantry out of the fields en masse from the one European country in which the peasantry was sufficiently poor to be tempted, and spoke or understood the American language. No such phenomenon has ever been witnessed before. No country before has ever refused to do its own “chores,” and called in an army of foreigners for the purpose. To complain bitterly of their want of skill is therefore, under the circumstances, almost puerile, from an economical point of view; while, to anyone who looks at the matter as a moralist, it is hard to see why Bridget, doing the work badly in the kitchen, is any more a contemptible object than the American sewing-girl killing herself in a garret at three dollars a week, out of devotion to “the principle of equality.”

As a party to a contract, Bridget’s defects are very strongly marked. Her sense of the obligation of contracts is feeble. The reason why this particular vice excites so much odium in her case is, that the inconveniences of her breaches of contract are greater than those of almost any other member of the community. They touch us in our most intimate social relations, and cause us an amount of mental anguish out of all proportion to their real importance. But her spirit about contracts is really that of the entire community in which she lives. Her way of looking at her employer is, we sincerely believe, about the way of looking at him common among all employees. The only real restraint on laborers of any class among us nowadays is the difficulty of finding another place. Whenever it becomes as easy for clerks, draughtsmen, mechanics, and the like to “suit themselves” as it is for cooks or housemaids, we find them as faithless. Native mechanics and seamstresses are just as perfidious as Bridget, but incur less obloquy, because their faithlessness causes less annoyance; but they have no more regard in making their plans for the interest or wishes of their employer than she has, and they all take the “modern view” of the matter. What makes her so fond of change is that she lives in a singularly restless society, in which everybody is engaged in a continual struggle to “better himself”–her master, in nine cases out of ten, setting her an example of dislike to steady industry and slow gains. Moreover, domestic service is a kind of employment which, if not sweetened by personal affection, is extraordinarily full of wear and tear. In it there is no real end to the day, and in small households, the pursuit and oversight, and often the “nagging,” of the employer, or, in other words, the presence of an exacting, semi-hostile, and slightly contemptuous person is constant. This and confinement in a half-dark kitchen produce that nervous crisis which sends male mechanics and other male laborers, engaged in monotonous callings, off “on a spree.” In Bridget’s case it works itself off by a change of place, with a few days of squalid repose among “her own people” in a tenement-house.

As regards her general bearing as a member of a household, she has to contend with three great difficulties–ignorance of civilized domestic life, for which she is no more to blame than Russian moujiks; difference of race and creed on the part of her employer (and this is one which the servants of no other country have to contend with); and lastly, the strong contempt for domestic service felt and manifested by all that portion of the American population with which she comes in contact, and to which it is her great ambition to assimilate herself. Those who have ever tried the experiment of late years of employing a native American as a servant, have, we believe, before it was over, generally come to look on Bridget as the personification of repose, if not of comfort; and those who have to call on native Americans, even occasionally, for services of a quasi-personal character, such as those of expressmen, hotel clerks, plumbers, we believe are anxious to make their intercourse with these gentlemen as brief as possible. Most expressmen are natives, and are freemen of intelligence and capacity, but they carry your trunk into your hall with the air of convicts doing forced labor for a tyrannical jailer. If the spirit in which they discharge their duties–and they are specimens of a large class–were to make its way into our kitchens, society would go to pieces.

In short, Bridget is the legitimate product of our economical, political, and moral condition. We have called her, in our extremity, to do duties for which she is not trained, and having got her here have surrounded her with influences and ideas which American society has busied itself for fifty years in fostering and spreading, and which, taking hold of persons in her stage of development, work mental and moral ruin. The things which American life and manners preach to her are not patience, sober-mindedness, faithfulness, diligence, and honesty, and eagerness for physical enjoyment. Whenever the sound of the new gospel which is to win the natives back to the ancient and noble ways is heard in the land, it is fair to expect that it will not find her ears wholly closed, and that when the altar of duty is again set up by her employers, she will lay on it attractive beefsteaks, potatoes done to a turn, make libations of delicious soup, and will display remarkable fertility in “sweets,” and an extreme fondness for washing, and learn to grow old in one family.