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Reading 1: Servants at Brucemore
At first glance, Brucemore appears to be a monument to a few wealthy owners. But a closer look uncovers much more. Brucemore's story is about hundreds of immigrants drawn to Cedar Rapids to work in the families' businesses. It is about new technology and the expansion of railroads that brought an economic boom to the Midwest. It is about a servant staff whose labor granted their employers a privileged lifestyle.
George Bruce Douglas had a strong influence on the industrial development of Cedar Rapids. He worked first in his father's cereal business, which became The Quaker Oats Company. George and his brother started Douglas & Company, which grew into one of the largest corn processing plants in the world.
When George and Irene Douglas moved to Brucemore in 1906, they had two daughters, Margaret and Ellen. Another daughter, Barbara, was born shortly afterward. The Douglases personalized the estate to meet their needs as a growing family and transformed their home into a fully functioning country estate. They increased the size of the property from 10 to 33 acres and added the guesthouse, servants' duplex, greenhouse, carriage house, squash court/bookbindery, tennis court, pool, pond, and formal garden.
The Douglases employed many servants to work in the house, on the grounds, and for other responsibilities. Like most large homes built in the 1880s, the mansion had clearly defined areas for servants, including a separate entrance, dining area, and set of stairs. Servants could become virtually invisible as their work and living spaces could be closed off from the family's side of the house. Two rooms on the mansion's third floor served as servant bedrooms. Usually, the butler, cook, and maids shared these rooms. The head gardener and his family lived in the servants' duplex on the estate. The nanny's room was on the second floor next to the nursery.
Inside the mansion, duties were numerous, and a specialized staff of five to six handled the day-to-day operations of the house. Coming with his family from England in 1912, Alfred Batten was the Douglases' butler for eleven years. He held one of the higher positions among the servants. His responsibilities would have included answering the door, serving formal meals in the dining room, and taking care of the silver and other precious items stored in the butler's pantry. His wife Ivy also worked for the Douglases as a maid. Her duties might have included helping Mrs. Douglas bathe and dress as well as general straightening and cleaning. A Swedish cook, Mabel Seay took charge of the kitchen and the elaborate meals that were part of the formal dinners at Brucemore. Additional maids most likely assisted her with the more tedious aspects of food preparation as well as cleaning the mountain of dishes that resulted from a formal meal. Alfred's brother Bert was the Douglases' chauffeur from 1915 to 1937, surpassing all other staff in length of employment. He drove the cars but also maintained them, which required an understanding of mechanics. Alfred and Bert's sisters and nieces also worked occasionally when extra help was needed for large parties.
In addition to the specialized house staff, the Douglases hired men to care for their gardens and grounds. The head gardener, usually the highest paid employee, was an important part of the staff. His job included choosing plants, operating the greenhouse, and planning the care of the grounds. In the spring and summer, he supervised five to eight men. In the winter, his responsibilities included snow removal and firing the boilers in the mansion, greenhouse, and carriage house. Archie White, the Douglases' last head gardener, worked at Brucemore for nearly sixteen years. Archie, who was born in Jamaica, British West Indies, lived in the servants' duplex with his wife, Jeanie, and children, Agnes and Edward.
At Brucemore, a larger staff allowed for greater specialization in jobs but also some sharing of tasks. These servants enjoyed greater flexibility and more personal time than the typical maid-of-all-work. Their hard work provided the Douglases with a comfortable lifestyle and made it possible for them to pursue recreational and community service activities.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Create a chart listing all of the employees mentioned in Reading 1 and what their responsibilities were.
2. What caused an economic boom in the midwest? Why were immigrants drawn to Cedar Rapids?
3. At any given time, a mix of immigrants and American-born servants lived and worked at Brucemore. What are the nationalities of the Douglas employees mentioned in the reading?
4. Why do you think the mansion was built with separate areas for servants?
5. How might working for the Douglases and other wealthy families differ from working as a maid-of-all-work? If needed, refer to Setting the Stage.
Reading 1 was compiled from Faye Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1983); David M. Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); and Daniel Sutherland, Americans and their Servants: Domestic Service in the United States from 1800 to 1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981).