TwHP Lessons

Back Stairs at Brucemore:
Life as Servants in Early
20th-Century America

[Photo] aerial view of Brucemore estate, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

[Photo] Brucemore with Gardens, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
(Courtesy of Brucemore, Inc., Cedar Rapids, Iowa)


hen friends and family visited the Douglas family at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they had the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and grace of the mansion's public spaces. Upon arriving, guests would pass through graceful iron gates and enter a 33-acre wonderland. Outside, they could explore a duck pond, swimming pool, tennis courts, and large formal gardens. Inside, guests would be greeted in the mansion's great hall with its warm colors, rich fabrics, and dramatic mural. While friends and family enjoyed this extravagant home, they probably did not give much thought to the work that went into maintaining this privileged lifestyle.

Domestic servants were integral to the sophistication and decorum, much less the functionality, of the Brucemore estate. Their work touched every part of the estate. The 21 rooms in the mansion needed to be dusted and swept, and the carpets and furniture cleaned. The children required supervision. Laundry had to be done. There were meals to be cooked, dishes to be cleaned, and silver to be polished. The large lawn had to be trimmed and the garden weeded. The family's farm animals required food and care. Carriages and cars needed maintenance.

During the years that the Douglas family made Brucemore their home, 10 or more people maintained the mansion and grounds at any given time. These people allowed members of the family to pursue hobbies, artistic work, and community service. Understanding the lives of these important, yet virtually unseen residents allows one to explore the "back stairs at Brucemore."


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1906
 2. Brucemore estate, 1911-1928

Determining the Facts: Readings
 1. Servants at Brucemore
 2. Danny's Diary
 3. Comparing Period Sources

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. Brucemore estate
 2. The great hall at Brucemore
 3. Floor plan--main level
 4. Floor plan--second floor
 5. Floor plan--third floor
 6. Uniform for maids
 7. Henrietta, maid
 8. Douglas family servants
 9. Douglas family account ledgers
 10. Douglas family account ledgers

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. The Ideal and the Real
 2. Built-in Service
 3. Factory Work vs. Domestic Service
 4. Preserving the Past

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The lesson is based on the T. M. Sinclair Mansion (Brucemore), one of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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