(H)our History Lesson: Diary of a Domestic Servant, Ella McDannel

A woman with two young children. The woman is wearing a maid uniform.
Ella McDannel with two Douglas children, 1909. Courtesy of Brucemore Mansion; available online at the State Historical Society of Iowa website.


"Women's History to Teach Year-Round" provides manageable, interesting lessons that showcase women’s stories behind important historic sites. In this lesson, students explore the lives of Ella McDannel and other female servants at the grand estate of Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

This lesson was adapted by Talia Brenner and Katie McCarthy from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “Back Stairs at Brucemore: Life as Servants in Early 20th-Century America.” If you're interested in more information and activities on this topic, explore the full lesson plan.

Grade Level Adapted For:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners, but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Learners will be able to....

  1. Describe the lives of domestic servants during the early 20th century

  1. Research how stereotypes shape historic and current beliefs about the roles of domestic servants.

  1. Determine the central ideas or information in a primary source.

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of a primary source.

  1. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose.

Aerial view of of a very large house
The mansion today. Courtesy of Brucemore Estate.

Inquiry Question:

How would life in this house be different if you were a member of the family or a member of the staff?



The introduction of railroads in Iowa in the late 1850s created opportunities for industry to develop in rural areas. By the early 20th century, Cedar Rapids housed several large agriculture-related industries: meatpacking, cornstarch processing, and oatmeal milling. Industrialists like George Bruce Douglas gained extreme wealth from these industries. Laws that favored big business helped them to increase their wealth.

Douglas purchased a lavish estate in Cedar Rapids and renamed it Brucemore. In order to maintain the 33-acre estate, the Douglas family relied on the labor of a team of domestic servants. Throughout the United States at this time, wealthy families employed many working-class people as servants. Servants enabled the Douglas family to maintain their opulent lifestyle and pursue hobbies, artistic work, and community service. Many of the workers at Brucemore were women, particularly nannies, maids, and cooks. Immigrants and African Americans born in the United States made up the highest percentage of servants in the Northeast and the larger cities of the Midwest.

Document: Ella McDannel’s Diary

Ella McDannel was a trained nurse who worked as a nanny and maid for the Douglas family from 1909 to 1930. McDannel was a white American-born woman who was the same age as Mrs. Douglas. At the time when she was writing, McDannel’s primary responsibility was caring for the Douglas family’s children, who called her "Danny." McDannel had more interaction with the Douglas family than other female servants, who could become virtually invisible to the family they served.

The following excerpts are from Ella McDannel’s diary from 1910 to 1914. An early version of the now popular five-year journal, McDannel’s diary has a separate page for each date with sections for five years (1910-1914). As you read, do not try to keep track of every specific detail. Instead, try to get a “big picture” sense of what McDannel’s life was like.

Page 1: April 21 & 22, 1910-1914

Two pages of handwritten diary entries
Photo courtesy of Brucemore Estate.

Transcript of Page 1: April 21 & 22, 1910-1914

21 April
1910 Thursday- I went to see the new Tisdale baby and brought the children home. Mrs. Douglas - Margaret and I went to High School Play - "Priscilla" in evening.
1911 Friday- Went out driving with children. Mrs. Douglas came home last night. Had a treatment from Dr. Miller in evening.
1912 Sunday- At home all day. Children played in doors as it was cold and disagreeable in p.m.
1913 Monday- Mrs. Douglas busy in garden all day. I busied myself about the house. Children started into school work with Miss Henderson. Rachel and Mary Ann joined them. Mr. & Mrs. D. went to opera house. Mrs. Sinclair called.
1914 Tuesday- Mrs. Douglas busy with new cook and the garden. I walked to town. Ellen not in school this week. Barbara - sort of gone back on Kindergarten.

22 April
1910 Friday- Busy in morning putting away clothes - took Miss Duphe to station. Margaret Powel came to stay all night.
1911 Saturday- Down to Miss Taylors in afternoon quite a lump in my stomach all day so did not have any supper am going to sleep with children though.
1912 Monday- Margaret and I start for New York - so we had a busy day. Gave Mrs. Douglas a shampoo. Helped Margaret pack her trunk down town and went to train at 10 p.m.
1913 Tuesday- Mrs. Douglas and I did some work in dining room this morning. Mr. Piper, Tooker, and James Douglas and Alec her[e] for dinner. Mr. Douglas sold the coach horses.
1914 Wednesday- Mrs. Douglas and I had a nice walk through Bever Park. Rose fell down stairs in evening.

Page 2: October 22 & 23, 1910-1914

Two pages of handwritten diary entries
Photo courtesy of Brucemore Estate.

Transcript of Page 2: October 22 & 23, 1910-1914

22 October
1910 Saturday- Mornings work - beautiful day. Anna out with children. Out riding in p.m. stopped at Y.W. [Young Women’s Christian Association] for Mrs. D. Over to Mrs. Niles in evening.
1911 Sunday- I went to church with Mrs. Douglas we walked down. Wore my new bonnet cold and rainy in p.m. Children in all afternoon but played nicely up stairs. Mr. & Mrs. Cook were out and I took them home in electric.
1912 Tuesday- Mrs. Douglas and I had our first game of "Squash" this morning. A nice walk through Bever Park. I wrote to Mrs. Ellis in evening.
1913 Wednesday- Putting away clean clothes and went to town. Carriaged all the children home. They were all out with Neddie too this morning. Good letters from Margaret.
1914 Thursday- After going to school we walked to Y.W. [Young Women’s Christian Association] In p.m. Mrs. Holmes came to see us. Ellen went to story telling class. Ann Hamilton came to play with Barbara.

23 October
1910 Sunday- Went to church. Bro Sherrick preached for "Rededication" of church. Lydia E was out in afternoon - and she, Alice, and I went to church in evening.
1911 Monday- We cleaned down stairs Mrs. D. Alec. Theresa and I - books and regular dusting time. Anna helped in p.m. Mrs. D. and I had a nice walk from 11 – 12.
1912 Wednesday- We mended and put away clothes. I took Ellen to music in p.m. Then on over to factory with Mrs. Douglas - Little Anne came home with us and they had a fine play making mud pies.
1913 Thursday- A very beautiful sunny morning I walked to town meet Miss Twin. Joined Smyth at Hospital. Went to see Nelson about long coat. Rose and I spent the p.m. in town also. Barbara went with Loretta and to Tom. Elijah's party.
1914 Friday- Mrs. Douglas and I walked to school and on down town and Horn met us with auto. The childrens new dresser came from Miss Rice.

Document excerpted from the diary of Ella McDannel and transcribed by Brucemore Historian Jennifer Pustz, 2001. Courtesy of Brucemore Estate.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Ella McDannel’s daily life differ from that of the Douglas family who employed her?

  1. How would you describe McDannel’s relationship to the Douglas family? How do you think her relationship with the family was different from that of servants who were more “invisible”?

  1. As the Douglas children’s nanny, McDannel slept in a bedroom that was attached to the nursery, on the second floor of the mansion. How do you think that living so close to her employers affected her lifestyle?

  1. How would you describe the tone of McDannel’s writing? (angry, hopeful, neutral, sad, etc.)

  1. What aspects of McDannel’s life do you not know about from these diary entries? What primary sources would give you information about those aspects?

Activity: Quick Primary Source Analysis

Distribute copies of "The Correct Apron for Maids." Have participants observe the images and read the text twice. Then, have participants discuss the questions below, working either in small groups or as a class.

Article: "The Correct Apron for Maids"

A newspaper advertisement with pictures of maid uniforms
“The Correct Apron for Maids,” Ladies’ Home Journal (March 1910), 47.

Partial Transcription:
Every housekeeper should realize that the appearance of the maids in her house is an indication of her good taste and management, as they, in a measure, set the standard of the establishment from the moment the door is opened. And it need not be a matter of expense to have them well dressed; it is simply one of judgement in providing the correct things to wear on different occasions.

Simply-made black dresses of challis or mohair with white aprons are generally the most all-around, useful and becoming [flattering] dresses for maids, although a pretty shade of gray may be chosen at the discretion of the mistress. This, however, is something of an innovation and might be considered for special occasions where an extra dress could be afforded…Careful fitting at the waist-line is necessary in the making of becoming aprons, and they should be laundered with very thin starch, but above everything else they should be spotless.

After participants read the article, have them answer the following questions:

  1. What is the date of this source? Who created it?

  1. Where was it published? Who is the intended audience for this source?

  1. According to the article, how did wealthy women want the maids they employed to appear? Why do you think they wanted maids to look that way?

  1. How was Ella McDannel’s work and life experience different from the person who wrote this article? How was her work and life experience similar or different from the “ideal” outlined here?

  1. Imagine that you had to wear a maid uniform. How would you feel dressed like this in public? What tasks might be physically difficult to complete in this uniform? How might a uniform like this help you complete certain tasks? What kind of status might this uniform give you?


  1. What might Ella McDannel and her employers believed was important about her role at Brucemore? What might they have cared about? How are these things similar and different?

  1. After reading Ella McDannel’s diary and “The Correct Apron for Maids” article, what are some things you’re interested in learning more about? What angles are missing?

  1. Why might this topic matter to you today?

  1. How would you feel if you had Ella McDannel’s job? What about if you were Ella McDannel’s employer?

Additional Resources:

Brucemore is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Visit Brucemore's website for visitation information, and for more information on the history of this house, the families that lived there, and the servants that kept the home running. Also included is information about the house as a community cultural center, with numerous activities for the public.

PBS: America 1900
America 1900 presents a comprehensive picture of what life was like in the United States at the turn of the century.

Part of a series of articles titled Women's History to Teach Year-Round.

Last updated: June 9, 2023