Diary of a Domestic Servant: Ella McDannel (Teach It!)

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.

Introduction 

"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 is adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “Back Stairs at Brucemore: Life as Servants in Early 20th-Century America.”

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

Background

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 this development, helped along by a system of laws that favored big business.

Douglas purchased the 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, many working-class people were employed as servants for the wealthiest individuals. 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.

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

  • Standard 1A - The student understands the connections among industrialization, the advent of the modern corporation, and material well-being.
  • Standard 1C - The student understands how agriculture, mining, and ranching were transformed.
  • Standard 2C - The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.

  • Standard 3A - The student understands how the “second industrial revolution” changed the nature and conditions of work.
  • Standard 3C - The student understands how Americans grappled with social, economic, and political issues.

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • Standard 3C - The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.

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. What sort of tasks was Ella McDannel responsible for? How would you describe the work that she did?
  2. 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”?
  3. 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?
  4. How would you describe the tone of McDannel’s writing? (angry, hopeful, neutral, sad, etc.)
  5. 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 1: Quick Primary Source Analysis

Distribute copies of "The Correct Apron for Maids." Have students observe the images and read the text twice. Then, have students 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.

Questions for Article

  1. What is the date of this source? Who created it?
  2. Where was it puslished? Who is the intended audience for this source?
  3. 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?
  4. Now 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?

Activity 2: Comparing Primary Sources

Have students read the following sources two times each, then answer the questions below. On the first read, students should mark words that they do not know and look up definitions. On the second read, students should mark what the authors say are the main advantages and disadvantages (if present) of being a servant. Students should use different colored highlighters or colored pencils to mark the advantages and disadvantages. Studnets could complete the questions either individually or in small groups. After students have completed the questions, discuss students' answers to the last question ("If you were a working-class woman living at the time, would you prefer to work as a servant or as a factory worker? Why?") as a class.

Note: The authors use the term “houseworker” to refer to servants.

Excerpt 1: "Housework versus Shop and Factories" by Mary E. Trueblood (1902)
To summarize the advantages of the houseworker:

  • The excess of wages above living expenses is greater than for girls in shops and restaurants, and taken from year to year is almost as great as in mills and factories.
  • The work is more healthful than in mills, factories or shops.
  • The demand for workers is little affected by prosperous or dull times.
  • The older and more thoughtful women of all occupations recognize another advantage: Houseworkers are better prepared for contented lives in homes of their own. The other girls not only know little about the care of a house, but they form a taste for the excitement of numbers that often leads them to continue work after marriage. 'The mill is the last place for my girl; housework learns a woman to be a woman,' said a weaver, forty years of whose life had been spent in the mill.
  • The objections to housework seem to be: The hours are long and indefinite. There is invariably Sunday work. Work is not often specialized. Each household has its own method of doing things.
  • There is no chance to rise to a better place.
  • There is little opportunity to visit friends, and small satisfaction in receiving them.
  • The relations with employers seem more irritating than in other occupations. There is a solitude that is the result of continual contact with people with whom they have nothing in common.
  • In the opinion of working girls the advantages do not weigh against the disadvantages, so that under existing circumstances any attempt to attract intelligent girls to housework seems to be futile.

Excerpted from Mary E. Trueblood, “Housework versus Shop and Factories,” Independent 54 (13 November 1902), 2691-93.

Excerpt 2: Out of Work by Frances Kellor (1904)
A glance at the columns of advertisements reveals the fact that it is housework that invariably demands a 'good, strong girl.' Employees say 'stair-climbing ten to twenty times a day is thought nothing of,' and yet most women know that this is most injurious. In many instances we found girls working under an unusual physical strain, and yet shop girls and factory employees have received the legislation for hours, seats, and sanitation because of the fond belief that housework regulates itself. A few comparisons have been made of the healthful conditions in the factory and household, and they do not favor the latter so much as would be expected. A recent study by an experienced observer shows that housework is not necessarily good all-around work, and that among such employees, weak backs, and women's disease are prevalent.

In the matter of healthful exercise, housework has scarcely been questioned. We doubt if many other occupations like this consist of anything less desirable than washing in steam rooms and going directly into the open air. Certainly breathing the dust from sweeping and beating rugs would not be advocated as an ideal form of exercise. Then there are employees, thousands of them, who do not go out of the house between their 'times off.' How does this compare with vigorous outdoor walks which a factory girl must take to her car or to her home each day? The great majority of employers stipulate that the rest time of an employee must be spent in the house, and one employer said, where we were filling a position; 'Why, I should want you a dozen times if I thought you were out of the house.' This was in response to a simple request for a walk around the block. Another said, 'A walk during the afternoon! Don't she get enough during work?' But every one will admit that recreation implies at least change and usually separation from work. The average healthy woman knows that two or three consecutive days in the house without outdoor walks or drives, or social contact, or at least outdoor breathing, make her depressed, restless, and oftentimes irritable. This is not a question of mistress and maid, but of nerves and muscles and bodily functions, which no one has yet found to be different for different social classes. Certainly housework as performed in the average home cannot rank high in view of what science and experience are teaching of the best forms of exercise, and certainly play and games, the greatest of all recreations, are totally eliminated from the houseworker's sphere. The factory and store girls have these in their working girls' club, settlement gymnasium, or recreation centre.

Excerpted from Frances Kellor, Out of Work: a Study of Unemployment Agencies: Their Treatment of the Unemployed, and Their Influence upon Homes and Business (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 133-135.

Questions for Excerpts 1 and 2

  1. According to these articles, what jobs were available to working-class women at the time?
  2. Why do you think that Trueblood said that women working as servants “have nothing in common” with their employers?
  3. Based on the phrases you marked, would you describe each author’s view of working as a servant as positive, negative, or mixed?
  4. If you were a working-class woman living at the time, would you prefer to work as a servant or as a factory worker? Why?

Last updated: August 24, 2020