Lesson Plan

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

Brucemore with Gardens, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 6 Standard 2A: The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

How is labor connected to class, gender, and ethnic background?


1. To explore the lifestyles and activities of the employees at Brucemore;
2. To compare and contrast working as a servant in a private home with working in a factory or shop;
3. To research ads and articles depicting servants in the early 20th century and consider how stereotypes affect the expectations of employers for employees;
4. To identify and research a historic building in the local community and determine how its use changed over time.


Time Period: Early 20th century
Topics: This lesson could be used in units on the Gilded Age, including the development of industrial America, changes in urban living, and the experiences of immigrants and women.


When 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."

Lesson Hook/Preview

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. The railroads and plentiful factory jobs also resulted in significant population growth for Cedar Rapids. Many of these new residents were immigrants, the largest group coming from western Bohemia (now a region of the Czech Republic).

The increasing number of factories producing goods and department stores selling them had a major impact on the labor market between 1850 and 1925. As America's middle-class population grew, so did the demand for servants in their households. Although a middle-class family could not hire a large staff, the ability to hire at least one servant was a badge of status. The "maid-of-all-work" in the middle-class household was responsible for everything from cooking to childcare to laundry.

In the mid-1800s, many housewives hired "help" (often American-born girls) to assist with physically demanding chores. However, as cities and industries began to flourish, local women who worked as house help could easily find other jobs in shops and factories. By the end of the century, immigrants and African Americans increasingly made up the highest percentage of servants in the Northeast and in the larger cities in the Midwest.

Some of these national trends are reflected at the Brucemore estate in the lives of the Douglas family and their servants. The family's cornstarch processing plant benefited from access to railroads, which brought their product to national markets. The wealth they gained provided the family with a 33-acre estate at the edge of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like other wealthy families living on country estates, the Douglases were able to escape the commotion of the industrialized city. Their leisurely lifestyle depended upon the work of servants.

The lives of individual servants often can be difficult to trace. In some cases, city directories and census records may provide the only source of information. Fortunately, the stories of several servants at Brucemore have been better preserved. These stories can be pieced together through sources like the nanny's diary, photos, letters, account books, and other documents.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation
Chartered in 1949 by Congress, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is dedicated to preserving historic neighborhoods and properties throughout the United States. Their website links to their historic properties, including Brucemore, and additional resources.

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

The Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record Collection 
Search the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record Collection for information, photographs, and drawings of Brucemore.

Library of Congress
Search the digital collections for various primary sources related to the themes presented in this lesson plan. Use search terms such as immigration; servants; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; working women, and factories and sweat shops.

Modern History Sourcebook
The Modern History Sourcebook is one of a series of internet history primary sourcebooks created by the History Department of Fordham University in New York. Included on their web page is information about immigration in the U.S., the Gilded Age, the first and second Industrial Revolution, and much more.

Cornell University Library: The Triangle Factory Fire
For a unique perspective of working in a factory "sweatshop" explore this web exhibit that presents original documents and secondary sources on the Triangle Fire, held by the Cornell University Library. They are housed in the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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Last updated: December 19, 2018