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The House Servant’s Directory

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Robert Roberts, butler to the rich and famous, wrote a popular house servants’ directory that defined polite society before the Civil War.

Roberts gives detailed recipes for drinks, polishes and cleaners as well as advice on how to behave. He called his guide The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families.

He was an African-American butler to some of the most prominent members of Boston’s aristocracy. Roberts worked for Christopher Gore, Kirk Boott and Nathan Appleton. In 1827, he published his House Servant’s Directory, which went into three printings.


In the book, Robert Roberts urged employers to treat their servants with humanity. And he advised servants to treat employers with respect.

He gave advice on buying food, running a household, how to dress and how to wash hair.

Here are some excerpts from his book.

‘The labourer is worthy of his hire,’ and should be treated in health or in sickness with pity and feeling. If it is necessary to place servants under strict surveillance, let them at least be treated as fellow beings and candidates for a future world.

Address and Behaviour to Your Employer

The House Servant’s Directory advises domestics to be submissive and polite to their employers and visitors.

They should never be pert, or strive to enter into conversation with their employers or any visitant that may come to the house, unless they speak to you or ask you a question, and then you should answer them in a polite manner, and in as few words as possible. …When a lady or gentleman speaks to you, or asks you a question, answer them very kindly, Yes Ma’am.–or No, Ma’am; Yes, Sir, — or No, Sir. I have often heard servants answer their employers in such an impertinent manner as to make my blood run cold…

How To Buy Food

  • Smell under the kidney of a lamb to tell if it’s fresh.
  • For veal, check the bloody vein in the shoulder to make sure it looks blue or bright red.
  • Put an egg in a pan of cold water, a fresh egg will sink, an old one will swim at the top.

Daily Schedule

In the morning, he advised getting up an hour before the family to do the dirty work.  That included trimming lamps, polishing shoes, getting ink spots out of mahogany, making a carpet look like new, cleaning a grate or polishing plate. For dirty work, he recommended wearing loose overalls, a hat and a green baize apron.

Breakfast should be served in a clean shirt, cravat, round jacket and white linen apron.

For dinner in winter he suggested changing into a good blue suit with a yellow cashmere vest. For summer, he preferred black bombazine, because a light-colored suit should be changed twice a week.

To Take Rust Out of Steel

Rub the steel with flannel dipped in salad oil.

Vinegar and Wine

To turn good wine into vinegar, he recommends putting a red beet in a gallon of wine for three hours. Then to restore the wine, take out the beet and put in a clean cabbage root for another three hours.


Take one gallon of water, put to it the juice of ten good lemons, and the zests of six of them likewise. Then add to this one pound of sugar, and mix it well together, strain it through a fine strainer, and put it in ice to cool. This will be a most delicious and fine lemonade.

To Preserve Apples Year Round

Put them in casks in layers of dry sand. Then let the sand be perfectly dry, and each layer being covered keeps them from the air, from moisture, from frost, and from perishing.

To Prevent the Breath From Smelling After Drink

Chew a bit of the root of iris-troglotida, and no person can discover by your breath whether you have been drinking or not.

A Wash for the Hair Most Superb

Beat up the yolks of six eggs into a froth, and with this anoint the head well over, rub it well into the roots of the hair, leave it on until dry, then take equal quantities of rum and rose water, and wash the head well over, this is a beautiful cleanser and brightener to the head and hair; this should be applied in the morning.

To read more about The House Servant’s Directory, click here.

1 comment

Robert Roberts Tells All – About How To Be a House Servant in 1827 - New England Historical Society July 12, 2019 - 4:10 pm

[…] To read some excerpts from A House Servant's Directory, click here. […]

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