Behind the Kitchen Door of Rockwood
Mary Ronald, author of The Century Cook Book, wrote in 1895 that “the machinery of the household [should be] as invisible as possible. There should be no . . . audible speech among the servants.” (Ronald 12) This is an apt description of the servant’s life at Rockwood. Many of Edward Bringhurst’s servant photographs are not labeled with names and dates so even today they remain silent and anonymous. Even with the anonymity, the photographs provide a vision of the life these “silent” workers led as part of the early twentieth century Rockwood staff.
At the pinnacle of the Rockwood servant hierarchy stood the butler, Robert McCormick who worked at Rockwood from 1892-1920. McCormick, as he would have been known in his butler position, is seen here with his wife and children. He is dressed in typical livery of the Victorian era — dark suit, white shirt, and bow tie. Most of Edward’s photographs included in the archives are posed pictures of the servants, such as the photograph of the Robert McCormick family, but some of the archive letters give a word picture of exactly what McCormick’s duties involved. In a letter home, Bessie assured her mother that she told McCormick “he would have drawing room, dining room, library & hall to take entire charge of: to sweep, dust, wash windows, polish floors, open fires to attend in 3 rooms, & everything silver and all in connection with table and Father’s clothes to clean and brush.” Bessie further mentioned that all the rooms had to be dusted before the Bringhursts ate their very early breakfast. . .” (Paula Schwartz “The Servants at Rockwood” 1852-1920). We were told by staff at Rockwood that the woman pictured is Robert’s wife, Mary A, along with three of their children. Mary is dressed in the costume of the women on staff who were seen by the family and guests. The livery included a dark dress, white apron, white collar, and white cuffs. All of the photos depict a very neat, clean appearance.
The second person in the servant hierarchy was Sarah Maguire. Sarah held at least three positions in the Bringhurst household over a span of about twenty five years. We know that she first served as Edward’s nanny until he was old enough for a governess (File, 33). Out of fondness, the Bringhurst family kept her on as a lady’s maid in 1900 (U.S. Census 1900). By 1910, she became the housekeeper (U.S. Census 1910). She is pictured here without the typical livery of the other female servants. Her dress is more detailed with no apron. Is the stern look and hand on hip a reflection of her position in the servant hierarchy or does she just not want her photo taken? This stern look would, most assuredly, have kept the rest of the staff in line. Although Robert McCormick was referred to by his last name, as a female staff member, Sarah Maguire was always just “Sarah.” McCormick and Sarah were the link between the Bringhursts and the other staff. These two trusted servants would report servant indiscretions to Anna Bringhurst.
When Lottie Rollins worked as cook at Rockwood (c. 1904), the indoor staff included a butler, a “lady’s maid,” a kitchen helper, and a laundress. (Files 76-77) The cook, kitchen helper, and laundress were not seen by the family or guests as they went about their daily duties. Lottie served as head of this staff. Here she is pictured in action. Perhaps she is tossing potato peelings which she carried in her pail. Although the Bringhursts often purchased food from professional caterers such as D.B. Jones and Henry S. Black & Co., in Wilmington, the cook was responsible for the preparation and clean-up of the everyday meals for the family and the servants. (Receipts) While the family ate in the formal dining room; the servants ate in the kitchen at two segregated tables, one for white staff and one for black staff. (Smith) The cook was also in charge of baking bread and cakes, preserving vegetables, and preparing whatever food Mrs. Bringhurst didn’t have catered. Lottie Rollins began breakfast preparations in time to serve the meal at 6:00AM sharp. One of Bessie’s letters concerning the servants alludes to the fact that Lottie had at least every other Saturday and Sunday off. (Letter #42-October 19, 1908.
Cora McNitt also served in several positions while in the Bringhursts’ employ. Not only did she assist Lottie with the meal preparation, but she was also the laundress. She is dressed in much the same way as Lottie Rollins is. She does not wear the traditional livery of the house maids but is certainly neat and clean. The posed photograph gives us one side of Cora, but the side view shows that working in the kitchen was not all hard word. As Edward pursued his hobby of photography, he was able to have fun with the kitchen staff as is depicted in the photograph of Cora covering her mouth to hide her wide grin. The photograph of an elderly, frail Maria Fleming must have been taken in her later years. The notation reads “Mary T. Binghurst’s nurse” although she is listed on the 1900 census as a cook. One can picture this kindly lady providing nursing care to her mistress, Mary.
The unlabeled photographs are very intriguing. Edward poses a young, African-American woman and man with a small terrier. In one photograph, the woman is looking up at the man with a huge smile on her face. The man is wearing a suit, tie, and long-sleeved white shirt indicating that he worked where he would be seen by family and guests. The woman, however, does not wear typical livery but is attired in a long skirt, striped-long sleeved blouse, high collar and white cap. There is no indication of her position in the household, but according to her dress, she probably worked “behind the scenes.” A photograph of the same scene depicts the couple with Robert McCormick peering over the brick wall behind them. Did Edward pose this photograph or was McCormick just being a bit mischievous.
Just as Bessie writes in her letter about giving Robert McCormick the details of his employment at Rockwood, all the Bringhurst servants were given explicit instructions of what conduct was acceptable as a Rockwood staff member before they were given employment. The policies included how and when to address the family members and how to answer the bell when called. (Docent) Cleanliness was also a requirement and it was not uncommon for Mrs. Bringhurst to inspect hands at odd moments. In those days most people bathed once a week, but Mrs. Bringhurst required her servants to bathe twice a week. (Spigel) The photographs attest to the fact that the staff were expected to be neat and clean.
Since servant turnover at Rockwood was very high, Mrs. Bringhurst was always on the lookout for good help. She often enlisted the help of her oldest daughter, Bessie, who moved to Ireland after her marriage. (Smith) Archive letters allude to the fact that only Sarah McGuire, Robert McCormick and George Taylor stayed long enough to earn a pension. The cause for this is not completely known. Perhaps servant dissatisfaction might have resulted from the Bringhursts’ opposition to servants having a social life. (Docent) Most servants lived at Rockwood during the early years and did not go out in the evenings. (Smith)
Although working as a servant during the Victorian age was indeed a hard life with very little pay and with families’ heavy demands, the smiles seen in some of Edward’s photos of the servants suggest such a life was not all drudgery.
– Carolyn Clark, Cheryl Blann
Docent. Handout Rockwood Museum. Undated. Unpublished. Authors received on 10/20/2011.
Federal Census 1900. Place: Brandywine, New Castle, Delaware. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
Files, Jessica. “Labor, Love, and Display: Changing Duties of Servants at Rockwood House in Wilmington, Delaware c. 1852-1910.” Rockwood Archives, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library (2000).
Rockwood Receipts. 1895. Rockwood Bringhursts Financial/Legal documents series Archives, Special Collections, University of Delaware.
Ronald, Mary. The Century Cookbook. New York: The Century Co., 1895. Google Books.
Smith, Elizabeth Bringhurst Galt. Box 1903 December-1908 December. October 19, 1908. Letter to Polly and Mother. Rockwood Archives, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library.
Spigel, Loretta. Personal interview. 20 October 2011.