1919 maid - 2019 cleaner

Life of a cleaner 1919-2019

As you go into work today did you notice whether your cleaner had been? In many offices we know the names of our cleaners, we might spend time chatting with them and getting to know them, a good cleaner will become an extended team member. The life of a cleaner has evolved greatly over the last 100 years and with the recent release of the Downton Abbey movie it got us thinking. What was the life of a cleaner really like in 1919 compared to today?

At the turn of the 20th century when the population of Britain was 36 million there were 1.5 million servants employed. Today there are 66 million people living in Britain with nearly 500,000 peopleworking in the cleaning sector. Why did we need so many servants 100 years ago?

Who employs a cleaner?

Cleaners back in 1919 were only available to the privileged and wealthy and would have been part of the team of servants, it is very unlikely that those at the very top of an organisation or household ever met the cleaner let alone knew their name. Cleaners were expected to be invisible!

Today most businesses have a cleaner, sole traders who work from home will hire a cleaner to help keep on top of their home office. It is also common for many families, including working-class households to hire cleaners too. With fewer servants around today, many people undertake the ‘servants of old’ roles, but still need an bit of help with the cleaning tasks. Cleaners today are trusted and valued individuals.

A cleaner’s duties

A cleaner in 1919 would have had many duties and would include; washing, ironing, cleaning floors & carpets, polishing, dusting, scrubbing, sorting out the many fireplaces, cleaning boots and riding tackle, in essence they would carry out every and any requirement deemed necessary. There was an expectation that all tasks would be carried out without question or disagreement, there would not have been job description to refer to but simply a threat of dismissal if the job was not carried out.

Today the life of a cleaner is much more clearly defined and is usually related purely to cleaning and hygiene related tasks, it would be highly unlikely that your cleaner would agree to polish your shoes! You will have agreed exactly what tasks are to be undertaken and also agreed on time scales and rates of pay. It is also likely that you have signed the cleaner’s terms and conditions and you understand what is deemed outside of a cleaner’s role. 

A cleaner’s equipment

Electricity was available in many business and wealthy households and there would have been many electrical appliances available in 1919, including the ‘Hoover’. The equipment however was very expensive to purchase and as long as servants were on hand, the wealthy did not consider how the work was to be carried out and how hard it would have been for the cleaner. Most of the cleaning and laundry tasks would have still been carried out by hand, using chemical based cleaning products, that were both inefficient and very damaging to the skin. Before electric appliances, cleaning was laborious, difficult, daily and grossly inefficient. Carpets and soft furnishings were created long before there was any real way to clean them, not that this mattered to the employer, they paid the cleaner to simply do it!

It would be unthinkable today, that your cleaner wouldn’t use a vacuum cleaner, along with an array of other equipment including steam cleaners, floor scrubbers and polishers. These are just a handful of the items that will be used to ensure that the job is completed effectively, to a high standard and in a time efficient manner. If there is a cleaning job that needs doing, there is an appropriate piece of equipment to use along with a correct product to make sure that the end result is clean and hygienic. The products that cleaners use these days have been tested and are deemed safe for use, professional cleaners will only use potentially corrosive cleaning chemicals with the correct training, protective clothing and safe equipment.

What do the cleaners think about their job?

In 1919, many cleaners would work in excess of 17 hours a day with only Sunday mornings and one afternoon off a week. Although some household cleaners would have been provided with 3 meals and accommodation, this would have been so that they were at the ‘beck and call’ of the employer with many who worked in the role being badly treated, without rights or laws to protect them.

A study produced by Birmingham Universityin 1975 looked at the role of servants and interviewed Margaret Powell, a former servant from the 1920’s, she said “I got up at 5.30am to clean the fireplaces and front steps, polish the shoes and boots of everyone in the household. No one considered that the reason the kitchen looked so clean and the pans were shining was the reason I was so scruffy. I was shouted at by the harridan of a cook and treated like some sort of sub-human by my employers who found fault with everything I did.” 

Today couldn’t be more different, with reputable companies really investing in their team. There is a focus on training and promoting from within, to help create a positive environment and one that people want to work in. Many cleaners are part time workers, as it supports a healthy work-life balance. They are able to work set hours, take regular holidays, earn a good rate of pay and are given support from their employers too.

Louise a Supervisor at Crystal Clean Service said “I have never worked for a better company. Today I had surgery and Sarize my immediate manager stayed with me all day. I don’t know of any companies where we would all be treated as family like this, the managers go above and beyond for us all”.

We might love Downton Abbey but I’m not sure I’d want to be a real cleaner in the 1919, would you? #lifeofacleaner

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