Domestic Reform League, 1903, Historical Sketch

In January, 1897, the Employment Committee of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union resolved to make an attempt to get nearer the source of the difficulties recognized as existing in domestic service in this country. For this purpose, they organized the Domestic Reform League. The objects of the League -were carefully considered, and it is interesting to observe that though six years have elapsed, the statement of them has needed neither modification nor enlargement. It has been frequently printed, but no history of the work of the League would be complete without it.

"The objects of the League are the scientific and careful consideration of present conditions; the awakening of the interest of women in the largest aspect of the problem; the recognition by the employer that fair conditions should be given for faithful service; and by the employee, that interested and efficient service must be given in exchange for fair wages and just conditions; and the further recognition by both employer and employee that efficiency should be a standard of wages."

In January, 1897, the use of the Employment Office of the Union was restricted to members of the League, the sole condition of membership being sympathy with its object. Nine months after its organization the League numbered 673 Employers, 1,265 Employees.

It now comprises 4,957 Employers, 14,627 Employees.

This large and steady increase during six years is testimony to the need of some such association, and the recognition of its benefits to both parties in the domestic contract.

It is hard to reconcile these figures with the statement that the applications from Employers more than double those of Employees. The explanation lies in the fact that one Employer often keeps several maids and that the same Employers use the office whenever there is a vacancy in their households. On the other hand, the Employees are a shifting class and are constantly swelling the number of League members.

During these six years of activity the League has carried on various lines of work. It now seems that the time has come to give some resume of these efforts, that we may consider the way we have traversed, in order to judge more clearly what our future path should be.

First and most unremitting has been the effort to deal with the individual case, and to bring together as Employer and Employed the two persons best fitted to serve each other. Unless this continues to be done more and more efficiently and frequently, the whole work of the office will be discredited. The Employment Department has increased its business year by year, as the following figures show.

In 1899-1900, 2180 places were filled.

In 1900-1901, 2256 places were filled.

In 1901-1902, 2392 places were filled.

This increase has gone on in spite of a slight decrease in the number of Employees who have registered in the office. This decrease is due, doubtless, to the care with which the Department investigates references, and the strictness with which it enforces its rules for contracts.

A striking commentary on the state of the market for domestic service is furnished by the fact that last year 80 per cent, of registered Employees were placed, while only 30 per cent, of registered Employers could be supplied with service.

The League early adopted a form of contract of which it seems advisable to print a copy. This contract has been the subject of many and romantic versions. It has been rumored again and again that it contained limitations of the hours of labor; that it fixed the time for the meals of the household; that it forbade dictation as to dress; and that it affixed strange penalties for the use of the Christian name of the Employee! Of course these tales are purely fanciful. The contract is of the simplest sort, and is designed to reduce friction on both sides from impermanence of employment. Summary dismissal or desertion has been far too common. The League, with its steady insistence upon the definite contract, with its notice and its forfeit clearly defined, has certainly done something to lessen this evil. There are fewer complaints, on both sides, of flagrant violations of justice in regard to this matter.

The Employment Office of the League is now self-supporting, and reports each year a small surplus. This would be wiped out, of course, if the League had to pay rent. But it is encouraging that even so sound a financial basis has been secured. The six or seven clerks necessary in the busy season are retained the year round, and their time is employed in the dull months in carrying on such general sociological study as is suggested from time to time. The machinery of the office is now of the most modern sort. A complete system of card cataloguing is of great importance, and furnishes a useful domestic history of the members of the League. It is encouraging to report that the clientele of the office has a tendency to permanence. Frequent as are the unfavorable criticisms on any such public service, it is yet evident that there are many members of the League, both Employers and Employees, who go to no other office when in need.

The one penalty of the office is enforced with relentless impartiality. Any member of the League, whether Employee or Employer, who has broken a contract or a verbal promise is by that act debarred from the further use of the office. This, of course, disposes of a large, irresponsible class, and is certainly a relief to every one, though it may, in individual cases, sometimes work hardship and injustice.

Passing now from this most practical work of the League, we see that it has not neglected that scientific investigation which gives to sociological service a foundation of ascertained fact. It is only too evident that the fundamental difficulty in this country in regard to domestic service is the disproportion between supply and demand. Why do so few women enter domestic service ? That question has not seemed to admit a definite answer. In the effort to throw light upon it, the League has conducted several investigations.

These investigations have been carried on under the direction of the Labor Bureau of Massachusetts, and with the cordial help of Mr. Horace G. Wadlin, until recently the head of that Bureau, to whose sympathy and judgment the League owes a large debt.

The results of the second of these investigations were published in 1898. It was concerned, with the Hours of Labor in Domestic Service. A series of questions was sent to a considerable number of families, and returns from them were carefully tabulated. While no very precise results can be expected from such statistics, they do exhibit general tendencies.

"The difference between the number of hours required daily in domestic service and the amount of free lime afforded, and its character, as compared with conditions obtaining-in the factory and in some kinds of mercantile employment, is plainly apparent; the indefiniteness of the hours, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the lack of uniformity in hours, is also strikingly shown. It might of course be true that notwithstanding the differences in time of service, the kind or service in the home would in many cases afford compensations, as compared with that demanded in the shop or factory, which would fairly offset such disadvantage as household service bears when the comparison turns on a mere statistical statement of time."

In 1900, a similar method of research was adopted in regard to the Social Conditions of Domestic Service. It was in the nature of the case that the results here should be even more vague. At least, it was clear that there was great confusion of both theory and practice.

The obstacles to a satisfactory domestic service in this country are at present so varied and so complex that it is no easy task even to classify them, much less to evercome them. It becomes more and more evident, however, that the solution of the questions lies in increasing the proportion of available Employees. This will not only relieve the demand, but it will directly tend to raise the standard of skilled labor. To that end there must be certain changes gradually effected in housekeeping methods, all looking toward making them more similar to those of business. Greater precision of hours, the larger use of co-operative agencies, such as laundries and bakeries, and the increase in the number of Employees living in homes of their own, are the directions in which at present the changes are likely to come about. Others may develop in the future.

For example, there may be a larger number of men Employed in domestic service, not only as butlers and cooks, but in so-called "general housework." In many cases they have shown themselves admirably fitted for these positions, and the balance of supply and demand may be restored by their entrance to this field.

Meantime, the Domestic Reform League must continue to constitute itself a sort of clearing house for theories, investigations and experiments. It courts suggestion and criticism. Its one claim upon its critics is that they should bring their unfavorable judgments to its Office, rather than to the general public. Only by such frank meeting of them can it arrive at a more perfect service.

Meantime, it must never forget the individual in the general, or the practical in the theoretic. It must continue to hope that to its offices may come in larger and larger numbers skillful cooks, housemaids, waitresses, and considerate, efficient housewives; and that there may thus be added to the solution of the domestic problem an increasing ratio of common sense, ability and righteousness.

1. Excerpted from "History of the Domestic Reform League," The Federation Bulletin, November, 1903, Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston, pages 5-8.

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