Nuclear family plus servants doesn’t equal nuclear family plus appliances

From a tweet by “hbdchick“, a tantalizing excerpt of an essay by Peter Laslett, who researched the structure of the Western European (particularly English) family for decades.  He’s one of the reasons I talk about the domestic help aspect of family formation, even as alt-right (and regular right) types ignore that when declaiming about how the nuclear family is a staple of certain kinds of white people.  I’d put Laslett’s more exhaustive work on the back burner, but I think it may have to move up in the old queue. Below I’ve reposted the excerpt with the important bit at the end highlighted.

Characteristics of the Western European Family

Peter Laslett

By ‘family structure’ many things may be intended. I shall take it here in two senses. First, in the sense of composition of the co-resident domestic group, as the historical sociologists call it. This means the knot of persons who live together, man, wife and sometimes, but by no means always, their children, their relatives, if any, along with their servants, now excessively rare. Such is the family which the wage-earner leaves when he catches his bus in the morning to go to work, and which he returns to in the evening. It is also the assemblage of possessions which the bachelor girl or the solitary widower or divorcee calls a home, along with himself or herself. A modest array of this kind is the constitution of the family for very large numbers of Western Europeans in the 1980s. The family in the second sense is the extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and so on who are recognised, and sometimes associated with, but do not live together in the same place.

I am concerned here with family in both these senses, historically, over time. This is not only because of the interest people have in their family history: but also because it has now been shown that unless we have some knowledge of the history of the family, the family of today, of our own personal experience, can be profoundly misunderstood. For the fact is that in the matter of the family we have suffered, and still suffer, from a series of persistent, deceptive, obfuscating misbeliefs which can only be shown up and corrected by a knowledge of the past.

This self-deception about the history of the family has particularly affected Western Europeans. Frenchmen, Germans or Englishmen, unless they have come across the work of recent historical sociologists, are likely to believe the following. That the co-resident familial group in the past, at least up to the point of industrialisation, was large and complicated, with several generations living together. Furthermore, that this comfortable, kin-enfolding, welfare-providing family group not only nurtured the young, but took in their spouses when they married, and also provided them with shelter and succour when they became old or suffered other misfortunes. That the family in the sense of extended kin was a further source of welfare. It seems to be supposed that before the days of the Welfare State it was the family and kin which rescued social casualties. Now all this has turned out to be untrue.

Untrue, that is to say, in a literal sense and for the particular part of Western Europe which first became industrialised and which has given what might be called industrial culture to the rest of the world. By this North-West Europe, especially the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, is meant. In this cultural region family groups had been simple in composition and quite modest in size for many centuries before industrialisation. Married children only seldom lived with their parents, and two couples in one family household were quite unusual. It is true that the family group has become much smaller in the 20th century, servants have disappeared, and solitary living has grown enormously in our own day: but this did not happen during the process of industrialisation as ‘traditional society’ gave way to ‘modern society’ and cannot be called a transition to the ‘nuclear family’. The ‘nuclear family’ was there already.

The kin composition of the English family group was much as it is today in the 16th century, and had been so since the 1300s, the 1200s or even earlier, but with one very important structural difference. Servants lived in large numbers of families, and the presence of servants made the family groups of the rich large, and the family groups of the poor correspondingly small. In this area of the West, moreover, welfare never flowed along lines of kinship. The casualties of the system, the widows, the orphans, the poverty-stricken, were supported by the collectivity rather than the family.

The implications, needless to say, are pretty major.  Hbdchick has a London Review of Books subscription and I do not as yet, so she reproduced a different excerpt mentioning very high servant turnover and that the lifetime servant was more of a literary device than an ongoing reality.

This is interesting, because due to labor shortage and some other historical quirks, the longtime or lifelong servant did exist in various forms in America and Canada all the way into the first half of the 20th century.  Likewise, the nuclear family in its frontier-isolated and later suburban form could not exist without the Industrial Revolution’s massive infusions of radical new technology and mass production.  So on the one hand, “the nuclear family has always been part of Western Europe”, but on the other hand, the people who came to America transmuted it along radical lines that were not reflected in the old country’s version of it.

And more to the point, as my title for this post notes, it’s not the same to say that appliances are your servants, even if they were devised as a replacement.  They are not a true replacement for all that.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Nuclear family plus servants doesn’t equal nuclear family plus appliances

  1. “Servants lived in large numbers of families, and the presence of servants made the family groups of the rich large, and the family groups of the poor correspondingly small.”

    That definitely jumps out when watching Upstairs, Downstairs–the family itself is substantially smaller than the staff.

    (I haven’t gotten into Downton Abbey.)

    “That the family in the sense of extended kin was a further source of welfare. It seems to be supposed that before the days of the Welfare State it was the family and kin which rescued social casualties. Now all this has turned out to be untrue.”

    In extreme cases where the destitute relative was unable to work, that may be true.

    However, I think there is a grey area here between work and welfare. This may also just be a literary device, but at least in fiction, the poor relative may occupy an intermediate space between member of the family and servant (see Cinderella). There’s also the issue of spinsters. As I’ve been reading lately, historically a very high percentage of Western European women never managed to marry or have families of their own.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_European_marriage_pattern

    At least in 19th century English literature, one definitely gets the vibe that spinsters are generally in the “poor relative” category–at least in the middle class.

    Even in the present day in the US, jobs are often not given out on a purely meritocratic basis in family businesses. The fact that one’s relative needs a job can be an important consideration in hiring.

    I know in my family (which is very entrepreneurial) that there is always a job somewhere in the family enterprises. Not a high-paying job or a full-time job or a job with advancement possibilities, but there’s always a job. My family also has a tradition of welcoming cousins or nephews from the extended family out to work for the summer.

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  2. I was just skimming the Wikipedia piece on the house that gets used for Downton Abbey and Jeeves and Wooster.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highclere_Castle

    “By 2009, the castle was in dire need of major repair, with only the ground and first floors remaining usable. Water damage had caused stonework to crumble and ceilings to collapse; at least 50 rooms were uninhabitable.”

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  3. Since the Middle Ages, a lot of people lived in some type of servitude relationship to a superior person. The Middle Ages had a manor lord and similar structures in feudalism and the subordinates were most likely villein or serfs. Those people actually had to get permission to marry. The structures changed, but the idea of a celibate labor force remaining with a family or remaining in the employment of families was quite common for a while. They still had to obtain the permission of their superior/home head to marry.

    I think part of the disconnect between how families functioned then and now is partly due to the idea that marriage is an equal-opportunity bargain. Not everyone married, and not everyone was allowed to marry for most of history. Marriage was a form of self-selection in the population so certain groups of people could continue to propogate– not everyone. The people who didn’t marry were most likely in the service of nuclear families.

    I’m pretty certain in America, people like to pretend historical norms and history don’t apply to them. Happy 4th, LOL!

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