Technologies of domestic labour

“Electric Servants” in British metropolitan homes

The decline of the grand institution of domestic service in early 20th C Britain is usually attributed to the sudden availability of new labour-saving domestic technologies. The “Fall of the Victorian servant” (to quote Pamela Horn’s book title) is often directly linked by British historians to the rise in the use of household appliances like vacuum cleaners, clothes washers, gas stoves, electric ovens, irons, and sewing machines. Many of these new domestic contrivances were infact advertised as “Electric maids” or “Auto Maids”, as we see below in the electric vacuum cleaner ad from the 1920s. Hotpoint Electric Appliance Company, formed in 1920 to sell General Electric branded domestic appliances in Britain, advertised a range of “Electric Servants”, from hotplates to toasters. Hotpoint announced the arrival of its new electric mixer to potential consumers: “A servant with grand references wants a job in your kitchen”. The British Commercial Gas Association, founded in 1911, used the much-complained-about “Servant Problem” to promote “the use of gas for cooking, heating, and hot water supply”. In early 20th century Western consumer discourse, the new home technologies were hailed as the solution for the growing “servant crisis”. UNIVERSAL Home Needs presented their home appliances as “the big UNIVERSAL solution to the servant problem”, which not only “made it easier to get and keep good servants”, but also made it “easier to get along without them”. Thus, “Housewives need not worry over the Servant Problem”!


Early 20th C advertisements of domestic appliances as “Auto Maids” and “Electric Servants”


British Commercial Gas Association and UNIVERSAL Home Needs technological solution to the “Servant Problem”

While servants were declining and being replaced by new domestic technologies in Britain, early 20th C India, on the other hand, was witnessing a great boom in domestic service. The 1931 Census of India showed a phenomenal increase in the number of domestic servants from 1921 and 1911. Domestic service became one of the largest sectors of employment in the colonial cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Delhi. More than 70% of the entire female workforce in 1931 was engaged in domestic service. British households in early 20th C India employed large retinues of domestic servants. Memoirs and household guides suggest a hierarchy of menservants – from khansamahs (butlers) and khidmatgars (table-servants) to bawarchis (cooks), bhistis (water-carriers), masalchis (light-bearers), dhobis (washermen), darzees (tailors), darwans (guards) and mehtars (sweepers). Despite the feminization of domestic labour in early 20th C India, British imperial households continued to primarily employ menservants; the ayah (nurse) and sometimes a female sweeper or mehtranee were the only maidservants. Why did British families – who were welcoming new domestic technologies in their metropolitan homes – continue to employ numerous “native” servants in their imperial homes?

“Native servants” in British imperial homes

An obvious explanation for the persistence of domestic servants in India may seem that colonial policies stagnated industrialization; the lack of manufacturing industries meant there wasn’t easy access to household gadgets, while there was a large supply of cheap male labour. It may also appear that infrastructural constraints – lack of steady supply of electricity and running water – made it impractical for Britons to import labour-saving gadgets to their temporary households in India. While all this is partly true, colonial municipal records and memoirs show that by the 1890s, the British sectors of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Madras were provided with electricity. And by the turn of the 20th C, electric power generators and hydroelectric plants were installed in the British hill towns of Darjeeling, Shimla and Mussoorie. Anticipating the non-availability or high costs of electric fans, cheap portable non-electric fans run on kerosene oil or gas were also marketed for the British in India, like the Jost Fan or the Ky-Ko fan, often by companies that simultaneously manufactured electric fans. These fans were advertised as “noiseless and odourless”, “produces cool breeze at low cost”, “will run all day and night without attention”. A Jost fan ad from 1908 even boasted: “no more annoyance through sleepy punkah coolies”.


Kerosene fan advertisement by the Jost Co., which also manufactured electric and hot air fans. Image source: Antique Fan Collectors Association

Mechanical fans and thermantidotes, however, remained subsidiary and supplemental to the pervasive labour of the punkah-pullers. A 1908 Electrical Record and Buyer’s Reference complained that the mechanical fans lacked “the peculiar jerk which is given by the native” punkah-walla by alternately jerking and relaxing the rope, a “virtue” and “instinct” that he had inherited from his ancestors – who had all been punkah-wallas “for many generations”. Others argued that the mechanization of this form of labour would take away the unique charm of India and the nocturnal entertainment provided by sleepy punka-wallahs jerked awake by the sudden hurling of slippers. A 1908 Literary Digest, for instance, noted that “The substitution of electric power for sleepy Hindu servants in its propulsion will probably conduce to greater comfort, though it may interfere with some of the romance”. It is worth asking to what extent the need to display imperial authority through domestic violence and control of “native” servants, and the desire for a romanticized Oriental lifestyle, perpetuated “native” servant labour in British imperial households even when mechanical contraptions for cooling and lighting were gradually becoming available. The labour of dhobis (washermen) and bhistis (water carriers with their traditional goat-skin mussacks) was still deemed indispensable in early 20th C British households even though running water and  filtered water was supplied to the British sectors of the Presidency towns from as early as the 1870s.

Though visual technologies were changing, the visual stereotypes of Indian domestic servants – from early colonial ethnographic sketches to late colonial photographs – remained largely unchanged. Sets of “native” domestic servants on mica painted by “native” artists were popular collectibles of East India Company men returning to Britain. (The British Library holds several such sets of Indian servants.) By the early twentieth century, these Company Painting sets gave way to postcard sets of Indian servants, in which traditional occupational tools continued to be markers of what was understood to be the various “castes” of domestic servants. Illustrated and photographic postcards of Indian servants were mass-collected and mass-circulated by imperial Britons at a time when domestic servants were being replaced by domestic technology in British homes. In this postcard series (printed in Germany) by the Moorli Dhur & Sons, class and race differences between Indian servants and their British employers (who were the target consumers of these postcards) are expressed through a temporal difference, designed to evoke a contrast between the electrified modern home in Britian and the traditional timeless caste-based domestic labours in the imperial home.


Early 20th C postcards of Indian servants by Moorli Dhur & Sons (Printed in Germany)

New Gadgets and servants as markers of status

Early 20th C British domestic manuals advocated the use of labour-saving devices for scientific management of the home. Though gender historians suggest that domestic appliances increased the labour of British housewives by raising the standard of domestic hygiene, in early 20th C household engineering discourse, mechanization of the household was believed to considerably save middle-class women’s domestic labour. Domestic gadgets promised freedom and leisure to wives/mothers, like Hotpoint electric ovens, which advertised: “This Electric Maid frees the Modern Mother”, or “This Electric Maid cooks while the modern mother is Free”. Not just freedom, household technologies like electric ovens and washing machines also symbolized wealth, cleanliness, and modernity, and were crucial for middle-class status.


Hotpoint Electric oven ads from the 1920s stating that “Electric Maids” free the “modern mother”

In British imperial households in India, conjuring a similar image of leisure and status required the presence of labouring bodies of “native” servants as props. In the early 1900s, menservants were particularly rare & expensive in Britain due to the availability of better-paid industrial work and the increasing perception of domestic labour as feminine work. Only upper-class British households could afford male butlers and footmen; majority of middle-class British families depended on a maid-of-all-work, commonly called an all-rounder. For imperial Britons coming from modest backgrounds, photographing themselves amidst an entourage of Indian menservants became a crucial way of projecting their authority. Inflicting violence and pain on Indian menservants – kicking, beating or hurling slippers – not only provided domestic amusement as the anecdotes about punkahwallas indicate, but also boosted imperial masculinity and authority. Indian menservants were routinely emasculated and depicted in submissive roles in early twentieth century imperial photographs and postcards, which were geared to demonstrate British control and colonial consent. The manual labour of subservient Indian servants in the imperial home became the foil for British leisure. “Primitive”, “traditional” tools of Indian servants, like straw punkahs, or bamboo palanquins highlighted the sahibs and memsahibs’ modernity. Constant complaints about the unhygienic unscientific habits of Indian servants further underlined the cleanliness and modernity of imperial Britons. Domestic servants in the empire, thus in many ways, functioned similarly as domestic technologies in the metropole, in highlighting the status, prestige and modernity of British men and women.



Indian servants highlighting the status of British employers in early 20th C postcards

Caste – the British rationale for large retinues of Indian servants

The ubiquitous explanation of the British for the large retinue of servants in their Indian households was the caste system. It was caste, they argued, that made so many servants indispensable, as each servant caste – dhobi, mehtar, bhisti, darzee – allegedly only performed their caste-ordained labour. Combining work meant inflicting on “native” servants the risk and dishonour of losing caste.  Successive editions of Chamber’s Popular Encyclopaedia explained: “the man who fetches water cannot wait at the table, nor the man who cooks the dinner, serve it up; neither will the person who attends the table sweep the room afterwards, and so on…” Muslim servants also pretended to lose caste though they had none, was another recurring complaint. Muslim servants would not cook pork or serve wine, for which low caste Hindu servants had to be separately employed. Hindu servants refused to cook or serve beef. Upper caste servants refused to do work that was stigmatised as low. It was caste again that prevented the introduction of new technologies, the British argued, as Indian servants would lose their caste-based livelihood if Western domestic technologies were imported. An article titled “Electric Calcutta”, in a 1900 weekly review of The Electrical World and Engineer, noted: “when one considers that four punkah pullers are included in the bag and baggage of every white man in India, the Indian labour question assumes a very complex position in view of the introduction of our Western methods of breeze-manufacturing. Every electric fan imported into India means depriving four natives of their means of subsistence.” Indian servants were so accustomed to their caste sanctioned labour; the British argued that a change of profession or use of new implements would make no sense in their religious worldview. An anecdote from a 1922 missionary text Christianity and Progress, for instance, recounted: “An Indian punkah-puller, urged by his mistress to better his condition, replied: “Mem Sahib, my father pulled a punkah, my grand-father pulled a punkah, all my ancestors for four million ages pulled punkahs, and, before that, the god who founded our caste pulled a punkah over Vishnu”. How utterly lost such a man would be in the dynamic movements of our modern Western life!”

How do we understand Indian servants’ claims of caste for declining certain forms of labour or new technologies, as imperial archives repeatedly emphasise? Why did Indian servants supposedly use caste as the rationale to refuse to perform certain kinds of work or use certain domestic appliances in British homes? Was it some deep-seated anxiety of losing caste? Was it the anxiety of losing work if one servant did the work of others? Was it the fear of getting replaced by domestic gadgets? Employing separate servants for supposed caste-ordained labors was a common practice in British imperial households, whereas urban middle-class Indian households usually employed one or two servants to do all kinds of domestic work. This is true of early 20th C Bengali middle-class households in Calcutta, as Swapna Banerjee has argued, as well as local elite households in Delhi and Lucknow, as Heena Ansari’s blog post points out. Why then did British colonial households feel compelled – purportedly by caste reasons – to employ several servants? In the political backdrop of Swadeshi, Gandhian rejection of Western technology and Indian nationalist boycott of British industrial manufactures, the concept of caste perhaps allowed the British in India to make the benevolent claim that despite incurring heightened costs and reduced domestic comforts, they were still sacrificing the technological comforts of their metropolitan homes and employing “native” servants out of respect for “native” traditions.

(Postcards used are from the author’s personal collection)

By Satyasikha Chakraborty.


1 thought on “Technologies of domestic labour

  1. Pingback: The punkah and its pullers: A short history | Servants Pasts

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