Kōrero: Household services

Whārangi 3. Domestic service since 1900

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Women shun service

About half of the female workforce was in domestic service in 1880, but only about one-third was in 1900. The ‘servant problem’ got worse as more women could afford to employ a servant, but fewer women wanted to be one. Shops and offices became the main places where women were employed.

Daughters as domestics

Daughters who didn’t work outside the home were often pressed into service. The 1901 census counted 50,000 daughters or other relatives (excluding wives) performing domestic duties.

Cookery classes were included in the high school curriculum from 1908, when Wanganui Girls’ College led the way. Otago University began a home science degree in 1911, encouraged by Plunket founder Truby King.

Kitchen culture

The shortage of servants had an effect on New Zealand cuisine and kitchen culture. Because New Zealand women did their own cooking, New Zealand food was plain and simple. Recipe books such as Melanie Primmer’s The up to date housewife (1926) assumed the person using the book was a woman, a homemaker, and not a mistress or servant. They gave ‘handy hints’ on how to do the washing and clean the grate. As homemakers spent a lot of time in the kitchen it became a focus of architectural attention, and New Zealand women were early adopters of labour-saving devices.

Servants should be obedient


During the 1930s depression some women were forced into domestic service. It was badly paid, but was the only job going. In Mary Findlay’s autobiographical novel Tooth and nail, schoolgirl Mary Wilkinson finds hard-hearted female employers and husbands who try to seduce her, including one who tells her: ‘Servants should be obedient to their masters.’ In one job she worked from 5.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m., with only one weekday afternoon and every second Sunday afternoon off, for five shillings a week.


Between the world wars

From 1918 to 1939 domestic service was still the single largest employment category for women, and there was still a servant shortage. In the 1920s about 4,500 British domestic servants arrived in New Zealand as part of a scheme sponsored by the New Zealand and British governments. Also operating in Canada and Australia, it was an attempt to solve both the post-war ‘surplus women’ problem in Britain and the ‘servant problem’ in New Zealand. But, as with earlier schemes, the women left quickly for marriage or other occupations.

War kills domestic service

The Second World War put an end to domestic service as an occupation. In 1936 there were 32,000 domestic servants; nine years later, at the end of the war, there were only 9,000. Women were ‘manpowered’ into essential work during the war – and domestic service was not in that category.

1945 onwards

In the post-war decades women generally did their own housework. Paying someone to help was unusual. According to the 1951 census, only one in 10 married women worked outside the home. Women who worked as housekeepers for others tended to be older single women, or sole parents who needed a place to live and work with their child. This changed in the early 1970s, when the Domestic Purposes Benefit provided an independent income for ‘solo mothers’.

As women moved into paid work outside the home – which one-third of married women had by 1976 – employing a cleaner or childminder became more acceptable.

House-cleaning services

In the 2000s very few people work as full-time domestic servants in private homes. However, the number of part-time house cleaners has risen. The service sector has grown strongly as people pay for others to do the jobs that once took up their ‘leisure time’.

Some house cleaners work for companies, but most are individual women, including new migrants, who work for cash.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jane Tolerton, 'Household services - Domestic service since 1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/household-services/page-3 (accessed 14 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Jane Tolerton, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010