What the Butler Did

I’m doing research on servants at the moment and wanted to share with you some of the fascinating facts I’ve found. Butlers, for instance, while invariably doddering in fiction, were the COOs of the Regency household, replacing the house steward, except in the households of Dukes with huge tracts o’ land, of whom there are dozens, invariably all hot and single, in our world. (Sorry, I couldn’t find the appropriate image. I hope this will do.)

The word butler and bottle have the same derivation. Butlers looked after the wine and wine cellars and were frequently wine experts, as well, if not better informed than their masters.

But the butler did more than inspect, gently brush away the cobwebs, filter, and decant.

Take this excerpt from The Complete Servant (1825), written by two career servants, Samuel and Sarah Adams:

To convert White Wine into Red
Put four ounces of turnesole rags into an earthen vessel, and our upon them a pint of boiling water; cover the vessel close, and leave it to cool; strain off the liquor, which will be of a fine deep red inclining to purple. A small portion of this colours a large quantity of wine. This tincture may either be made in brandy, or mixed with it, or else made into a syrup, with sugar, for keeping.
In those countries which do not produce the tingeing grape which affords a blood-red juice, wherewith the wines of France are often stained, in defect of this, the juice of elderberries is used, and sometimes log-wood is used at Oporto.

Turnesole, by the way, is a sort of lichen that’s been used since at least Chaucer’s time as a dye. It must have been a great comfort to know that if you were caught out during the beef course you could always go out and scrape a few rocks. But it also suggests that the sophisticates of the ton were incredibly ignorant about what they drank, and the Adamses are entirely ignorant about how red versus white wine is made.

This surprised me in a “the more you find out the less you know” way. Have you had an experience like this, recently? Or come across something bizarre in your research, or found a fact in a book that is so bizarre you suspect it’s true?

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15 Responses to What the Butler Did

  1. Was *I* the only one who read the title and then scanned the entire post for Gerard’s name?

    (Diane, you’ve scarred me for life. But that’s OK. What’s a scar or two when that’s GB we’re talking about?)

  2. No wonder the French think the English are ignorant philistines who don’t know the value of the right grape.

    In medieval times, the steward was in charge of household as well as land matters. So, I’m really curious how the butler rose in popularity and status as the household-in-charge, where as the steward decided to focus on the lands (as the estates grew larger). I’m also curious why it wasn’t the pantler or any other medieval servant of stature.

  3. Todd says:

    “You don’t love her?! What’s wrong with her?! She’s beautiful…she’s rich…she’s got huge…tracks of land!”

    Todd-whose-wife-has-mostly-broken-him-of-the-Monty-Python-quoting-habit

  4. Todd says:

    Keira wrote:

    I’m also curious why it wasn’t the pantler or any other medieval servant of stature.

    Hmm.

    “What the Pantler Saw.”

    “The Pantler Did It.”

    “Gerard Pantler.”

    No, no, I’m afraid it won’t do at all.

    In response to Janet’s question, and quite coincidentally…I recently read a fun-but-not-very-systematic book by David Durant called The Country House: A Historical Dictionary (published in the US as Where Queen Elizabeth Slept and What the Pantler Saw…er, sorry, I mean What the Butler Saw), which had me smacking myself on the side of the head for not realizing before the roots of some common words. Like “Pantry” = “Place where bread was stored,” and “Buttery” = “Place where the butts (i.e., casks) were stored.”

    Todd-whose-head-is-getting-sore-from-all-those-smacks

  5. Anonymous says:

    As a winemaker, this was one of the most painful posts I’ve ever read.

    Although, I do understand how the Brandy and the Elderberries help give body to a otherwise delicate white wine…

    Rob

  6. Elena Greene says:

    Yikes, this reminds me of an episode of Northern Exposure where characters throw a bunch of strange stuff together to replace a bottle of some very old and expensive wine. Does anyone else remember that one?

  7. Oh, I remember that one, Elena! It was a Chateau Margaux or something, and Shelly broke the bottle before Maurice’s big dinner party, so Eve had to use perfume and potting soil and basil and stuff to recreate it. Glad I didn’t have to drink it after all that! ๐Ÿ™‚

    LOL, Todd! Monty Python-quoting is a hard habit to kick, I know.

  8. I thought of Northern Exposure too. Gerard Butler never entered my mind. What percentage of the English population were servants, Janet, during the Regency?

  9. Keira,
    The fall of the house steward/rise of the butler happened during the long 18c but it seems to have been very sporadic. I think it was possibly connected to the rise of the middle class who didn’t have the type of household to necessitate a steward but certainly had aspirations to gentility. House (and land) stewards tended to be quite well bred–it was an acceptable younger son profession–and cits didn’t want a servant who was of better birth! (Fear not, you will never see a pic of the Gerard on one of my posts. I think he’s an expressionless middling actor.)
    Pam, I’m not sure of the Regency, but in the 18c one-third of the population, excluding the very high-born, were in service at some point in their lives. I suspect by the Regency that number may be smaller, because jobs were opening up in the manufacturing centers. But I think from the 18c few people went into service as a career–they saw it as a chance to better themselves and move on. Butlers, for instance, aspired to inn-keeping, where they could doctor up the wine to their heart’s content.
    Janet

  10. Rob, butlers used to make wine too. I’m pretty sure the section on wine-production in the Adams’ book would make your hair curl.
    Janet

  11. Todd, you may come here at any time and quote Monty Python if Cara won’t let you do it at home.

  12. Cara King says:

    Janet wrote:
    But it also suggests that the sophisticates of the ton were incredibly ignorant about what they drank

    Or it suggests that the ton butlers didn’t learn their job from a book, but the books were for the servants of the rising middle class (just as etiquette books were for their masters, not aristocrats)!

    Keira wrote:
    So, I’m really curious how the butler rose in popularity and status as the household-in-charge

    I suspect it was at least in part because wine was very valuable, ergo the butler was well-paid, experienced and respected, and therefore in charge of others too… But really, he was just in charge of the menservants in the house, and — contrary to the modern idea that the butler and footmen were mainly there to open the door — most of what the household menservants did involved wine or silver. (The women had far more diverse jobs.)

    Rob wrote:
    As a winemaker, this was one of the most painful posts I’ve ever read.

    Oh, don’t all winemakers do that, Rob? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Janet wrote:
    Todd, you may come here at any time and quote Monty Python if Cara won’t let you do it at home.

    Yes, he has a limited allowance of Python quoting. So he’s free to go quote it at you any time! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cara

  13. But really, he was just in charge of the menservants in the house, and — contrary to the modern idea that the butler and footmen were mainly there to open the door — most of what the household menservants did involved wine or silver. (The women had far more diverse jobs.)
    Yes and no. He was the COO and CFO of the household, and was in charge of all the rest of the servants, and was also the representative of the master of the house in business affairs. The position involved a high degree of trust and integrity. The butler opened the front door to decide whether visitors were welcome or not.

    Male servants, because their employers had to pay tax on them, were an ostentatious display of wealth in the grander households. Footmen did some cleaning and polishing, but it was the women who were down on their knees cleaning grates, scrubbing floors, and doing other really dirty work.

    Janet

  14. georg says:

    In medival times it was discovered that cheese rich in butterfat was yellower than cheese with less butterfat. The wise consumer would therefore shop for the yellowest cheese. Cheesemongers as early as the 12th century were accused of adulterating their cheese. And in Elizabethan times, additives were regulated. We have a long history of adulterating our food for profit.

  15. Diane, weighing in late, but YES, Keira. I thought it was THE Butler-Gerard Butler.
    I thought, “What sort of joke is Janet playing on me?”

    expressionless middling actor ohhhhh ho ho.

    Ah, well. I love her anyway!

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