Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs

Time for another installment from my parents' biography. This story is actually a continuation of one I wrote about 4 years ago. In fact, I was thinking today about continuing the biography series, and thought--well, I had best do an introductory post and call it "The Rich are Different from Us." As I thought about what I could write, I thought to relay the story of the famous conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, in which Fitzgerald opined that "the rich are different from us somehow."

But I had a sneaking suspicion I had used that story before. So, I searched my past blogs and--voilà--there it was. A post titled (appropriately) "
The Rich are Different from Us" wherein I relay the entire Fitzgerald/Hemingway story complete with punchline, as well as my thoughts on some of the rich folk I have encountered.

I also told the story of my father's first foray into serving as a house servant--an ill-fated foray as it turned out. And, I gave an account of my own time "in service" -- that is working as a house-maid and sometime cook for rich Americans who had vacation homes along the shores of Lake Erie, on the Canadian side.

It was the way that I was treated--and the way my father was treated as I recounted in the story--that strikes me. The rich in those stories were different--there was a sense of entitlement, an attitude born of having made money, and now having servants to whom one could give orders, and treat badly, if one so chose.

This class division is far more pronounced in Britain--where there is a sharp division between upper class and lower class. The long running series of BBC--
Upstairs, Downstairs--which was then brought to the U.S., captured that class division marvelously. It was also featured in the wonderfully charming mystery movie Gosford Park. These media depictions showed how much those "in service" were just as opinionated as their employers. They may have been invisible but they certainly knew what was going on.

Okay--so that's the background. Here's a brief story of my father's SECOND foray into working for the rich.

The summer of 1940, my father secured work as a houseman, one of a number of servants, in the summer home of Henry McCormick. The McCormicks were a family of some prominence in Harrisburg, PA. His brother, Vance, was prominent in Democratic politics, and served a term as mayor of Harrisburg.
Henry B. McCormick, for whom my father worked, was a director of a Harrisburg bank and of the Harrisburg Bridge Company. At that time, most bridges were toll bridges, garnering a handsome income for the owners. Henry McCormick owned a summer home along the Yellow Breeches Creek, near Bowmansdale, which is very near Grantham (where my father's family had lived).

My father’s duties included pressing Mr. McCormick’s suit daily, polishing his shoes, wet mopping the front porch weekly, and cranking ice cream weekly. My father also occasionally served as a driver to help with transportation. He even had a slight accident while driving one of these cars, but Mr. McCormick was a kindly soul and nothing came of the incident.

Happily, this employment situation ended far more amicably than had his stint as a butler. He even got to keep the summer suit the McCormicks had purchased for him.

True, the rich are different from us (whoever "us" may be). I wonder--do young people still head off in the summertime to work in wealthy homes? Along the shores of Lake Erie? Along a creek? Somewhere at ocean's edge? Or, have the rich turned elsewhere for those who labor downstairs, while they wile away the hours upstairs?


Anvilcloud said...

You pose a good question. I assume that most domestics are more recent residents.

Peruby said...

Our young are too spoiled to even know how to work in a domestic environment.

NCmountainwoman said...

I believe the rich now turn more to illegals for cheaper labor and to avoid paying fair wages.

Nance said...

Latest Brit installment in the US/DS genre: Masterpiece Theater Classic, "Downton Abbey, Season One." Beautiful. And it even has Maggie Smith, which any good British film about class distinctions must certainly have. We watched the episodes of this first season twice through and await the second season eagerly.

"Us" is those of us who labor for our own families by either serving the public (teachers, but also doctors, therapists, lawyers, etc., although the most successful of them may effect a crossover) or serving a corporate master. "Us" is quickly finding out what it means to live in a class-based society, despite our history's desperate attempts to avoid such a thing.

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