Maids’ Uniforms

Housemaid receiveing orders from her mistress via the new in-house telephone. Bell Telephone ad from Better Homes and Gardens, 1930.

Housemaid receiving orders from her mistress via the new in-house telephone. Bell Telephone ad from Better Homes and Gardens, 1930. “

p9 bell telephoneTEXT desk maid uniform ad BHG 193066

“Conversations with your cook or maid can be so conveniently carried on by telephone from your bedroom or your living-room . . . without so much as one unnecessary step.” 1930.

Maid's daytime uniform from B. Altman, probably latter half of 20th c.

Maid’s daytime uniform from B. Altman, probably latter half of 20th c.

For theatrical costumers, pictures of maid’s uniforms are as interesting — and probably more useful — than pictures of couture. Here is a sampling of maids’ uniforms from 20th century magazine ads, followed by a couple of vintage uniforms sold by department stores. Some of them follow the Victorian tradition of gray, print, and/or colored uniforms for day wear, and black uniforms for afternoon and evening, when the maid was more likely to be seen by dinner guests. These ads are in chronological order, but the most noticeable changes are variations in hem length, which can’t always be seen in the ads.

In the boudoir; lady's maid, Oct. 1917; Ladies' Home Journal.

In the boudoir; a lady’s maid laces her high-top shoe. Oct. 1917; Ladies’ Home Journal. The maid’s cap, with streamers, is very old-fashioned — almost an 18th c. mopcap, and her dress is satin, like many day dresses of the WW I era.

Ad for O Cedar furniture polish, June 1924. Delineator.

Ad for O-Cedar furniture polish, June 1924. Delineator. She’s not wearing a cap.

Even in Victorian times, maids rolled up their sleeves and bared their arms for hard scrubbing and other daytime chores. However, maids usually saved their good, black uniforms for waiting at table and evening duties, when they rolled down the sleeves to the wrists. [In many households, maids were given a break around four o’clock, so they could rest a bit, and change uniforms.]

Maid serving dinner to a husband and wife, Nov. 1924. Ad for laxatives. Delineator.

Housemaid serving dinner to a husband and wife, Nov. 1924. Ad for laxatives. Delineator.

In January of 1925, the illustrator of this ad for laundry soap imagined a princess and her ladies’ maid examining the lace on an evening wrap.

Ladies' Maid and princess, soap Ad, 1925. Delineator.

Ladies’ Maid and princess, soap Ad, 1925. Delineator.

In the twenties, maids’ caps have become just a ribbon headband trimmed with ruffles, more symbolic than useful.

Butterick illustration for its embroidery page. Maid setting the table, Feb. 1929. Delineator.

Butterick illustration for Delineator’s embroidery page. Maid setting the table, Feb. 1929. Note her below-the-waist apron.

The difficulty of tying and keeping a half-apron’s waist at the 1920’s hip level can be seen in all of these 1920’s illustrations, including the one just above. But maids were never supposed to rival the chic of their employers; in 1866, this maid was in trouble for leaving off her full crinoline, just as her “ladies” did.

“I understood they was a goin’ out,” [of fashion] explains the maid, whose hairstyle also mimics the style of her “betters.”

In 1929, this maid is wearing a light colored uniform -- and no apron or cap -- while discussing the laundry with her mistress. Fels Naptha Soap ad; Delineator, June 1929.

In 1929, this maid is wearing a light colored uniform — and no apron or cap — while discussing the laundry with her mistress. Note the maid’s chic short skirt. Fels Naptha Soap ad; Delineator, June 1929.

After the Crash: these 1931 illustrations are from an article on how to “Be Your Own Maid.” [The article explained the importance of keeping your closets and dresser drawers tidy.]

After the Crash: Illustrations for the article "Be Your Own Maid." November, 1931. The maid wears a print dress. Delineator.

November, 1931. The maid seems to be wearing  a print day dress, with different collars and aprons. This is not the lady of the house; notice her maid’s cap. Delineator.

This story illustration from 1934 shows a woman lounging (the caption suggests that she is “in a delicate condition,”) while her maid keeps busy while acting as her confidant. In this story, the maid, Karen, is the heroine.

Lady and maid, Delineator, Jan. 1934. Story illustration by Baumgartner.

Lady and maid, Delineator, Jan. 1934. Story illustration by Baumgartner.

“Ruth said, ‘Shall I have a son, Karen?’  Karen smiled. ‘Does it greatly matter?’ ”

[Digression:  Karen is probably a Scandinavian immigrant. In 1948, Loretta Young won an Oscar for playing a Swedish-American farmer’s daughter who works as a servant.]

Maids' or waitresses' uniforms from the Berth Roberts catalog, Summer 1934.

J 40 & J 41:  Maids’ or waitresses’ uniforms from the Berth Robert catalog, Summer 1934.

berth roberts catalog text p 21 waitress maid housedress879

The sheer lawn apron is for maids, not waitresses. It creates “that trim, precise look all well dressed maids desire.” The straps forming a “V” were seen in the illustration from 1924, and in the thirties, and still seen on the much later vintage uniform from Altman’s, shown in detail later in this post.

The maids (or housewives) in this Baking Soda ad are wearing aprons and dresses like the Berth Robert models:

Arm and Hammer Baking Soda ad, 1937.

Maids in an Arm and Hammer Baking Soda ad, 1937.

It’s not always easy to tell a servant in striped dress and white apron from a homeowner in the same work clothes, but housewives usually wore colored or embroidered aprons:

Woman washing dishes with Chipso dish soap, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

Woman washing dishes with Chipso dish soap, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

[Remembered Summers wrote about pink sinks and other 1920’s-1930’s kitchen innovations here.]

The wealthy woman in the article illustrated here suffered physical illness until she consulted a psychologist. Her long-suffering maid is alarmingly thin, but elegantly dressed in a rickrack-trimmed apron set. At least the illustrator avoided the most common 1930’s racist imagery; this maid is neither plump nor grinning:  she’s an individual.

"A constant state of indecision made her seek escape in seclusion. " Illustration for mental health article, Woman's Home Companion, Feb. 1937.

“A constant state of indecision made her seek escape in seclusion. ” Illustration for mental health article, Woman’s Home Companion, Feb. 1937.

Two Vintage Maid’s Uniforms

Maid's uniforms sold in department stores.

Maid’s uniforms sold in department stores. Both have natural waists and sheer accessories. A waitress uniform would use more sturdy, opaque apron and collar fabrics.

There’s a Bloomingdale’s label in one of these uniforms, and a B. Altman label in the other.  I had no idea that top department stores did such a thorough job of supplying their customers’ every need! (And I hope the employers footed the bill for the uniforms.)

Bonne Maid uniform from Bloomingdale's. Date unknown.

“Bonne Maid” uniform from Bloomingdale’s. Date unknown. The apron would have had stripes matching the sheer collar and cuffs.

“Bonne” is the French word for a maid, as well as the feminine form of “good,” so the company name is a pun.

Gray maid's uniform from B. Altman.

A gray Balta brand maid’s uniform from B. Altman.

Gray Balta Maid's Uniform without apron. It has a side button closing.

Gray Balta maid’s uniform shown without its apron. It has a side button closing at the waist.

I wrote about a 1930’s waitress uniform which also had a front placket, a waistband, and buttoned to the side. The cut of the dress itself is very similar to this much later one.

Details, Balta brand maid's uniform.

Details and label, Balta brand maid’s uniform.

The workmanship is good, as seen in the mitred collar and cuffs. The dress fabric has a synthetic sheen, possibly a cotton/rayon acetate blend, which places it later in the 20th century. The apron and trim is polyester organza.

An identical gray Balta brand uniform, new, in a Bergdorf Goodman box, can be seen here. Apparently the Balta brand was carried by more than one upscale department store.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

6 responses to “Maids’ Uniforms

  1. seeing the become your own maid article reminded me of a conversation i had years ago with my friends aunt (who was rather grand, cut glass voice and well in her 80s) and for some reason we started talking about gardening and that she wore an old apron and gloves for gardening. she told me it was both practical and very useful adding that if ever a stranger (salesman) called to the house and she would say ‘oh no, the lady of the house isnt in, i am only the char’

  2. How wonderful that someone had the sense to save those maids’ uniforms. I’ve seen them advertised in catalogs, but had no idea that fancy stores would stock them.

  3. So interesting. Love the images of days now past.

  4. My parents had a second line put in so they could scream at us children over the phone, rather than get-up and do it in person. They wouldn’t have dared use the line to give instructions to our housekeeper-she was a rather severe sort that we were all terrified of! She had two uniforms- identical polyester zip-up front midi dresses, one in gold, the other in powder blue. It was the late 60’s, and the lines of the uniform did resemble the A-line styles, but longer. The colours seemed a bit cheerful for a woman that was not.

    I have learned so much useful information from your blog over the years that I just wanted to thank you, and wish you a happy new year.

  5. What a fascinating post – so scholarly. Thank you.

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