The History of Butlers

The word butler comes from the French term for bottler 'bouteiller' but believe it or not the term butler is apparently mentioned in the Bible....according to an old dictionary entry. However, a brief 'glance' through Genesis has as yet not shown the reference to Pharaohs cup being handed by his butler! But probably the more famous references have to go to Jeeves, Hudson and Stevens! All these butlers have, in the true sense of the words, become household names. Their dedication to the cause of effective but unobtrusive service is commendable.

Although Jeeves is slightly more madcap that the usual butler, I think that is due to his employer and we all know that that amongst everything else, this is the single most important feature that affects us most..Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs was very much more staid and traditional as was Stevens, but how John Geilgud coped with Arthur is another story. Each individual butler sets his own style and pace, something that I heartily believe in.


PG Wodehouse's accounts of Jeeves are fascinating, but it should not be overlooked that Beach was Bertie Wooster's first butler and a completely different kettle of fish, so to speak. If you have not already read any of Wodehouse' books, try it, they give an insight into another world as well as making us realise that in today's world Jeeves would probably rate highly as a Concierge able to fix anything at any time! Some of his one liners are incredible, I would say that other famous butler in the Nanny, (you don't have to admit that you watch it from time to time!) has quite obviously studied some of Wodehouse's more caustic comments. And I quote ' Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad' (My Man Jeeves 1919).


Originally in a large country house the position of a butlers pantry was important to the smooth running of the household, as it was through the butler that all orders passed. Since the butler was on his feet all day, he had a comfortable chair beside a roaring log fire. The centre of the room housed a large table that served as the venue for silver cleaning, round table conferences with staff, interviewing staff, and books kept. Meals were never taken here, but tradesman and friends were often invited to share a bottle of port and a plate of macaroons when the butler had an idle hour. I wonder what the present day equivalent would be? Nevertheless, it was a hub.


Although butlers had traditionally been involved primarily with the care and dispensing of drink, the introduction of the telephone changed his life drastically. Imagine what a 1920's butler would make of present day technology! As custodian of the silver, the butler had to be of spotless character. In return for his essential honesty, his employer might turn a blind eye to the occasional disappearance of a bottle of wine. The butler's other 'perks' came from the local tradesman from whom he ordered supplies of coal, candles and oil.


The usual duties of the butler did not involve much physical labour, oddly enough, most of the onerous fetching and carrying, would have been performed by a footman. Everything he carried to his employers or their guests was on that famous of famous 'props' the silver salver, whether it was a mislaid cufflink, a bottle of pills or a telegram it had to be on the salver.


Few butlers ever complained about their long days or their miles of walking: their chief concern was to preserve the traditional dignity of their position. The butler's dignity owed much to his uniform, and oddly enough, mistaken identity between butler and guest, never occurred, even when he donned his tails for the evening, but for the fact that he wore a black tie instead of a white one at dinner.


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