Last night, as I lay in the tester bed we slept in on What Cheer Eve, I wondered again what it was like to live and work in the house over the course of its life, and how the servants had been treated. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the notion of “service” was still evolving in New England. Help was common, and while northern and urban slavery existed, and we know the Browns traded in and owned enslaved people, we have no evidence of them in the house.
We know there was a white woman between 45 and 60, and four “all other free people,” we have names –Mary, Jonathan, and Gideon– for some of the people associated with the family, but don’t know their details. How did the Browns treat them? What was the relationship like? Were they invisible? Thanked? Chastised?
Diary entries that record “my babe takes tea with Ma’s Mary” suggests that there was some level of familiarity, and hints at the friendly relationship children and servants sometimes had in these houses, when both were seen as less civilized, less refined, and (clearly) less educated than the adult homeowners. Physically, service stairs kept chamber pots, laundry, food, servants, and children out of view, sequestered into smaller, dimmer, less-finished spaces.
We’ll never really know how the Browns really treated their servants, or felt about them; these are people who matter only enough to be remarked upon in passing. Perhaps even more frustrating is that we’ll never know what the servants thought of the Browns, of their businesses and moods, loves and appetites. These barely-documented people could tell us so much, if only the past could talk.