Do the Servants Have Servants?

Just a few minutes ago, I was struck by the tendency of certain classes of people to not see other classes of people. I’m pretty sure it’s subconscious. I spent the first thirteen or so years of my life in a fairly egalitarian environment, pretty solidly lower middle class. No one where I lived had servants of any kind, (There was one family, but they were exceptions in several ways and moved to a ritzier town when I was still quite young.) nor did anyone hold jobs that would normally be considered serving positions. We were neither/nor. The whole experience of the very wealthy and the people who serve them didn’t exist in my life. There’s something about that relationship that has always felt uncomfortable to me. I don’t want to be on either end. To the wealthy, I’m probably one of those horribly gauche people who doesn’t know how to behave with servants.

I remember when I first arrived at college there was a student there from South Africa. At this point in my life I had never traveled abroad  and I had very few friends who were not also Americans. This was long before the internet and I really didn’t know much about the rest of the world. This was several years before divestment from South Africa would become a major cause. A couple of months later a boyfriend would give me the novel Too Late the Phalarope. It took me some pages to even begin to understand the plot because I didn’t know that apartheid existed. Soon afterwards, “Master Harold and the Boys” would be a big hit on Broadway and I would go to see it. Yet at that very moment, those two things were still in the future and when I met the student from South Africa the only thing I knew about the country was its location on a map.

She commented to me that she was surprised to see how poor the United States was. We were so much poorer than she had expected. As someone with comparatively little understanding about how the rest of the world perceived us, I must say I was highly surprised by this statement. I’m not a particularly jingoistic person, but still I was under the impression that the U.S. was comparatively wealthy in relation to the rest of the world. If she had seen us as no wealthier than South Africa, I don’t think I would have been surprised, but I was very puzzled to hear that we appeared “poor.” I asked what about us appeared so poor. She said there were no servants. “Everyone in South Africa has servants,” she said.

I didn’t mean to insult her or to be smart. I was feeling genuinely puzzled and my answer was one of confusion. “Everyone?” I said.

“Yes! Everyone!” She was quite emphatic on that point.

“Even the servants have servants?”

I was just naively trying to make sense of her statement. She got visibly angry and scowled, walked away and never spoke to me again, which was noticeable because the college only had eight hundred students.

Every once in a while, I’m reminded of that incident when someone says “everyone” but does not mean “everyone” but only “the people I see.”

Today, on the Atlantic Monthly’s website, an article mentions a picture of the Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre. The article is about people who appear in the background of photos.

The oldest known photograph with a person in it is the exact kind of photo I’m talking about. The picture was taken in 1838 by Louis Daguerre, and it shows Boulevard du Temple, in Paris.

Given the context, my eye is immediately drawn to a portion on the photo where I see the silhouettes of two figures. One appears to be shining the other man’s shoe. Then I read:

The street is lined with lamps and trees, and in the middle of the frame is a tiny figure. A man getting his shoe shined, who likely had no idea his image was being captured at all. (In fact, Boulevard du Temple is and was a busy street. When Daguerre took the photo, there were carts and people streaming up and down the street and sidewalks, but only this one man shows up because the photograph had to be taken over the course of 10 minutes. Only the man standing still shows up after such a long exposure.)

“only this one”

I first, I doubt myself and I think perhaps no one else sees two figures. I follow the link to the Wikimedia page. I still see two figures, but they’re blurry and I still doubt myself. I do a little search to see what other people see. From the Wikipedia page on Louis Daguerre:

“Boulevard du Temple”, taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a street, but because of the over ten-minute exposure time the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left, however, a man apparently having his boots polished, and the bootblack polishing them, were motionless enough for their images to be captured.

“a man apparently having his boots polished, and the bootblack polishing them”

Yes, two people. Then I remembered that for some people “everyone” does not include the serving classes. I’m feeling a little ungenerous for jumping to conclusions about the writer, but I can’t quite help think there’s an inability to see certain classes of people going on here.

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3 comments
  1. You’re correct. I come from a place and time where and when servants had servants. We didn’t see them, but we did love some of them. Absurd as that may sound.

    • fojap said:

      As someone who was smart enough and pretty enough when I was younger to be the lowest class person (literally, not necessarily figuratively) in the room, I sort of do know it a little bit.

  2. I think it is quite easy not to see others of your class. Many instances when there is a tragedy involving many people and a few prominent people, all you hear is the prominent person being mentioned. The others are all but forgotten. So in this case, the shoe shiner is for all intents not visible.

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