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History of the Modern Butler

The Modern Butler has evolved over the last 2000 years if not longer. From  Roman times, to French to Anglo Saxon Britain,  Buttis, Butticula, Bottle Manager, and the Butler we know and love today.   Those who call themselves a Butler, inherit a tradition that is many centuries old;  The Butler Alliance membership intends to preserve our heritage, traditions and skills as we modernise what we do.

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Becoming the Modern Butler 
By Steven Ferry & Wayne Fitzharris 

 

First World War
Household employment further reduced after First World War, when the minimum wage was increased for domestic workers along with social security and worker’s benefit programs, all of which conspired to raise the cost of employing domestics. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the depression impacted many affluent families who downsized to smaller homes, requiring fewer domestic staff. 

In America, laboursaving devices helped modernise homes, but in Britain, the attitude was that these devices were not needed when servants were so cheap. When domestic robots (metal ones like the two made famous in the Star Wars movies) were envisioned in a space-age fantasy in the early Twentieth Century, they were seen as the solution to the lack of intelligent and reliable domestic help. 

 

Second World War
After the Second World War, fewer domestic staff returned to underpaid domestic work. Better education improved employment prospects and households with a full complement of staff all but disappeared. The middle-class employers who had created the huge demand for a domestic workforce, could no longer afford the higher wages and resorted to doing the work themselves, using labour-saving devices.

 

Wealthier families curtailed their lifestyle, reducing their need for so many staff. Buckingham Palace, being an exception to the rule with over 400 staff.  
 

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The Last Fifty Years
As household staffing numbers have contracted over the last 50 years, there has been greater need for multi-tasking with staff having to undertake a wider range of duties, such as driving, and gardening.  Some wealthy families now live in smaller homes and employ well-educated service professionals referred to as Household Managers, Estate managers or Personal assistants. 

If you mention “domestic service” to most people today, a negative connotation usually follows. Domestic work was once an honoured profession, and there is no reason it cannot again be so. 
 

Today, staff are no longer willing to work twenty-four-hour days, seven-day weeks, and all for $200 a year. Perceptions and expectations of the wealthy and staff alike have changed.  The Professional Butler is now a revered & respected professional with the potential to be so much more.
 

Emily Post couldn’t have said it better in 1922, in response to complaints about servants, when she wrote, “Perhaps a servant problem is more often an employer problem.” 
 

In 1949, Dorothy Marshall said: “Good servants were rare, and their employers were terrified they might leave.” 

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Today and onwards to Modern Times
Today, higher demand for quality staff has given Butlers the opportunity to avoid oppressive and abusive employers, ensuring good employers are rewarded with staff who give loyalty and good service, begging the question, what is the proper way to treat staff and keep them? 

 

Today we live in a world where the very worst employers might prefer robots as domestics rather than train staff to function with intelligence and emotional connection. We have all experienced negligent employers; and we have had mind-numbing experiences with former employers who constantly moan about the poor quality of their staff but fail to give them an environment to thrive in, often appointing oppressive managers to keep staff in place. 
 

Bad employers get what they deserve, usually staff who are deliriously unhappy, uninspired, and mindlessly robotic. Leaving employers unable to see their own attitude and approach to managing people which created that robotic culture.  

The old-style traditional butler is born of the same out-dated mindset that prevents a household from running efficiently and smoothly.  Times have changed, and employment practices have changed, employees have changed and so too have their expectations. We live in a world where people today require, dignity, respect and inspirational leadership and training.  
 

Good staff expect proper instruction, rules, guidelines, and principles that work for all. They expect to evaluate their work situations and want the skills to resolve them intelligently without being micromanaged. Modern day work practices allow staff creative freedom to work without continual interruption and recriminations.  Once people are appreciated, they become happier and can grow at their own pace, take initiative within work boundaries, and willingly offer limitless assistance. 
 

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A move from Domestic to Commercial Service
Different types of butlers exist today, but each one is validated when the butler adopts the “mindset” that is unique to the butler.  The name changes according to culture, country, functionality and accepted norms.  Names you may be familiar with will be Houseman, Household manager, Estate Manager, Major Domo, Butler, Valet & Personal Assistant. Some of these more functional, some more administration based, some more operational, some more junior, or some more senior, depending on the experience, background and size of house they worked in. What becomes clear is that one size does not fit all employers. 

 

Quite often employers have no idea what they are employing, expecting to get someone more operational or more technical, when they get an administrator, or vice versa. Staff do not help this by applying for jobs that are outside their skill set, chancing their arm, hoping to fool the employer, which gives an added dimension of problems when they are poorly equipped to manage their job adequately, giving the industry a bad reputation of rapid hire, fire, or resignation. 
 

What is very apparent studying domestic service CVs, is that job hopping is a major factor to employer and employee unhappiness. People move rapidly to increase their salary and benefits or move to gain more experience. Employers lose trust quickly, knowing the industry is fickle, believing staff to be unreliable and un- loyal.

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Butlers move to Commercial Hospitality and Vice Versa

Iconic luxury hotels wanting to offer the very best, have been employing, recruiting and training Butlers since Hotels first evolved. Butlers offer the home away from home experience and have been advancing in service delivery by offering tailor made stays according to the type of stay a guest would like. 
 

Butlers are employed to manage conventions, banquets, and meals, but also to run private hotels for executives and VIP clientele. Personalised Butlers are now offered in hotels, spas, resorts and private villas and Butlers tend to have Rooms division or food and Beverage backgrounds, their duties cover a broad range of services, they have added value to the guest’s experience and thereby enjoy increased profits and reputation. 
 

Other markets for Butlers are Residences, Condo’s, and Apartments, with price tags of a couple of million and owners often seasonal, there is a definite need for a butler to care for the property in an owner’s absence and to assist their arrival, provide service during their stay, and help with their departure. When this butler is shared with other guests on the same floor, the service cost is relatively low, and guests receive a personalised service from a dedicated professional who has their guest history in their pocket. 
 

Commercial Butlers are no longer private but public and serve a series of different guests every day or week, whereas butlers working in private estates serve only one family.  Financially, well paid Private Butlers have nothing to worry about, but Hotel Butlers make a good portion of their income from tips. 
 

Private-service butlers can develop long close relationships over time and good hotel butlers can also develop relationships with many guests and the rewards can be very generous indeed. 

A brief phenomenon of applying the word Butler to anything which offers higher service is a dilution to the image and reputation of our profession that should not be encouraged.  But, another type of Butler exists, known as a freelance Butler and these come in many shapes and sizes. 
 

A butler exists essentially to smooth the lives of those he or she serves by performing many functions they would otherwise have to perform themselves, thus freeing them up for more worthwhile pursuits. But a butler is more than an extra pair of arms and legs. Dedicated professionals care enough to exceed their expectations and create extra-special moments. Good service is only the starting point: it is the creativity in bringing about the moments of exquisite pleasure and happiness that is the butler’s true mission. 

As we head off into modern times, the role of the Butler continues to evolve, adapt, and change around superlative service, personalised according to changing times and changing expectations. 

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