Servants’ material culture in the transition from a feudal to a capitalistic economy: Sweden 1730 to 1870

Göran Ülvang

The eighteenth-century Swedish painter Pehr Hilleström had an interest in the lives of the lower classes. This picture shows two domestic servants at the Näs estate outside Stockholm, going about their tedious daily work in a gloomy room with simple painted furniture. They were very poor, probably nothing more than the clothes they wore, tiny gold earrings, a chest, a box and a small mirror. However, being part of an aristocratic household meant living close to their master with whom they had a rather informal relationship: occasionally receiving extra payments and gifts, but also being required, on occasions, to lend money to their master.             

Pehr Hilleström, Interior from Näs Estate (1775), courtesy of Bukowski

This situation began to change from the late 1700s as society began to shift from a feudal, mainly commodity-based economy to a deregulated, proto-industrial consumer society. Manors played a crucial role in this process, increasing their production by adopting capitalist ways of running an estate. Tenant farmers and crofters, as well as unmarried farmhands who were supported within the manorial household and lived in the kitchen wing, were all replaced by married wage labourers living in barracks on the manor and controlled by stewards. This reorganisation was part of a wider process that included a reduction in real wages; a spatial separation of family, household and work; a new division of the sexes, and the privatisation of the family. In practice, this meant a formalisation of the relationship between servants and landowners. Outdoor servants, who used to live in rooms provided by the owners, were removed from the manorial household and had to set up households of their own. House servants, who had previously lived in their masters’ suites, were given separate living quarters in the attic or near the kitchen, with access via corridors and separate staircases.

This capitalist, formalised relationship affected the economic conditions and living standards of all domestic servants. Housekeepers and chambermaids could sometimes maintain or even increase their relatively high living standards: they possessed more cash, gold and silver, and more household utensils in addition to their extensive wardrobes. Kitchen maids and farm maids saw their standard of living decline. Their main asset was their clothing, along with some jewellery and cash. Regardless of their rank, however, servants generally became more dependent on their masters, either through debt or unpaid wages.

Further reading

  • Stobart, Jon: ‘Servants´Furniture. Hierarchies and Identities in the English Country House’, in At Stephen G. Hague and Karen Lipsedge (eds.) Home in the Eighteenth Century, Routledge 2021.
  • Ulväng, Göran: ‘Manor-house building and economic growth in Sweden in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, in: Kilian Heck, Sabine Bock and Jana Olschewski (ed.), Schlösser und Herrenhäuser der Ostseeregion: Bausteine einer europäischen Kulturlandschaft (pp. 41-68). Schwerin: Thomas Helms Verlag