We continue our spotlighting of notable historic details in one of the most popular rooms in the house – The Kitchen!
Article by LGH board member Andrew Hatcher
(Click any photos to see them larger.)
Almost the earliest communication technology in the American home was the mechanical servant bell. In the Loring Greenough House, seven bells hang over the kitchen door. Each was connected by wires running through walls and the basement to a pull button next to the fireplace of one of the other rooms of the house. There were enough bells for each of the principal three rooms of the first floor and four bedrooms of the second floor. Servants lived in the attic of the house which they reached by a narrow two flights of stairs down to the kitchen. The kitchen was the most likely place for servants to be found during the day, given how time-consuming meal preparation was before ‘labor-saving devices’. They could hear a bell ringing, look up and see by which of the seven was still vibrating on its thin, responsive spiral stem which room they needed to report to.
We have restored the connection to the bell from the dining room. This would have had a critical function at dinners with guests, when servants were expected to bring in and serve each course then immediately retire to the kitchen with the empty dishes. Employers were always nervous about servants’ overhearing dinner conversations and betraying family secrets to the neighbors and there was usually a self-conscious break in the conversation or careful discussion of neutral topics while servants were in the room.
Three servants are listed in the 1880 Federal Census for what was then the Greenough household: Jane Hanaford, 65, born in Ireland; Margaret Doyle, 36, also born in Ireland; and Julia Regan, 26, born in Massachusetts of parents who were born in Ireland. (Julia was born in 1854, a few years after a wave of Irish immigration in the late 1840s because of the Great Famine.) Over a century after Mrs Loring had inventoried three servants’ beds in the garret at the time of their 1774 flight from Jamaica Plain, three servants were apparently still what it took to run a house of this size. Three years after the death of her husband, David Stoddard Greenough III in 1877, Anna Augusta Parkman Greenough, 59, was the head of the household, her occupation “Keeping House”. She lived with a son Arthur, 22, and a cousin Amy White, 31.
The bells may have been in use from whenever in the mid-nineteenth century they were installed to the time the house was sold by the Greenoughs in 1924. Since it would have been so difficult to replace strings running through the walls if mice chewed on them or they snapped, more durable wires were used. Sturdy wire is not flexible enough to go around corners on pulleys as cord can, so a special ‘bell crank’ was used to transfer the direction of the yank on the bell pull every time it took a right-angle turn. A number of these survive in the basement.
In England there was sometimes upper-class incomprehension and satire around the amount of time it took hardworking servants to respond to a bell. (Notice that the short row of unlabeled bells in this Punch cartoon are very similar in style to the Loring Greenough bells).
There was probably less class resentment of this sort in Jamaica Plain than in England, however. Anna Augusta Parkman Greenough, in addition to employing three servants, was very active in running the Jamaica Plain Friendly Society, which visited impoverished local families, many of them Irish, and distributed alms and clothing, sought medical services and taught women skills which could lead to employment in homes or factories.
We hope you will come in for a tour or during one of our upcoming events to get a closer look at our servants bells!
Also, in case you haven’t heard, we are planning to restore our kitchen and have a GoFundMe to raise funds to complete this important project.