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House and Street

House and Street
The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro

The lives of Brazilian working women in the late nineteenth century.

January 1992
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224 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 13 b&w illus., 2 maps, 10 tables |

During the later half of the nineteenth century, a majority of Brazilian women worked, most as domestic servants, either slave or free. House and Street re-creates the working and personal lives of these women, drawing on a wealth of documentation from archival, court, and church records.

Lauderdale Graham traces the intricate and ambivalent relations that existed between masters and servants. She shows how for servants the house could be a place of protection—as well as oppression—while the street could be dangerous—but also more autonomous. She integrates her discoveries with larger events taking place in Rio de Janeiro during the period, including the epidemics of the 1850s, the abolition of slavery, the demolition of slums, and major improvements in sanitation during the first decade of the 1900s.

  • List of tables
  • List of illustrations
  • List of maps
  • Note on Brazilian currency
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. Setting and Origins
    • Introduction
    • 1. The social landscape of house and street
  • Part II. Servants' World
    • 2. The work
    • 3. Private lives in public places
  • Part III. Masters' World
    • 4. Protection and obedience
    • 5. Contagion and control
  • Postscript
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Tables
  • Glossary of Portuguese words
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This book is not only about the slave and free women who labored as domestic servants in Rio de Janeiro in the years between 1860 and 1910. Because my concern is to recover the experiences of servant women as they conducted working and private lives, and to see them as they were seen and reacted to by those who owned or hired them, the actions expressed in their lives and the meanings those actions can be made to disclose—the "webs of significance" in Clifford Geertz's phrase—led quickly to the multiple contexts in which servants located their lives.' So besides examining the work and the places of work, and servants' connections to masters, this book is also about the working poor and slum life, street celebrations and families, the city as a social landscape, alterations in urban domestic life, contemporary notions of contagion, and the abolition of slavery. Above all, because being a servant meant living in relation to a patrão or master, understanding servants' lives requires consideration of the cultural assumptions that made daily domestic life manageable. Servant women met demands for labor and obedience in exchange for protection. For their part, patrões provided servants with daily necessities, care during illness, and the myriad arbitrary favors that made concrete their role as patrons.

The power exercised over dependents within the domain of family and household by masters was private and personal. No public institutions could be appealed to by dependents that might, on their behalf, counter the weight of private power or temper the personal actions of masters. On the contrary, masters drew support for the exercise of their individual power from the traditions of Portuguese and ecclesiastical law reinforced by the local practices of slavery. In the nineteenth century no institution replaced a private, domestic patron with a public, religious or civil one: there was, for example, no Brazilian equivalent of the parish-administered English poor laws. The church might offer charity or sanctuary but only to the specified few—those with permission to beg alms, for example—never reliably or extensively to the many with need. In Brazil no slave code regulated, even in principle, the relations between master and slave. Law and custom, the formally stated and the informally understood, intermeshed to elevate the will of the master as the paramount authority within the basic Brazilian social unit of the household. We would be mistaken to believe that, for nineteenth-century Brazil, benevolence and punishment could be separated or that physical force was the deterioration of a more kindly paternalism. My sense is that paternalism always had its harsh and ugly side: the right to punish with rage, the careless—or calculated—withholding of care, or the more obviously brutal or vicious forms of physical abuse. The power that required as justification the display of concern by masters was the same power that permitted and relied upon coercion.

Despite their firmly fixed inequalities, a shared domesticity imposed its inevitable intimacies. Servants and masters had to live in one another's constant presence, repeating in daily routine the countless and complex exchanges that connected them. Masters could scarcely prevent servants from witnessing at close range the otherwise private habits and events of family life. Nor could servants long conceal from masters their idiosyncrasies or preoccupations. Familiarity and its necessary accommodations threatened to erode the carefully defined differences of their relationship. It is their interactions and the unceasing processes of adjustment in domestic relations that I seek to explore.

A word about the title. Threaded through all the concerns of domestic living were the contrasting images of casa e rua, or house and street, by which contemporaries located, and, by locating, interpreted everyday actions and encounters. House signified a secure and stable domain. To house belonged the enduring relationships of family or blood kin. To street belonged uncertain or temporary alliances in which identity could not be assumed but had to be established. Street was suspect, unpredictable, a dirty or dangerous place. Although recognizable categories to both master and servant, the conventional meanings could become reversed or made ambiguous: for servant women house could be a place of harm, punishment, or excessive work, and street sought as a place of greater freedom, while masters faced the inescapable risks of taking disorderly servants into the orderly spaces of house.

My exclusion of male servants from this study derives in part from pragmatism, but also from considerations of the nature of domestic life. Of all servants in Rio de Janeiro in 1872, men made up nearly one quarter, and men who worked as domestics comprised about 15 percent of all working men and about 8 percent of free working men. By 1906 they accounted for 6 percent of all men who were employed. Nevertheless, I have not included them. I chose, instead, female servants who illustrate with special clarity a second side of the dilemma that confronted householders. Although dependent on servants, householders viewed them with the same suspicion with which they regarded the poor and blacks generally. To take "strangers" into their households implied risk. And among house servants women presented the greater risk for they customarily performed the most personal of domestic work. Wet-nurses to whom householders entrusted the lives and well-being of their infants were thought capable of infecting them with appalling diseases. Wet-nurses came to be seen as the alarming exemplars of the dilemma all servants represented. Because of their intimate and therefore incongruous pace in the life of the household, women servants—and how they were perceived and reacted to—reveal and accentuate the patterns of culture that shaped domestic life. Their efforts to sustain some measure of an independent, private life, beyond the master's control or cognizance, although reconstructed from fragmentary evidence, allow us to trace those patterns more precisely. Being female placed on women domestics special opportunities, burdens, restrictions, and suspicions that males did not bear. For those reasons the women are the subject of this book.

Most women worked, not only slaves but also free women. In 1870, a census considered 63 percent of free women as engaged in some gainful occupation, as well as 88 percent of slave women (Table 1), suggesting the sheer abundance of female labor available in the city. By 1906, nearly half of all working age women declared themselves employed.

Overwhelmingly their occupations were lowly. The few women in 1872 with "professional" jobs included midwives, nuns, teachers, or those with a craft. Law, medicine, and the public service were closed to women. A scattering of women engaged in commerce, probably as market or street vendors, since men or young boys were preferred as shop clerks and cashiers, although a few foreign women owned dressmaking shops. Somewhat more commonly, women worked in the manufacture of textiles and clothing, some in the tanning and hat industries or in boot and shoe factories. But most women who worked, worked as domestics. During the 1870s, between 61 and 65 percent of free working women were counted as servants, and, together with between 87 and 90 percent of slave women, servants comprised 71 percent of all working women (Table 2). In 1870 and 1872, servant women represented about 15 percent of the total population in the city's urban parishes. By 1906 their proportion in the population had declined slightly to about 13 percent but, as 76 percent of all women who worked, they still represented the largest single occupational group. We can think, then, of Rio de Janeiro as a city where in 1870 as many as 34,000 slave and free women labored as domestics, and where by 1906 more than 77,000 women found work as servants. The presence of servant women in the daily life of the city remained pervasive.

The range of labor that I call domestic includes at one extreme the mucamas or personal or chambermaids and the amas de leite or wet-nurses, and at the other end casual water carriers, laundresses, and seamstresses. Even women who sold fruits and vegetables or sweets on the street, usually slaves, frequently doubled as house servants for part of the day. In between, belong the cooks, pantry maids, and house servants. What distinguished among them was not only the perceived value of their work to the well-being of the family, reflected in the daily contact each had with family members, but also the degree of supervision. A personal maid or wet-nurse who entered into the most intimate quarters of family life to attend a mistress or to nurse an infant was the most closely supervised among servants. Because cooking and general housework occupied the entire day, those servants also witnessed the goings-on of the household while a mistress routinely oversaw their work. By contrast, hauling water or washing at the fountain meant that some servants labored away from the house and a watchful mistress. Laundresses and, even more commonly, seamstresses might work for several families on a daily basis while living independently in their own households.

I take servants as an occupational group in order to dispel emphatically the stereotype that only slaves were servants or that domestic work was exclusively slaves' work. Rather than a hierarchy of kinds of work that divided free from slave women or black from lighter-skinned women, domestic service cut across those differences. Women of both "conditions" might work alongside one another, and all might labor at similar chores. Nor did being slave—having the legal status of slave—determine much more than the outline of a life, rarely the detail or nuance. A slave might live outside her owner's jurisdiction, hiring out her own labor, returning a fixed sum to her owner, and keeping whatever was left to buy food and pay the rent for a room. Or a slave woman, long the servant to a single family, might be treated with affection or regard, rewarded with her freedom, while a free woman with the right to leave whenever she chose could be viewed with suspicion and given little care. To the extent that servants worked and lived under similar conditions, there might be little by which to distinguish free women from slaves: any servant might experience long hours of exhausting labor, damp quarters, inadequate diet, or the illnesses that generally characterized the life of the working poor. The study of Brazilian women demonstrates that the situations of particular women confound the simple categories of slave or free.

In seeking to recover the lives of servant women, I have not assembled the biography of an allegedly typical servant from the individual qualities of myriad women. Instead, I want to identify particular women, to give them name whenever possible, and to draw from the detail of lived experience. My approach is to discover the range of possible experiences that could characterize their lives. In the glimpses of their actions and reactions, and in those of others, we can begin to know what was for them unusual or commonplace, probable or merely possible, tolerable or clearly insupportable. I attempt to map the territory of their lives in order to discover their expectations and what alternatives were available to them, trying to discern where the boundaries of recognizable experience lay. The challenge for the historian is to trace both the cultural patterns that made dominance possible and pervasive and the ways by which servant women achieved some independence despite that dominance.

The city of Rio de Janeiro furnishes an especially suitable setting for the study of domestic servants. As capital of the empire and later of the republic and as Brazil's principal port and financial center, the city's prominence during the nineteenth and early twentieth century remained uncontested. Emperors and presidents resided there. Members of parliament, cabinet ministers, councilors of state, higher court judges, together with fiscal officers and minor bureaucrats conducted the routine business of government. The great coffee barons and their factors funneled coffee through the city's export firms and warehouses to supply the rich Atlantic trade in exchange for slaves and for the European luxury goods that entered Brazil to satisfy the expensive tastes of a local elite. There the wealthy resided, either permanently in splendid mansions or intermittently in town houses, overseeing their economic and political interests. That elite set the standard for the conduct of domestic life as well, a standard imitated on a lesser scale by those of modest means who nonetheless sought to project an air of gentility. It was a lifestyle that in all its variations relied on servants not only to supply the necessities of daily existence, but also to display the right degree of privilege. At the same time, however, Rio de Janeiro presented a shabbier aspect as a filthy, disease-ridden place of narrow, smelly streets ever more tightly packed with tenements. It was a city of slaves, poor blacks, and poor European immigrants. Domestic servants connected those two dissimilar and juxtaposed worlds.

Because the lives of servant women were so profoundly linked to the changes in urban life, dates that appropriately frame a history of the women also refer to a period of major reform that altered the city's physical and social landscape between 1860 and 1910. Transformations visible by the 1860s had origins in the previous decade. In 1850 and 1855 the first waves of epidemic disease took hold of the city. The significances attached to the stubborn presence of disease would reverberate through all aspects of urban life for the rest of the century and into the next, in time identifying servants as the dreadful carriers of disease. The initial response, however, was to create a Central Board of Public Hygiene, lay the plumbing necessary for piped water, and begin construction of an underground sewage system that would reach eventually to most parts of the city. By the 1860s the first trams enabled the city to spread into new residential suburbs. Those early changes would culminate in a dramatic remaking of the central city between 1902 and 1910 as slums were demolished, streets widened to permit light and air to penetrate, and contagious disease at last contained. Such changes impinged directly upon servants. By seeing those events from their perspective, we understand them differently. Indoor plumbing altered permanently the kinds and places of work familiar to servant women. Demolition of slums designed to enhance the city in imitation of European capitals meant for servant women the loss of familiar neighborhoods or places shared with others of the city's working poor. Thus the city serves not only as setting but forms an integral part of the history of servants.

A second reason compels the choice of those five decades. Conventionally historians of modern Brazil begin or end with the years 1888 or 1889, the years in which slavery was finally abolished and a federal republic replaced the empire. I set those events somewhere near the middle of the period I have chosen in order to detect not only the ruptures but also the continuities that persisted at their own rhythm in everyday lives. From the 1860s domestic work became less and less the province of slaves. Free Brazilian and immigrant women and former slaves combined with the remaining slaves to supply the demand for servants, so that already by 1872 free women accounted for nearly two-thirds of female domestics in Rio de Janeiro (Tables 3 and 4). Through the lives of servant women, we understand the abolition of slavery not as it is customarily understood, the concern of planters about to lose the slaves whose labor produced agricultural products for export, but as a distinctly urban phenomenon where householders worried more about the disquieting erosion of personal authority, focused and intensified by the presence of death-dealing disease and the perception of domestics as the carriers of contagion. By viewing seemingly familiar political and economic events from the perspective of domestic life, I give them a different significance.

Having first considered the city as a socially inscribed landscape, I conceive the ordering of the chapters that follow as concentric circles, with the figure of the servant woman at the center, extending from her immediate experiences to reach finally to the images of servant and wet-nurse as constructed by those who hired, owned, or otherwise governed them and who thus attempted to determine how servants would be publicly regulated. Thus I begin with their work, not as merely harsh or tedious or long—those being our externally imposed assessments—but as the pattern of experiences to which they assigned their own meanings. So a trip to market, certainly heavy work on the return, could also present the opportunity to transact some personal errand or chat with a friend.

At the next remove and permeated by the demands and locations of work, I examine the lives servants managed to conduct privately as lovers, wives, mothers, and as the dwellers of slums that they knew as neighborhoods. Here I consider the street life that expressed the ties and the conflicts of neighborhood. And especially I interpret carnaval as not merely the inversion of role or power (the conventional rendering by historians and anthropologists), but as an extension and exaggeration of the usual street life of the poor, whether free or slave. In all this I seek to reveal the situations and extent to which servant women, as members of the working poor, could claim a measure of agency in the conduct of their own lives.

Against that angle of vision, the last section explores the perceptions and responses of masters to the women on whom they so constantly relied and whom they so deeply mistrusted. First I address the masters' understandings of the relationship, its reciprocal obligations and possible violations. The final chapter moves furthest out to examine the ways by which, as disease repeatedly swept the city and the abolition of slavery became fact, masters came to regard female domestics as the dreaded carriers of contagion and disorder and thus sought to regulate them. In these ways masters set limits—no less real for often being ambivalent—on the latitude servants could achieve.

The tensions between house and street, expressed in the negotiated relations of servant and master, and exposed in the routines and crises of daily living, changing through time, are the themes of this book.


“Social and feminist historians will certainly applaud the sensitivity with which this book unveils the duress of servants' working and living conditions without neglecting to portray human endurance and individual or collective resistance to oppression from above. Everybody will read with great pleasure this creative, well argued and elegantly written book.”
Journal of Latin American Studies