By Mack Samples|
One of the current best selling books, a novel by Kathryn Stockett entitled The Help has been the conversation piece in several social settings of which I have been a part in recent months. It first came to my attention at a ballroom dance that my wife and I were attending in Indianapolis back in July. Our tablemates were from Mississippi and were quite well-to-do. They were very interested in the book because they still had help at their house, provided by African-Americans. Since that time the book has come up in several locations where I have found myself. I have not read the book, but my wife is currently in the process of doing so. At any rate, all of the talk about domestic help set me to thinking about the help that I observed when I was growing up in post World
War II rural West Virginia.
I actually knew people who had domestic help. But they were not called maids or servants. Everyone referred to them as "hired girls." As a matter of fact, my closest neighbor had a hired girl.
The first thing I remember about rural West Virginia hired girls is that they were all white. That was not a surprising fact in my neck of the woods because the nearest black person was some thirty miles away.
There were actually two kinds of hired girls in the world that I knew. Some of them were just part-time and were hired during the peak canning season, or oftentimes during spring cleaning. Most modern folks don't know about spring cleaning but it was a major deal back in earlier days. Every room in the house received a total cleaning. All of the furniture was moved out, walls and ceilings were washed down (sometimes painted), and the hardwood floors were thoroughly cleaned and oftentimes got a new coat of varnish.
I have vivid memories of wrestling mattresses out of the house each spring and placing them on sawhorses in the yard where they could sun all day while the room was being cleaned. Spring cleaning was difficult work. A hired girl was a handy thing to have. But these part-timers usually moved in for a couple of weeks and became a part of the household.
Some hired girls that I knew were full time. They were often brought on the scene when the lady of the house was getting older or was in poor health. These girls became a part of the family. They did not live in servant's quarters and were treated as equals in every way. They sat at the supper table with everyone else and shared the living room and parlor during the evenings.
I am sure that the pay was not much because most folks who hired them were not wealthy. But the families provided free room and board and a small stipend.
Who were these girls anyway? Why would they want to be hired girls? Most usually they were young women who had quit high school and had not yet found their way in the world. Others were middle years ladies who had lost their husbands, or perhaps, never found one in the first place.
But, actually, they enjoyed a pretty good life. They had a nice clean place to live, sat down to good meals everyday, and enjoyed the community social life. I saw men come a-court'n some of them.
I don't think any of the hired girls that I knew ever thought of themselves as being inferior or felt discriminated against. Of course in the pre-1960's south, where the novel is based, race was still a sensitive issue and I am sure that it had something to do with the way the help was treated. On the other hand, when you think of earlier times in merry old England, the hired help there was most usually white and they certainly did not get treated as equals.
Hired girls as I knew them might well have been a hill country phenomenon.