Typist or servant?

The Daily Mirror was originally launched in 1903 as a newspaper specifically for women.[1] Although its original format was a commercial failure, after a re-launch as a picture paper the Mirror continued to cater to female audiences. As well as covering news stories, the paper also contained feature articles on topics of interest to women.

In November 1934, author Ellen Dorothy Abb wrote up a three-column article for the Mirror under the heading ‘Which is better off, typist or servant?’.[2] Alongside adverts for Phillips Rubber Soled Shoes, antiseptic ointment and a Vaseline for children, Abb sets out to convince the reader that a young girl is better off working as a servant than as a typist. Before the First World War, domestic service was one of the few types of employment available to uneducated women. By the mid-1930s, women had a range of other jobs they could choose from, for example in factories or, as Abb suggests, in offices.[3] Nonetheless, about a quarter of working women were domestic servants at the beginning of the 1930s.

The tone of Abb’s article, however, suggests that women needed convincing to enter domestic service. There was certainly a perception that young women, particularly in the cities, were keen to work in offices instead. Abb’s argument is primarily an economic one. Two-and-a-half of the three columns discuss the supposed material advantages of the servant’s job. These mainly concern the savings servants make on not having to pay for rent, transport or food (pre-supposing the servant in question lives with their employers full-time, which was an increasingly rare occurrence). She neglects to mention that unlike typists, servants had no entitlement to National Insurance benefits.

In Abb’s telling, the servant’s life seems almost luxurious compared to that of the typist:

[The servant] eats her excellent meals at leisure and never has to scamp them to catch a train or fit in half an hour’s shopping at lunch hour.[4]

This may well be true, but the prospect of an employer who can ring for you at any time of the day or night, including during mealtimes, is not raised. Nor is the very frequent occurrence of servants being given poorer quality food than their masters, mentioned. When discussing the daily routine, Abb’s juxtaposition of the typist and the servant stretches credulity even more:

[The servant] has none of the tiring morning and evening rush the typist knows, with washing and mending making further inroads into her scanty leisure, even if she has not to start cooking and cleaning when she gets home.[5]

Again, the generally much longer working hours of the servant are ignored, and there is no suggestion why the servant would not be required to do her personal mending after the chores of the house have been completed. In Abb’s telling, however, the servant’s life seems to be one mostly of leisure, whereas the typist is presented as having to work in ‘noisy, dusty, crowded offices, badly ventilated and using artificial light all day.’[6]

Abb then moves to that sleight-of-hand beloved of interwar journalists, and references an anonymous example which the reader is assured refers to a real person. In this case, a 35-year-old typist decided to switch careers to domestic service. Unsurprisingly, this ‘person’ found that they had more money to spare as a domestic, and they were berating themselves for not starting in service earlier as that would have allowed them to have progressed to a more senior position by now.

After setting out the case for the servant’s superior financial and domestic comfort at such lengths, Abb finally turns to the reasons why the majority of young women choose to ‘accept the pinching and scraping that goes with the typist’s life’ – complete freedom during leisure hours, social recognition, and the opportunity to meet friends and potential partners. Being a servant carried a certain social stigma, as Abb concludes that for most girls it would be too shaming to admit to a potential partner if they worked in service.

At the end of the article there is a call to action for the readers, inviting them to write in and give their opinion on the matter. The invitation is specifically to female readers, as the editors want to know ‘Which would you sooner be? If you are one or the other – would you like to change – and why?’ There is no follow-up article but a short notice printed on the following Tuesday that due to the sheer number of responses received, letter writers will not be getting an individual response – a time-honoured convention to give the illusion of popularity without having to provide any evidence for it.[7]

Clearly, the article taps into a wider debate on what constituted an appropriate job for a women. Female typists were a relatively new phenomenon in the 1930s, an evolution of the 1920s flapper which had caused considerable consternation in the British press. Abb and the Daily Mirror carefully calibrated the article to elicit responses from both those who believed women should go into domestic service, and those who thought being a typist was the better option. Ultimately, however, the article sets up an artificial rivalry between two groups of women in order to generate debate. Although the Mirror may be aimed at women and provide articles written by women, it is far from supportive to women.

[1] Adrian Bingham and Martin Conboy, Tabloid Century, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015), pp. 8-9; Kevin Williams, Get me a murder a day!, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2010) p. 55

[2] Ellen Dorothy Abb, ‘Which is better off, typist or servant?’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1934, p. 12

[3] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: women workers and the new industries in inter-war Britain (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 52-3 

[4] Abb, ‘Which is better off’, p. 12

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Typist or Servant’, Daily Mirror, 20 November 1934, p. 10