Maintaining Wistariahurst required the labor of many people. These women and men worked daily to keep the household running smoothly: staff kept the grounds beautifully landscaped, the rooms perfectly cleaned, the horses groomed, the automobiles in good running order, and the tables set to serve sumptuous foods they prepared. The staff of Wistariahurst, which at times numbered ten or more people, is largely a mystery to us. Some staff members devoted their entire working lives to Wistariahurst, while others stayed only a brief time. Though the staff’s work was invaluable to the family, their names, faces, and stories were rarely recorded by the Skinners. Like detectives, we search for clues to the lives and work of these people. We find hints of them in letters and have glimpses of them in photos.
Before 1930, wealthy families commonly hired trained nurses to attend the ill and elderly in their homes. The trained nurse provided round-the-clock care to the patient, administering medicines and therapies prescribed by the doctor. She might also cook meals for patients on restricted diets, change bed linens, and bathe the patient. The Skinner family hired a trained nurse, Hulda Klemm, in 1906 to care for Sarah Skinner and Belle Skinner.
The position of housekeeper was the highest-ranking position for women among household staff. The housekeeper managed the work of all the female workers, except the cook. She often carried the keys to the house and its contents. She hired and fired staff and received her orders directly from the lady or man of the house. The housekeeper earned the most money and occupied the nicest servant’s room in the house. Hattie Riley worked first as a maid and then as the family’s housekeeper in the early 1900s. Near the end of her life, Hattie suffered both physical ailments and senility. The Skinner family helped arrange for her care at the Northampton State Hospital and after her death buried her in the family plot at Forestdale Cemetery.
Waitresses occupied a very special place in the household system, having the responsibility of serving meals to family and their guests. Where a butler was employed, the waitress worked under his supervision. Otherwise, the waitress was responsible for the butler’s pantry and for the family’s silver, china and crystal. In either case, the waitress was expected to know every detail of table service for casual or formal meals. Her presence at mealtimes, wearing a neat uniform with apron, signaled a refined and elegant dining experience. Like other household staff, the waitress was liable to overhear many private, or at least gossip-laden, conversations. Advice manuals instructed the waitress to turn a deaf ear to any conversation at the dining table.
Laundresses served a vital, if less public function in the household. The laundry room was just off the kitchen and the laundress spent most of her time there. Like the kitchen maid, the laundress worked under the supervision of the cook. This photo depicts the servant area of the Beech Street side of Wistariahurst’s property. Laundresses would do the laundry in the area on the right side of the photo.
The personal companion, or “maid-companion”, was a special position in Wistariahurst. The personal companion served the woman of the household and was not responsible to any other member of the family or staff. She dressed in her regular attire and accompanied her mistress on all her travels. Both Belle Skinner and Katharine Kilborne employed personal companions who stayed with them for several years.
Large households like Wistariahurst employed a wide variety of maids, depending on the family’s needs. The Skinner family regularly employed at least one live-in maid. In addition, there was also frequently an upstairs maid, a chambermaid, one or more lady’s maids, and a parlor or downstairs maid. The work of these maids was supervised by the housekeeper, who instructed each in her particular duties. The chambermaid took charge of the bedrooms; she aired the beds every day, straightened the rooms daily and cleaned them fully every week. The chambermaid was often responsible for attending to the family’s clothing and doing any necessary sewing repairs. The upstairs maid worked on the upstairs rooms. The downstairs maid, also called a “maid-of-all-work”, cleaned all the downstairs rooms, moving from one to the next every day so that each was cleaned thoroughly each week.
At Wistariahurst, the position of chauffeur carried with it a great deal of responsibility and power. The Wistariahurst chauffeur supervised the male staff of the household, a responsibility usually given to the butler or “first man”. He hired and fired the male staff and was responsible for maintenance and security on the grounds. Chauffeurs were also valued for their ability to keep automobiles running reliably.
“Tried to take an auto ride in Peerless but my new chauffeur had fixed the car so it would not run.” From William C. Skinner’s journal, 1910.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Skinners employed trained gardener Anthony Niedbalski, known as “Tony Bosky”, to supervise Wistariahurst’s gardens. Tony worked six days a week and maintained both the formal garden and a “Victory” vegetable garden during World War II. Tony tragically died at Wistariahurst in 1946 when he fell from a tree. Tony Bosky’s family recalls that Tony asked to be buried with seeds from Wistariahurst in his pocket.