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The Home: The Cat in the Icebox

4 minute read

U.S. housewives, long on gadgets and short on help, often look enviously to the Old World as a place where washing machines may be few but willing hands are plentiful, where every household is stuffed with old family retainers or cheerful peasants delighted to cook, clean, mend and mind the children for a pittance. The maidless American may be glad to know that this dream of domestic bliss is flickering out; all through the Western world, servants are increasingly in short supply.

Revolution of Expectations. In Italy, where just after the war a cook could be had for $3 a month and a housemaid for $2.50, servants are scarce at $70 a month in Rome and $100 in the more prosperous northern cities such as Milan and Genoa. And a law passed in 1958 forces the employer to pay fringe benefits and bonuses that double the basic wage. Even at that, housewives are combing the desperately poor regions of Sicily and Sardinia for the underprivileged, down to eight-year-old orphans who cook while standing on kitchen stools. Classified ads plead for servants with various blandishments, including medical care and pensions to a maid’s parents.

The appeal of Italy’s booming factories accounts only partly for the change. More basically, sociologists blame that well-known “revolution of expectations,” which has now reached Italian youth. What they see at the movies and on television leads those on the economic fringes to want more out of life. Says one Italian householder: “The unhappier our maid gets, the more we let her look at television. And the more she looks at television, the unhappier she gets.”

Many domestics are working only as a temporary expedient to better themselves on the installment plan. One American housewife in Rome recently discovered this the hard way when she invited an important Italian couple to dinner. No food appeared. Out in the kitchen, the housewife found the maid in tears. “I can’t serve tonight,” she sobbed. “You see, I’m buying an apartment, and your guests live next door to it. If they see me waiting on the table, they’ll never accept me socially.”

In West Germany, where there are now fewer than 500,000 servants in a population of more than 55 million, employers advertise with wheedling humility: “We are seeking a young domestic employee who has joy in independence, in a cultivated, modern, mechanically well-furnished household. Cooking can be learned.”

Germany’s traditional Putzfrauen (cleaning women) are coming to work in hairdos and stiletto heels. Even the name Putzfrau is disappearing. Now it is Raumpflegerin (room tender), or Bodenkosmetikerin (floor cosmetician). “Nowadays,” the saying goes, “instead of choosing between guns and butter, the middle-class German has to choose between having a Putzfrau or having a Mercedes, a vacation in Majorca and a TV set. And when he opts for thetPutzfrati, it’s she who goes to Majorca, buys the TV set and makes a down payment on a car.”

A Room with a Teleview. In Britain, where domestic workers have declined from 517,000 in 1948 to 247,000 in 1961,* one big agency this week began a concerted campaign to attract girls to domestic service. A series of newspaper ads is inviting young people to write for a booklet titled Service in the Sixties, designed to educate them to the advantages and pleasures of domestic employment in these days of liberal vacation schedules, limited duty, central heating and a room with a teleview.

In Paris, the old-fashioned bonnes are few and far between. Taking their place are hordes of Spaniards, who are streaming across the border with dilapidated luggage in dilapidated buses from Valencia and Alicante, Seville, Extremadura, and the poorer Castilian provinces, lured by wages that are roughly seven times what they are in Spain.

For about $60 a month, plus room and board and social security benefits, a housewife can hire an inexperienced Spanish girl who speaks no French at all. This language barrier is playing hob with Parisian social life. Many a telephoned invitation gets no farther than “Madame no está. No se. Tarde, tarde.” CLICK. And one Spanish maid, after long employment had given her confidence, approached her mistress and asked her why on several occasions she had been ordered to put the family cat in the icebox. It is easy to see why the cat was cold. Gato is Spanish for cat; gateau is French for cake.

Excluding about 20,000 girls from the Continent who live with a family to learn English, are given their board but no wages, and are theoretically expected to do no more chores than a daughter of the house.

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