“Very serviceable”: Maidservants in New England, 1638-41

Salem imgeYoung men and women of relatively high status, including the children of close relatives, passed through the households of the Winthrops and their friends: it was a rite of passage. In the fall of 1638, Lucy (Winthrop) Downing invited her sister-in-law Margaret (Tyndal) Winthrop to visit the Downings in Salem, adding “I hear [their niece] Margaret Gostlin and my [stepdaughter] Nan is a cominge and not my youngest whoe I expected would be a mayds work, and now I shall be ouer mayded: I hear you want one: if you doe I should be glad she might serv you till either some of our children or seruants wear disposed of: she [Margaret?] doth all the worst work in her mothers howes and is very seruisable…”

In the same period, Margaret Winthrop received an application from her stepson John2 Winthrop “in the behalfe of this mayd Sarah Wing whom in respect of hir great desire to serve you, and my owne apprehensions of hir fitnesse for your attendance, in [Margaret’s previous maid] Mary Cleers place, I make bould to commend to you, desiring you to make tryall of hir at least for a season. This I dare promise you in hir behalf, that you will find hir as absolutely, and humbly at your command as any that ever you could have.” (Winthrop Papers, Volume 4, pp. 63, 64, 68)

Not all maids were as “seruisable” as Lucy Downing’s or as fit as Sarah Wing. Governor Winthrop’s notes on Wealthian Richards’ “mayde Edye white” suggest a troubled young woman, prone to “ordinary lying and lazynesse”: “she being sett to keepe the 7 Cowes of her masters[,] she left them in the woods and went awaye to the house of one Carpenter in Weymouth, and there lodged, and he wished her to goe home, and brought her neere home, but she went awaye againe, and wandered in the woods till the 7th daye at night, and then she went to one Dyers house, but they would not entertain her but sent her home, but she came not home till the Lords Daye in the afternoon… She sayeth the reson why she lost the Cowes was that she sate downe and slumbered, and the while they went awaye.” (Ibid., pp. 232–33)

No matter how tiresome Edith White sounds, however, the fact remained that women like Margaret Winthrop and Lucy Downing needed help in the household. In August 1640, for example, Lucy wrote Margaret “intreat[ing] you if you can hear of a good mayd seruant for all work: that is a dairy and kitchin to stay one for me or send her to me.” (Ibid., p. 273)

A few weeks later, Lucy could “thank you for the mayde. I haue good hopes of her.” Her report touches on the variety of references that could sway a busy housewife:  “My cosen Nab and she wear fellow trauillers in the ship from [England]. Nab giues her the report of … very good [behavior on board ship]. Also my brother [John Goad, husband of Abigail Downing] and his wife wear near neighbours to hir frinds in [England] and they repute them to be people of a very godly conuersation, and many times hereditary blesings are perpetuated and virtue followes them: my maid Abygall is suddaynlie to be maryed to Robert Moulton of this town and I hope it may proue a blessinge of comfort to her[,] for the parents and sonne are people of a religious peacable life, and prouident in their estates…” (Ibid., pp. 306–7)

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

8 thoughts on ““Very serviceable”: Maidservants in New England, 1638-41

  1. Thanks for posting. I have not heard of these papers before. One of my ancestors Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feakes Hallcok, that “Winthrop Woman” was an amazing person and I came across Anya Seton’s book about her a number of years ago. I had no idea her dower lands at the time are now what is a large part of Greenwich, CT. Wonderful to see this posted. Thanks.

  2. John Demos in “A Little Commonwealth” is very interesting on the subject why children of even the wealthiest parents might be put out to service. Parents believed they might be too indulgent to their own children and not stern enough to break the sinful will of their offspring.

  3. Has any one tried to follow these young people, such as Mary Cleers or surname-less Abigail who was to marry Robert Moulton, in a genealogical way? (I’d certainly guess the latter shows up in a Moulton study.) In general, though I know about the great value of the MHS collections & proceedings, as well as the Colonial Society’s publications, from my historian’s training, I doubt the general genealogist has ever heard of them. Morison’s Suffolk County Court Records, 2 vols, CSM, for instance.

    By the way, a lot of these volumes are avaialable in readable-searchable format at Archive.org — ARCHIVE and not Archives.

  4. I wonder if the “Dyers house” to which Edith White went would be William and Mary Dyer? She was executed in 1660 on Boston Common for civil disobedience after being ordered out of Boston because of her Quaker preaching. William and Mary are my ninth great-grandparents.

  5. I wonder if this is my ancestor Robert Moulton, born approx. 1590 in Middlesex, England & d. Salem, MA in 1655? I believe he married a surnameless “Alice” and a Deborah Smith. Moulton’s daughter Dorothy married John Edwards.

  6. I too am related to Elizabeth Fones. She is my 9th Great Grandmother. I am currently trying to sort through some old family diaries that my mother has to capture some of the information that may not be out there. What would help to simplify the process is a list of the addresses old/current. One day, I would love to visit some of these places I have read so much about. I thoroughly enjoy re-reading Anna Seaton’s writings. I have two First Edition copies, 1 for each of my children. Thank you for the information you have highlighted above. It helps to verify the info I have.

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