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Members of the White House domestic staff during the Hayes administration.

Rutherford B. Hayes Library

For most of the 19th century, the structure of the White House staff remained generally the same. At the top was the steward, a federal employee who was bonded; the Congress created this position to safeguard the silver and furnishings in the house. The steward was on the government payroll. He functioned as the manager of the house. The job required patience, administrative ability, shrewdness as a purchasing agent, and a deep sense of discretion. Beneath him were the maids, footmen, cooks and laborers. About one-third of the servants lived in the White House in the basement rooms, some dormitory, some private. The steward dealt directly with each employee and there was no specific hierarchy. Most of the servants were southern blacks who had entered the president’s service after a similar experience in a hotel or private residence–or through a family connection, a brother, sister, parent, or aunt already there. The tone of the house was distinctly southern; the pace was slow, the relationships personal, and the social life characterized by comfortable elegance. It would be difficult to imagine the White House interior in the 19th century without the presence of African Americans, who performed a thousand duties.

Footnotes & Resources

Read more: William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986; William Seale, "Upstairs and Downstairs: The 19th-Century White House," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 16-20.