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Maybe The Butler Did Do It

Updated on June 30, 2015

The Butler

Generally speaking, butlers were servants in a large, wealthy household, usually male and in charge of male servants. Housekeepers, on the other hand usually occupied the position of housekeeper and were in charge of female servants. The butler, was the senior male servant.

In today’s world, the butler is charged with maintaining food service, wine, spirits, and silver. In other words, he supervises other servants and responsible for a wide spectrum of household management duties. Sometimes they may also be titled majordomo, butler administrator, staff manager, or head of household staff. In cases where the employer owns more than one residence there is sometimes an estate manager of higher rank than the butler.

The earliest mention of a butler is probably that of a man whose release from prison was predicted in a biblical account. The book of Genesis contains a reference to a role similar to modern butlers. The Hebrew Joseph interpreted a dream of Pharaoh's in which the word used is most often translated into English as "chief butler" or "chief cup-bearer".

The surname Butler is common around the world but most can trace their ancestry back to Ireland. The name originates from the Latin Buticularis. It has been spelled several ways, including Boteler, Botiller and Boutillier, depending on the country where it is used.

A Butler In The White House Pantry
A Butler In The White House Pantry

The Butler Name In Ireland

The Butler family name in Ireland is highly respected to this day. It has been said that although the Butlers were originally Anglo-Norman, they became more Irish than the Irish. They greatly influenced politics, social affairs, the church, the law, the military and many other aspects of Irish life.

In ancient times, alcoholic beverages were stored in earthenware containers and later in wooden barrels. The use of glass bottles is relatively a more modern transition. These containers were an important part of a household's possessions. Therefore, this job was generally reserved for trusted slaves.

For centuries the role of the butler, has been that of chief steward and head of a household. He was the attendant specially entrusted with the care and serving of wine or other beverages. These functions, in early times would have meant being responsible for a major portion of a household's assets.

Ancient Greece And Rome

In ancient Greece and Rome, it was nearly always slaves who were charged with the care and service of wine, while during medieval times it was usually a serf who performed the tasks within the noble court.

In Britain, the butler was traditionally a middle ranking staff member of a luxurious household. During the 16 and 1700’s, the butler eventually became the senior male member of a household's staff. Although, there was sometimes a steward who ran the outside estate and financial affairs and was senior to a butler in social status.

Alonzo Fields (19001994), served as a White House butler for twenty-one years.
Alonzo Fields (19001994), served as a White House butler for twenty-one years.

Distinctive Uniforms

Butlers used to dress in a distinctive uniform, different from junior servants to identify their status. However, today a butler is more likely to wear abusiness suit or casual clothing, appearing in uniform only on special occasions.

Butlers were held strictly responsible and therefore held a position of power and esteem. They were managers rather than servants for the most part. For example, although the butler greeted and announced the arrival of formal guests, the door was actually opened by a servant. However, a butler would be expected to when necessary, such as during a staff shortage.

TheSteward” during the Elizabethan era looked a little more like the butler of today. Throughout the 1800’s and Victorian era, the number of butlers and domestic servants noticeably increased in many countries, including America. By this time he was responsible for the more modernwine cellar, "buttery" and pantrywhich supplied bread, butter, cheese, and other basic provisions.

During slavery times in America, African Americans were used as domestic servants. Some eventually became butlers.

European’s in the profession as indentured servants, formed a body of domestic workers from which butlers could be enlisted. Although not institutionalized slaves, many didn’t volunteer. They were forced into service either by indebtedness or coercion. Like African American slaves, they could rise in rank, but their circumstances depended largely on their masters’ disposition.

In the early 1920s, domestic service occupations began to decline in European countries, and more so in the United States. Despite this fact, there were still around 30,000 butlers in Britainby World War II. However, by the mid-1980s as few as 100 butlers were estimated to remain.

But, since the turn of the century, demand for butlers began to rise sharply. According to the International Guild of Professional Butlers, the increase has coincided with the number of millionaires and billionaires in recent years. The number of wealthy people in Chinahas also increased, creating a high demand for professional butlers trained in the European butlering tradition.There is also been an increase for such butlers in other Asian countries and the Middle East.

Because of their position, which requires strict unwavering discretion, it is notable when one earns historical importance. One butler who did is Alonzo Fields(1900–1994), who served as a White Housebutler for 21 years. All but his first year he served as chief butler, under presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. When he retired in 1960 he published his journals entitled “My 21 Years in the White House. The memoirs provide a uniquely intimateaccount of the U.S. presidents he served under. Several came to trust Fields as a close personal friend.

According to Fields records he was present when President Roosevelt learned of the Japanese bombing atPearl Harborand that Roosevelt "broke down completely" at that point, and also hurled racial slurs against the Japanese before regaining his composure. President Truman was also close with Fields and the two even sat together for a portrait.

At the beginning of his stint at the White House, Fields had to endure severe racism on the part of the southern senators who often addressed him as "boy". There was even a cultural gap between the white and black White House staff, with whites being predominantly in charge. Unfortunately these attitudes wouldn’t change significantly until the Civil Rights Movement.

Numerous private butlering schools exist today, such as the International Institute of Modern Butlers, the Guild of Professional English Butlers and The International Guild of Butlers and Household Managers. It’s not uncommon for people in this profession to earn upwards of $50,000 a year.

The real-life modern butler is discreet, unobtrusive and friendly, but not familiar. They confidently anticipate the needs of their employer and execute their duties in a professional, graceful and dignified manner.

According to a survey in 1944, Butler or variants of that name was the 102nd most common name in England. And in 2007, the number of butlers in Britain had risen to an estimated 5,000.


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Maybe you should tell us who you are first.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I do say I should be included.


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