House at Work Tour: Working Spaces, Working Stories
A house as beautiful and grand as Lippitt House did not maintain itself. It required a significant amount of upkeep and work. Though the servants’ contributions are usually unseen, through the approach and new perspective offered in the November 2022 “House at Work Tour,” I saw evidence of and began to understand their experiences of life and labor at Lippitt House.
The Lippitts, a wealthy and prominent Providence family, lived in this three-story house with seven live-in servants: a cook, a footman, a waiter, two maids, a coachman, and a laundress. That number astounded me, especially for a residence of only eight people during this era of interpretation (1865-1881).
I wanted to know their stories. In the foyer, I wondered what it would be like for Edward Bennett, the British-born footman, to welcome the esteemed guests into the front of the home when he and his fellow laborers entered through the service entrance. When hearing about the elaborate dinner parties that Mary Ann Lippitt hosted, I wondered how the cook, Mary Brooks, kept up with her meticulous demands and delivered complicated meals for many guests. When looking at the wall cleats in the drying room of the laundry suite in the basement, I wondered what it would be like to be Mary Dovan, the laundress, going through the demanding and taxing daily laundry steps only to repeat the tasks each and every week. When looking at the remnants of the servant call bell system in the basement, I wondered what it would be like to live life on call to serve.
Often, the stories of workers are lost. In fact, given that there are not many recorded documents and archives about workers from this time, many laborers in the Lippitt House are reduced to their description in census records. That said, throughout the “House at Work” tour, I looked closely for evidence of their existence, constantly considering their stories in the spaces they primarily occupied.
For example, on one of our outdoor stops, museum director Carrie Taylor pointed out the difference in architecture between the main block that housed the Lippitt family’s residences at the front of the house versus the service wing. The portion that contained the working spaces was intentionally set back from the street and had simpler facade details than the main area. The servants’ quarters were located at the back of the main house block. I thought about what it was like to share one of the bedrooms with another servant, furnished with the basic necessities: a bed, a wooden bureau, a table, and some chairs. I wondered what it would have been like to work 100 hours for $2 to $5 a week, living in the same place you work. Was it isolating?
As we went through the places typically not included in the regular guided tour, I also contemplated how the workers interacted with the technology of the time. How did it impact their duties? For instance, in the basement, we explored the original heating system of the home: a network of tiny brick chambers and ducts. This early form of central heating was fueled by coal. Thus, one of the six servants was tasked with sustaining the coal supply in the boiler room, no doubt a grueling job.
By venturing into the spaces of the laborers who lived and worked in the home, I was able to piece together an understanding of their experiences within Lippitt House.