What is a Scullery Maid?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A scullery maid is a maid of all work, responsible for a wide variety of tasks ranging from cleaning pots and pans in the kitchen to scouring the hallways. The position has largely faded from most households, but historically, she would have been at the bottom of the household hierarchy, and her work would have been grueling and largely thankless. Former scullery maids interviewed about their work by historical organizations likened their positions to a form of slavery.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

In the complex organization of servants within a household, the scullery maid would have been soundly at the bottom, reporting to the kitchen maid and the cook. She was responsible for a wide range of tasks, and because of her low status, she would have taken orders from many other servants in the house, while the residents of the house would rarely, if ever, actually interact with the scullery maid. As a member of the “downstairs” staff, these maids were invisible and very hard-working.

Typically, scullery maids were among the first to rise, because they had to prepare the house for everyone else to wake up. One of the first tasks she would have been lighting the fires in the house and taking out the chamberpots, and she would also have lit the stove in the kitchen and started to prepare for breakfast. In many households, the scullery maid waited on upper ranking servants, setting the table for them, bringing out food, and clearing out afterward.

After breakfast, scullery maids did the heavy cleaning work in the kitchen, ranging from scouring pots to mopping the floors, and they would have mopped floors, beaten rugs, dusted shelves, and performed a variety of other cleaning tasks in the house. A person in this position might also work on the household laundry, depending on how the house was organized.

The average scullery maid would have been busy from the pre-dawn hours until well after dark, and because of her low position, her rate of pay and job-related perks would have been limited. Many got little more than room, board, and emergency medical care, with few days off and no chance for any of the lucrative leftovers which upper-ranking servants could keep, barter, or sell to supplement their wages.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - Honestly, what disgusts me is the idea that there were people who had so many servants catering to their needs like this and it was considered the norm rather than the realm of royalty. I know things aren't perfect these days either, but at least most average people wouldn't exactly be comfortable hiring multiple servants to work 16 hour days for minimal pay.


@Fa5t3r - While it's true that they worked extremely hard, I don't think it's true that their lives were joyless, at least in the majority of cases. There would have to be some incentive to be a scullery maid rather than just living on the streets.

Often the servants of a house would have a very strong sense of community among themselves and they would have breaks occasionally, of course, because if nothing else they usually had fairly good meals.

We're used to having weekends and hour long lunch breaks and can't imagine life without them, but even today there are millions of people in the world who work without pause from sunup to sundown.


I just don't know how people lived like that back then. I know I'm saying this from a place of privilege, but I just don't think I could survive working from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep again and never having a break.

And a scullery maid would have never have had the hope that one day she could be in a different position. I mean, she could maybe go up in rank, but she'd have to work almost as hard even if she did.

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