Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Interesting Find--A Maid's Memories of Biltmore House

My late sister-in-law once knew a woman who had worked as a maid in the Biltmore House in Asheville. I believe she was in her 90s at the time my sister-in-law knew her.

I recently happened upon a piece of notebook paper where my sister-in-law had written down what the woman had told her. There's no mention of the ocean blue walls but it looks as if the rest of what she said about the furniture was accurate:

"...Servant's Bedrooms--At any one time 80 servants might be employed at Biltmore, where they lived near their work stations in separate halls according to sex and "rank." The bedrooms along the corridor represented the private quarters for female members of the staff--cooks, house maids, and scullery maids. The rooms were airy and comfortable with split-seat chairs, chestnut dressers and wardrobes, and iron beds and washstands holding monogrammed chamber sets (pitcher, washbowl, chamber pot, slop bucket).

Service dress depended on the job and the time of day. The maids wore pink uniforms with white collars and cuffs in the AM and black with white trim in the PM. A cook's helper wore a red-checked pinafore and a dust cap..."

I've read that George Vanderbilt didn't like to actually see the staff, regardless of what they were wearing--hence the narrow passageway between the walls in the family's part of the house--sort of like a hall within a hall. I've also read this about one of our first ladies, only staff had to scurry to the nearest room and close the door when she came and went. (One can only assume that good servants will know their place, so of course they wouldn't mind.) (Yes, I'm rolling my eyes.)

It's been quite a few years since I've been on the Biltmore House tour -- and that was a Christmastime bus tour with my BFF, Jo. I never saw so many Christmas trees in my life. The time before that, my son was five. I distinctly remember him reaching across a velvet robe and giving a rare and, I expect, priceless world globe a big spin. The guard standing there probably does, too. I also expect that the globe was subsequently set farther back or removed altogether, once they understood what a temptation such things are to little boys, velvet rope or no velvet rope.

Maybe I should go to Biltmore again. To tell you the truth, though, while stunningly beautiful and worthy of being the backdrop for a number of movies, the experience always makes me feel sad. The place isn't in ruins, and yet it is--if that makes sense.

Might be a book in it, though....


Wendy said...

I went to the Biltmore for the first time this past year - and just, wow. Had a fabulous time. I did the full motherlode tour, behind the scenes and all - and yes, the servants quarters are just like that. I was struck by how "nice" they were for servants quarters. Nothing fancy, plain furniture, but certainly a room I wouldn't scoff living in :) And if I had lived back then, I would have probably lived in a room like that (my blood ain't remotely blue).

If it's been a few years for you (and it sounds like it!) - you should try to head back. My guess is that the winery and hotel weren't there the last time you went? I stayed at the hotel on site - which was WONDERFUL, but definitely a wee bit pricey. And oh yes, the stories those walls could tell.....

Cheryl said...

Hey Wendy. Glad you stopped by. The winery was there the last time I toured, but not the hotel. I'd heard it was expensive. I remember my first visit and going down that long wooded road to the house. I kept thinking that every tree, no matter how big it was, looked as if it had been placed just so. And then reading later about the construction of the estate, I realized that actually, they were. The mind boggles.

Unknown said...

I visited the Biltmore Estates last week it was a magnificent place, but wary enough to find out if all the stories are as nice as they were told, or there might have been some real quirky ones, that shouldn't tell....sincerely Margaret J Wright