Keeping an Eye on the Servants: Pearline Soap


An ad from an 1893 edition of the Kansas City Star reveals something about the life of middle class families: the woman of the household is urged to “Peep into your Kitchen” to “see what they’re washing and cleaning with.”

The “they” is the servants; the implication is that servants can’t be trusted to do what any respectable woman does: telling them to use Pearline, an aggressively marketed laundry and general purpose soap.

15-30% of all American households of the period included live-in domestic servants, hired to do cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare chores[1]. Typically they were young women from immigrant families, with – in Chicago at least – Irish, German, Polish and Scandinavian girls predominating. [2]Domestic service represented the leading occupation of women. Help wanted ads for female servants often specified “white girl,” or even “Swede or German preferred.”  HelpWantedad

The workdays were long – typically 14-17 hours – and free time limited to one afternoon or evening a week.[3] Kansas City merchants ran special sales on Thursday afternoons to attract domestic workers “who cannot come to the store any other time except Thursday afternoon – their weekly holiday,” as an ad for Bullene, Moore, Emery & Company WorkingGirlsAdput it[4]. The ad requested employers to call the attention of “the girls or girl in their employ” to the sale.

Complaints about high servant turnover were common. An editorial in the Kansas City Times commented on the reputation of the "servant girl" for dictating terms, telling "how many evenings and afternoons she will have, what she [will] do and what she will not do. If her demands are not acceded to she will pack her trunk and go." The "mutinous tendency of the body of house servants" is attributed to the lack of fixed rules: "the ladies," say the editors, "should get together and arrange a code of regulations."

The "girls" did attempt to get together. The Working Women’s Association of America was formed in 1901 to raise the wages of domestic workers – around $4 a week plus room and board was typical in Kansas City -- reduce their working hours, allow home visitors and set up grievance procedures. But the nature of domestic work made organizing difficult and the WWAA disbanded.

The Pearline Soap company went out of business early in the twentieth century. Its factory – in the formerly industrial Tribeca neighborhood of New York – has been converted into a high end condo.

Kansas City Star, March 21, 1893, p. 7

Daily Journal, April 6, 1893, p. 8.

[1] Deborah Fairman Browning, “Toilers within the Home: Servants’ Quarters in Nineteenth –Century New England.” Journal of American Culture 15 (March 1992), 93.



[4] Kansas City Daily Journal, April 6, 1893, p. 8.