December 10th, 2010

One piece of trivia I learnt while hunting for a flat in Rio is that even small ones (our budget limited us to about 70 m2) have slave servant´s quarters. Here´s the original floor plan of a typical 2-bedroomed flat, built in the 1950s; but the pattern held at least till the mid-1970s.

The modest space is divided as rigidly as an Edwardian mansion into the master´s and mistress´ area and the servant´s. The maid has her own tiny bedroom (ca. 4m2 ), toilet/shower, washing area, and kitchen – with its own door on to the landing.

None of the many flats we looked at actually had a live-in maid. Unemployment is still high and wages low, so a cultural shift has probably been happening. Telenovelas about haut-bourgeois Brazilian clans, living in houses or flats at least four times the size of ours, still feature the servant as a stock rôle. It´s a good one for character actors, with plenty of comic potential. The considerable dramatic advantages of servants for writers of soaps (confidences, misunderstandings, class conflict, repartee, farce) may mean that they are surviving in art longer than in real life.

The separate bedroom is functional, given the existence of the maid. But the completely useless separate entrance, 2 feet from the main front door, is a tribute to the costs people will pay to maintain social distinctions. In a post-Renaissance manor house, a separate rear entrance for the many servants and tradesmen in muddy boots made functional sense. Here it has shrunk to a pointless social marker. In this particular flat – the one we are buying – it has been bricked up, releasing valuable wall space in the kitchen; but most still keep it.

Oddly enough security isn´t a big consideration: Rio has plenty of street crime, but not burglary, as blocks of flats all have doormen and few criminals have cars. Contrast the Paris flat of a professor friend, with armoured door and high-security multipoint lock: the concierge has gone, replaced only by a coded keypad. I assume the burglars are much more skilled, as a result of a solid French technical education.

In terms of the costs paid to maintain a status marker, the servants´ entrances in Rio pale in comparison to the front room of the respectable British working class in the century ca. 1870-1970. Here´s a typical two-up, two-down terrace house in an East London suburb.

Almost a quarter of the scarce living space was sacrificed to a front parlour only used for weddings, funerals and occasional visits by the vicar. Over the last 40 years or so, most of the dividing walls have been knocked down to make one bigger living room. Every Brit knows the term for the essential piece of kit for this common project: an RSJ, rolled steel joist.

Share this post:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook

9 Responses to “Upstairs, downstairs”

  1. marcel says:

    Perhaps irrelevant, but this reminded me: c. 1982, I knew someone who had just graduated from Bryn Mawr, and who told me that (at least some of) the dormitory rooms had been designed for students’ maids; these were smaller rooms in a 2 room suite, with the larger room for the student and the smaller one for the maid.

  2. Betsy says:

    We shouldn’t be too smug about “completely useless” and “costly” tributes that people in other societies “will pay to maintain social distinctions”. Look at the de rigueur American front and back yard, the larger the better as an indicator of status – not only does it consume more land than the house itself, but it must be honored every week with continual inputs to maintain it in grassland form (that is, prevent it from advancing to the next stage of biological succession).

    Even as a functioning attribute (a play area for kids), front and back yards are still irrational; first, because most households don’t have school-age children, and second, because it makes no sense for every household with kids to maintain its own separate playground and ball field, when two or three such play yards would serve an entire street.

    All this cost and sacrifice, all for a middle-class marker that pays tribute to the far-distant archetype and ancestor of suburban tract housing: the English country estate, surrounded by its sheepmeadows and park.

  3. Keith Humphreys says:

    James — wonderful post.

  4. Hecmar says:

    A few comments

    As a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil in the 70′s, in the small towns we worked in, we were approached by several part time maids for weekly cleaning and laundry. The few that could use these services were expected to, since many needed the additional income, and as foreigners, we were targets for these offers.

    The very high classes in the major cities still have live-in maids (as depicted on television)but I only knew one middle class family that had one. In the cities, the middle class all used once a week maid services.

    In 1970, two thirds of the population lived in rural areas. Today, 75% of the population live in the large cities. So there has been a major cultural shift from rural/small town to large city life which caused an explosion in big city crime, and a subsequent preference for apartment living over houses, even those surrounded by walls topped by broken glass and barbed wire. Home invasions were not that uncommon and I experienced that once.

    The favelas that grew in the cities in the 70′s were populated by those that were born in the country and looked for more urban stability and income. They did sometimes hold up persons in the streets but were rarely known to be dangerous. In the last decades, at the end of the great population shift, the favelas are populated by many who were born there, not in rural settings. They are less expecting a better life, much more nihilistic and therefore dangerous.

    In the 80′s, crime moved to the apartment buildings beginning in Rio. Late in the evening, a gang would invade the building, overpower the doorman and cut the telephone lines to the apartment building, then systematically loot the apartments. More precautions were taken to combat this until the appearance of the first mobile phones ended the gangs’ ability to cut off communication.

    As a reference, the minimum wage in Brazil before the dictatorship was around $100, and went down during the military dictatorship to about half that. Today it is close to $300 a month, so this added to the cultural shifts and availability of very low cost domestic help

  5. larry birnbaum says:

    Many apartments in US cities built before World War II — relatively modest 2 or 3 bedroom affairs but in good neighborhoods and intended I guess for upper middle class professionals and business people — have a small bedroom near the kitchen and pantry (and sometimes although not always back entrance) and usually with a small bathroom off of it, clearly intended as the maid/cook’s quarters.

    It’s interesting that you view this transition as cultural rather than economic. I always assumed that it signified good news in some sense — that wages in the US at the bottom had risen past the point where it was feasible for people in this class to afford servants.

    I forget who said this but I remember a quote from someone who had a long life to the effect that when she was young, she always expected to have a servant but never expected to be able to own a car; and when she got old she always expected to be able to own a car but never expected to have a servant.

    Which is not a bad definition of progress.

  6. CharlesWT says:

    “The separate bedroom is functional, given the existence of the maid. But the completely useless separate entrance, 2 feet from the main front door, is a tribute to the costs people will pay to maintain social distinctions.”

    And to use government regulation to insure that everyone pays the cost.

    [I]n fact, municipal building codes usually require that a corridor isolate the intimate area of family bedrooms and baths from the other areas. This principle of separation becomes most highly elaborated in the planning of the service area, though it is not just a question of separating functions but, more important, of separating classes.
    This principle has given rise to the convention—which several of the architects I interviewed claimed to be unique to Brazil in Latin America—that every apartment building except those for the lowest classes must have two completely independent circulation systems…The system begins with two entrances at street level, a “noble” entrance and a service entrance, each with its own elevator and each preferably on a different side of the building.

    The modernist city: an anthropological critique of Brasília

  7. James Wimberley says:

    CharlesWT: Our apartment block must have been designed then for the ¨lowest classes¨, as it only has one street entrance. From my non-random flat-hunting survey, a service lift is common but not standard.
    Betsy: I agree about the American front yard, which (without fencing) can´t even really be played on by children. Visually it´s a shared linear park, so there are some positive externalities for the requirement to go with the atatus-driven waste. I think Michael O´Hare and Robert Frank have written on this, but I can´t trace the links. But smug? I´m a Brit, so the post was tribally self-critical!

  8. Betsy says:

    The Brits are really good at tribal self-criticism — as is a major strain (at least) of American thought.

  9. Alex says:

    In Paris, it is now canonical to rent out the former maid’s quarters up in the mansard to one or more students. Come to think of it, the flight from service during the Edwardian era probably had something to do with Paris as a cultural centre; all those garrets that ended up full of penniless but brilliant artists hadn’t been built for that…