“Backstairs” Tour to Illuminate the Lives of Early 20th-Century Servants in the Berkshires
The Mount Creates “Backstairs” Tour to Illuminate the Lives of Early 20th-Century Servants
The Mount, former summer home of Edith Wharton, is one of the Berkshires’ many beautiful, historic homes. From the sculpture garden and woodlands to the ornately decorated interior, the house embodies all that was high society during the early part of the 20th century. But how was Wharton’s lavish lifestyle sustainable? Who kept the house clean, cooked meals, and orchestrated parties and other social gatherings?
Families can learn about the “behind the scenes” workers of The Mount on a special new tour. Titled the Backstairs Tour, the new addition to the estate’s regularly scheduled tours and events is exactly what the name implies. The Backstairs Tour takes visitors to the otherwise unseen parts of the home – literally to the backstairs, as well as the servants’ quarters in the main house, stable, and gatehouse. Visitors will learn about the role of Wharton’s staff who, in addition to cooking and cleaning, were responsible for driving, extensive gardening, secretary tasks, and other household jobs…
In addition to seeing the portions of the home where the staff lived and worked (out of sight), visitors will learn about Wharton’s international staff, some of whom lived and worked at the mansion year-round in order to maintain the property. Overall, servants at The Mount were treated well in comparison to the experiences of others during the time period, but of course, even under good working and living conditions, servants are still servants and life was often difficult.
Taking a Backstairs Tour will allow families to learn about the story of the home and Edith Wharton’s place in literary history; more importantly, however, it will shed light on the class divisions that existed during the Gilded Age in the United States. Students can ponder the ethics of keeping servants, and can think about fair working conditions and wages when they consider the servants’ employment. Older students can also consider the current debate over raising minimum wage in our state when they think about the servants’ working conditions – how does the service industry today compare to its early 20th century equivalent?
The tours will be offered during The Mount’s special holiday hours, at 12noon and 2pm on Saturdays from November 30th through December 14th. The Mount is located at 2 Plunkett Street in Lenox, MA. For more information, visit edithwharton.org or call 413-551-5100.
About Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into the tightly controlled society of Old New York at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. Essentially self-educated, she was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.