Untold Histories: The Push of a Button

One of the pleasures of uncovering the stories of those who worked at the Frick home in New York City has been learning the variety of paths they followed later in life. Some—like the housekeeper Minerva Stone and camera-loving footman Alfred Cook—found new pursuits, while others, such as chef Joseph Donon and maid Ruth Berlin, remained in private service until retirement. Gleaning biographical information from public records helps us flesh out individual identities, but the scarcity of personal correspondence or diaries kept by domestic employees makes it challenging to reconstruct their lives at 1 East 70th Street.

One point of entry into the day-to-day experience of the household staff is the annunciator (or call bell) system introduced in this blog’s first post. Designed by the architecture firm Carrère and Hastings, this network connected the Frick family to the thirty-strong staff that cooked, cleaned, and otherwise cared for the well-being of the home. The Frick system’s complexity, with more than 150 connections crisscrossing the building, is telling of the mansion’s scale and sumptuousness.

Seven call-bell buttons in Henry Clay Frick’s former sitting room. Photo: George Koelle, The Frick Collection

With their lustrous finish and menu of services, the Frick’s few surviving call buttons (see above) evoke a way of life characterized by luxury and convenience. While Carrère and Hastings’s specifications prescribe discreet locations for each set of buttons, the annunciators themselves were designed to attract attention. Each push of a button sounded a gong or bell and indicated its origin at the other end through a large display. The responding worker would then use the reset button to clear the request from the system. Unfortunately, the gongs and displays that must have been prominent features of life behind the scenes at 1 East 70th Street were dismantled along with almost all of the mansion’s service spaces prior to its opening as an art museum in 1935. The kitchen annunciator at Clayton, the Fricks’ estate in Pennsylvania (now part of The Frick Pittsburgh), gives us a sense of what the displays might have looked like.

The original specifications for the Fricks’ annunciator system survive in the institution’s archives and include the “bell schedule” illustrated below, which plots the connections between staff and family spaces. The left-hand side lists more than thirty “calling points” from which a family member or guest could summon a member of staff. Many of the spaces here will be familiar to visitors of The Frick Collection, such as the Living Hall, Library, and Drawing Room (now known as the Fragonard Room). Reading across the table, we see that from her suite on the second floor, for example, Adelaide Frick could ring the housekeeper’s office, the pantry, the third-floor sewing room, and the maids’ quarters.

We also note that each “Pantry” button in fact connected to five different annunciator sites, including the first-floor butler’s pantry (now the Boucher Anteroom); the “Men’s Corridor” in the basement, where male staff had their rooms; and the “Upper Servants’” and “General Servants’” dining rooms, also on the basement level. The distinction of “upper servants” from “general servants” is intriguing and likely reflects the status of the housekeeper, butler, secretary, engineer, and chef, each of whom earned two to five times the monthly pay of other staff.

Annunciator specifications, 1914. BP00794. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

The annunciator locations named at the top of the chart denote some, but not all, of the house’s many sites of labor. The absence of the kitchen and laundry from the system underscores the fact that only certain jobs required regular interaction with the Frick family. By contrast, the centrality of the housekeeper’s role is clear, as she could reach and be reached by all. Annunciator connections between staff spaces—such as the pantries and chef’s office—reflect the collaborative working practices described in contemporary service manuals, which record the use of call bells by butlers and chefs to time the presentation of new courses.

As richly informative as the bell schedule is, the gap between the system’s design and the lived experience of those working within it remains difficult to bridge. How loud were those gongs, and how frequently did they ring? Had the Fricks, as Mary Elizabeth Carter writes in Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy (1903), “fall[en] into the bell habit readily” and learned “to be waited upon for the veriest trifles”?

For now, other period voices must stand in for those of the Fricks’ staff. Social historian David Katzman cites one employee who described answering forty summonses a day. Social workers in 1913 reported that “the houseworker is cut off from her family; the hours are long and irregular; there is only slight opportunity for recreation…holidays are few; the work takes the girl out of the main currents of modern life, and isolates her in a back eddy.” Progressive-era legislation that restricted the length of the workday excluded domestic workers, who put in long days with little time off—one afternoon weekly and one or two Sunday afternoons per month was standard (see below).

Schedule of time off for employees, 1921. One East 70th Street Papers, The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Carter memorably summarized life as a lady’s maid thus: “To be always...attached to one end of an electric wire, in readiness to respond to a call, to be at once in evidence and yet ever self-effaced, would not tempt one who has known the joy of independent movement.”

The inability to call your time your own is one reason the rate of turnover was so high in domestic service. While the staff at 1 East 70th Street had several long-serving members, most stayed less than a year. People moved on to new ventures, other positions, or to set up households of their own. “Living in” allowed employees to save more of their salaries than workers who had to pay for room and board, but the trend for domestic service through the first half of the twentieth century was toward “day work,” which was increasingly performed by Black women in New York City.

The relics of the annunciator system are a powerful testament to the largely invisible history of domestic service at 1 East 70th Street. The style of living represented by those defunct call buttons was already in decline in 1914, when the house was new. Grand Upper East Side apartment buildings constructed in the 1910s consolidated maintenance responsibilities and accommodated just a few in-home employees. By the time Adelaide Frick died in 1931, her stand-alone mansion and live-in staff of twenty-one were unusual even among New York's wealthy elite.

With special thanks to Archivist Julie Ludwig, Chief Librarian for Archives and Records Management Sally Brazil, and Hannah Diamond, Education Manager for Professional Learning at the Museum of the City of New York and former Ayesha Bulchandani Graduate Intern at The Frick Collection.

This blog post is part of Untold Histories, a research project on life behind the scenes at the Frick mansion when it was a private home. Research is still underway, so please contact academic@frick.org if you have any stories or documents to share, or with any questions. Discover more exciting education programs and digital initiatives at Frick Connections.

For further reading:

Vanessa H. May, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1940 (Chapel Hill, 2011)

David M. Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York, 1978)

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