The history found at the Mathias Ham Historic Site is vast and the tales are plentiful. Here is where we hope some of those stories can live on. Shared from the perspective of our historians, enjoy journeying through the life once lived on Lincoln Avenue.
The release of the historical drama, Downton Abbey, brought a glimpse of the glamorous life of British aristocrats in the early 20th century, while equally telling the stories of the servants below stairs. The series’ return to Netflix has sparked interest in a juxtaposition of the elite and the common - the wealthy and those who serve them.
At the height of the Gilded Age, Dubuque was a city of fortunes. From families who made their money in meat processing or mining to the staff who labored in their homes, Dubuque had its fair share of Downtons.
Mathias Ham was one of those men whose fortune financed his stately Dubuque villa. Naturally, a large estate, owned by a large figure, couldn’t possibly operate on its own - who would clean all the windows? So Ham hired staff to care for the home and its grounds. Its many rooms provided plenty of space, and the original 1839 home worked well for servants’ quarters.
Hallway to servants' quarters at Mathias Ham House.
Much like in Downton, there would have been a separation of servants and the family. The servants would spend much of their time in the servants' quarters or the kitchen, preparing food on a large kitchen table and eating meals together at a smaller one. Also, no matching uniforms for the servants. This concept came after the Ham family moved out of the house. Instead, servants wore the cast-off clothes of the mistress.
Sarah Ham, Mathias’ daughter, described the composition of the household as being made up of “servants, members of the household, and borders.” Sounds like a busy household.
In the 1880s, almost half of working women in Iowa were employed as domestic servants. The servants in the city of Dubuque were largely made up of Irish Catholic girls and were labeled by their Anglo-Protestant employers as “Bridgetts” - likely not in an endearing way. These girls were as young as 11 or 12 years old and would usually work eighty to a hundred hours per week. Vacation or days off? Hardly. These girls were granted only one afternoon a week and half of Sunday off.
Pay day for these girls wasn’t celebrated by going out or splurging. Many times the money earned from these young girls would go back to their families, helping put food on the table. It’s hard to imagine being that young, moving in with a family that is foreign and doesn’t see you as equal, all to support your family. Not to add to the fact the girls were often placed in settings of racial, ethnic, and class tensions; leaving them feeling morally and ethnicly inferior. Seems awful right? Well, at this time, women had limited options for financial gain.
Sewing machine in servants' room at Mathias Ham House.
Domestic service allowed for women to earn a source of income for those with small children or those who did not want to work in factories. The Ham’s large house provided for live-in staff and boarders. Many times, those who worked in the household would take their pay in room and board, working for a place to stay.
As factories were offering more work to women with better benefits, the interest in domestic service shifted. The increase in factory employment offered women shorter working hours and higher wages. However, the trade off was having to work in poor and hazardous conditions. Of course, these were not the only options for women of low status, but in an industrial town like Dubuque, these were two very common options.
While the Ham House is no Downton Abbey, the stories are real. The lives of those who worked under its roof left their impact on Dubuque’s history - just as significant as the elegant families that they worked for.
Learn more about the Irish immigrants that settled in Dubuque.
Explore another narrative of a Midwest family and their servants from the Gilded Age.
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