British writer Lucy Lethbridge chronicled the evolution of the service industry in her book Servants: A Downstairs History Of Britain From The Nineteenth Century To Modern Times. Today on Fresh Air she discusses the paradox of how servants were expected to be both visible and invisible:
Servants are in this rather curious position of being both required of being highly visible and completely invisible. The high visibility of a servant with an elaborate uniform opening the door is very much an indication of status, we use it all the time as a shorthand in films and television programs … for grandeur.
At the same time, the wheels of the house were oiled and required to be run without any apparent effort at all. So if you passed a servant sweeping the stairs she either had to turn her face to the wall or she nipped behind little doorways that were often … on staircases or along corridors or back stairs because her presence is almost an admission that the house didn’t run itself.
via the guardian