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Meet the Staff: A Look at Servant Life at Biltmore

Estate History 03/27/19

Written By Ashley Annin

In addition to boasting the latest and greatest in technology, Biltmore required an exceptional team of domestic staff to ensure the house operated like a well-oiled machine.

In the days when George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt resided at Biltmore, they employed up to 40 staff members who each played a crucial role in the day-to-day operations of the house and stable. With large house parties of guests coming and going throughout the year, Biltmore functioned more like a luxury hotel than it did a house. As soon as guests arrived on the estate, the domestic staff made sure that each and every one of their needs were met.

George Vanderbilt not only provided room, board and uniforms to his staff, but he also compensated his employees with New York wages, a substantially higher rate than the Asheville standard. Staff wages could be up to $2 for higher ranking staff, which is substantial given that a week of room and board typically cost $2.50.

Demographically speaking, the domestic staff was majority female. While many of the servants were native North Carolinians, there were also a number of employees from around the globe including an English Head Housekeeper, a French cook, a Swedish laundress, and an Irish Butler.

The domestic staff members were classified into two groups: upper and lower staff. The higher the ranking, the more defined the responsibilities of their role. While each member of the staff provided invaluable service to the Vanderbilts, there were a few upper roles that maintained the standard of service and hospitality Biltmore is renowned for.

The wardrobe of Biltmore’s Head Housekeeper was recreated for the exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age (which was on display February 8, 2019, through May 27, 2019). The detailed recreation included a chatelaine (an accessory used to carry keys) the Head Housekeeper would wear at all times. 

HEAD HOUSEKEEPER

BUTLER

An archival photograph of Edith Vanderbilt’s Lady’s Maid Martha Laube. Photograph courtesy of A. Babette Schmid Schmaus.

LADY’S MAID

VALET

For a more in-depth look at servant life at Biltmore, guests can enjoy the Through the Servants‘ Eyes Tour.

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Donna Jones
2 years ago

I have wondered how the servants were called if needed

Pamela B. Tiger
1 year ago
Reply to  Donna Jones

They had a kind of phone (intercom) system throughout the house, I do believe.

Karlie
1 year ago
Reply to  Donna Jones

They had a call system in the house. Guests could hit a button in their room or wherever one was located in the house. This would ring a bell where the call station was (which is still there), which is right outside the butlers pantry. They had a large panel with room names under lights. A light would glow above whichever room had a button pushed. The butler or footmen would then use the telephone to call up to that floor, tell the maid whom answered to go ask what the guest needed. The maid would call back to the… Read more »

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