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Meet the Staff: A Look at Servant Life at Biltmore

Written By Ashley Annin

Posted 03/27/19

Updated 07/21/23

Estate History

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

How many domestic staff members would have worked in Biltmore House during George Vanderbilt’s era and what types of roles would they have held? Continue reading to find out!

Vignette of Mrs. King and Edith Vanderbilt in the Oak Sitting Room as displayed in the 2019 exhibtion,
Vignette of Mrs. King and Edith Vanderbilt in the Oak Sitting Room as displayed in the 2019 exhibition, “A Vanderbilt House Party.”

Staffing America’s Largest Home

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 ensured that each 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.

Higher Ranking Domestic Staff

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 for which Biltmore is renowned.

Mrs. King wardrobe recreation as displayed during
The wardrobe of Biltmore’s Head Housekeeper was recreated for the exhibition A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age (which was on display in 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.
An archival photograph of Edith Vanderbilt’s Lady’s Maid Martha Laube. Photograph courtesy of A. Babette Schmid Schmaus.

LADY’S MAID

Recreation of clothing worn by George Vanderbilt’s valet as it was displayed in
Recreation of clothing worn by George Vanderbilt’s valet as it was displayed in “A Vanderbilt House Party” exhibition in 2019. Over his arm is a driving duster, as if he is assisting George prepare for a drive across his estate.

VALET