Thursday, November 21, 2013

Paper: "Tanner House: Domestic Help Included"

 Argumentative Paper

(Annnnd, It's an old one, I wrote it when I was learning how to write papers. So, be gentle)

Tanner House:
Domestic Help Included

Taylor Speer-Sims
 July 22, 2011
Sophomore Year - American Military University

The Tanner House, back view
Photo taken by Taylor Speer-Sims on camera phone 8/11/2011.

             The Tanner House museum is the largest house on its block in Aurora, Illinois. Although today it is

a museum, it was constructed as a home for one of the wealthiest men of the area. A descendant of the

original builders endowed the house as a gift to the historical society as a legacy to the family in 1936.

Since that inception many people have held the position of Curator, and others as tour guides. Within

those years,  it was commonly thought was that there was not a live-in household servant for the Tanners.

The house was considered a mansion when it was built, with an entire wing over the kitchen that was

accessed by its own staircase. This wing was accessible from the main family bedrooms of the upstairs,

however a lockable door separated them. That wing was built physically lower than that of the family

bedchambers. The size of the rooms and quality of materials was sufficiently lower in situation, not to

mention dignity. It should have been obvious to everyone entering the home that the Tanners would have

had at least one live-in domestic due to the large number of children that were in residence. This family

was one of the most affluent in the area, and most families at that time did have a servant to do the

household chores. The peers and siblings of Mr. and Mrs. William Tanner had live-in help. The

contemporary house plans for families with similar income

 included areas for these domestics to live. Over six decades, a Tanner House servant had not been proven

due to “no solid evidence.”[1] The policy of the requirement of proof before any admission of acceptance

did not consider the clues within, and around, the building itself. The Tanners of the 1850s did have at least

one live-in domestic even though the professional academics and historians of Aurora had not seen the proof

as of yet.
            The mansion was built in 1857 for William and Anna Tanner. They had moved from their successful farm just a few miles away because Mr. Tanner had found his success as a hardware merchant in the fast growing, boomtown of Aurora, Illinois. The city had grown from a village of “twelve hundred to nearly twelve thousand”[2] from the time of it’s founding in 1850 to 1856, the year before the Tanner house was built. To show the success of the family it was imperative to have their fancy new house built in an area where people could actually see it. The house was also built to be closer to the successful family business. The most modern of amenities were included within the design. There were coal stoves for heat provided by the Tanner’s store. Even though the stoves were placed in the most formal of rooms, the Tanners included the false fireplaces within more than one room. These faux fireplaces were included to show that the Tanners were wealthy enough to have the best of the new technology. It was also a case of grandstanding. The artificial fireplaces included beautiful, ornate, and expensive mantles for the sake of appearing that they could simply afford to be frivolous if they wanted to. The mansion included gas lines even though gas was not available to the town at the time that it was built. It took eleven years after they moved in before they were able to use their gas lighting[3]. The forward thinking and flagrant display of wealth should have been an indicator that someone of that social stature would have had the braggadocio to employ a house servant.
            Not only was this family opulent, they were also numerous. Anna Tanner gave birth to ten children, of which all save one survived. Even for families at the time, nine children surviving were considered a large number. It was not the number of children born that was so incredible. Many families of the time had just as many, or possibly even more. It was amazing that so many of those children survived. Death for children was epidemic due to many causes. Diseases were detrimental to the entire human society at that time in history, but a large number of children died for reasons that we would not think about today. Many children died from malnutrition or even falling down stairs. The railings were low, the stairs steep and the floors were built much higher back then. Many families with only one or two children hired someone to help with either the tending or education of the children, or to assist with the housework. One reason for the hiring was due to the female workload related to the “range of environmental and social conditions”[4] that influenced the “health of the … woman and the infant,”[5] in other words the stress of the work load. The infant mortality rate of children before 1900 in America was “162 per thousand”[6] so it would have been considered reckless of a woman of Anna Tanner’s social stature to risk her, or her child’s health if she did not employ someone to help her around the house. Stress related death of children was also high in the 19th century. The success of the survival of most of the Tanner children was by far superior than that of their contemporaries, which would indicate that the stress of the “environmental and social conditions”[7] for Mrs. Tanner, and her children, was surprising low.
            While Southern antebellum families would have had slaves for any domestic related services, the North would not have allowed that type of service. Not only was it against the law in Illinois for a family to own another human being, it would have been downright anti-Tanner. The Tanners were from New York before they moved to North Aurora, then on to Aurora. Their Abolitionism had been in their belief system for many years; it was even a local lore that Aurora was birthplace of the Republican Party due to its abolitionist fever and open use of the Underground Railroad.[8] Even though it would have been against the law to own a slave, they would not have done so. Most probably any servant that the Tanners would have had would not have even been of African descent. One reason was that the number of blacks in Aurora at the time was extremely low; there were only two noted in 1850, and only thirteen in 1860[9]. Another reason was that most white affluent Northerners were still racist. There was the “widespread belief that blacks and whites could not coexist equally”[10] which would have meant that any servants for the family would have been white.
There could have been laborers that worked on the house, or the carriage house on the same grounds next door.  However they would not have lived within the house itself. There would have been rooms within the carriage house for any possible live-in laborer. The person that would have assisted the Tanner family in their home would have been a woman. This would have been typical for this time period because even though roles of the sexes were changing,[11] they would not have changed enough to have a man do any of the household chores. The hiring of domestic help in the North was so prevalent that there were societies created for the benefit of their souls, such as the Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants.[12] So the numerous amounts of households throughout the United States that either owned or employed household servants were extremely numerous. Having a live-in domestic was certainly very typical of the times.
It was so much a part of the antebellum society to have a domestic that even those with less means, social standing and also children, had helpers. William Tanner’s brother moved into the farm that his family had previously vacated. Eugene Tanner had no children, but he and his wife did have a laborer, domestic assistant and the child of the domestic living at the farm.[13] Robert Tanner, merchant, had six children with a live-in Robert Carswell with his title listed as “farmer,” and another live-in “Mrs. Casey.” [14] Anna Tanner’s sister Lucy hired a servant after giving birth to her first child.[15] In the letter Anna writes “I have a girl now and expect to keep her all winter”[16] and also indicates that her husband who owns a mercantile store “has seven men now engaged”[17] which were workers for the family owned mercantile store. Not only was Lucy a sibling of the Mrs. Tanner’s, she was also a societal peer who had a servant to help with the housework.
The census of this time period showed that a significant number of people that lived in the same ward as the Tanner’s had at least one live-in helper.[18] There were numerous families that lived in the so called ‘Quality Hill,”[19] as the area was dubbed, that had someone listed on the rolls as either a domestic, laborer or servant at their same address. This ward was filled with the elite of the newly founded city of Aurora. Although not all houses had any type of servants listed in the census, the majority of those still would have had at least one person who was employed by, but not be a part of, that family due to the areas affluence and status. It would be an easy assumption to say that even those who did not have a servant listed in the census would have had day laborer in that upscale neighborhood. Because the majority did have at least one live-in helper, it would be easy to assume that the Tanners, who by no means had the smallest house, would have also had one as well.
Even though the actual blue prints of the floor plan of the Tanner house are now no longer available for anyone to see, it was a typical feature of the well-to-do houses to include servant rooms, especially over the kitchen. Contemporary houses of the Antebellum North included anywhere from one room, to an entire wing of rooms for the easement of any live-in servant. These plans that included domestic quarters ranged from row-houses in the larger cities to large mansions in the new suburbs. One such plan of residence that was in Kansas City, Missouri was built shortly after that of the Tanner house was for an equally affluent client. This floor plan revealed one servant room built over the kitchen and next to a staircase that lead to that room[20]. A another house plan for a Michigan home that was also for someone of the same income and social sphere, had a small wing with two “servant’s chamber[s]” drawn above the kitchen with a private staircase.[21]  The suspect wing in the fashionable Tanner house was built in the same location as the servants’ rooms were in those concurrent house plans.
            The Tanner mansion was built in the Italianate style that was so popular in Antebellum America that it was often called the American Bracketed style,”[22] that also included the popular cupola,[23] of which the Tanner house did have. However, it was more than just a regular Italianate, and different than an Italianate Villa style, because there was no tower built. [24] This house was built as a Latin Cross style Italianate. In other words, the footprint of the house was built in the shape of a cross. The formal rooms were in the front downstairs of the house, where the guests would be accepted. The “front room, or parlor, was kept for the best.”[25] The guests did not venture to the family area of the house. Also, the servants, if any, would not have been able to venture to those formal areas unless working in them. The rear of the house was the long area of the cross where the dining room and the room where the elder tanners turned into their master after they were unable to climb the stairs. Behind this area was the kitchen and scullery. Above the front rooms were four very large bedrooms and a solarium. Even though there were so many children, it was common that the children would sleep together, even in the same bed, until they were adults. So the family would not have needed so many bedrooms.
Above the kitchen, scullery and dining room, an entire wing of five small rooms was created that was physically lower than that of the front bedrooms, commonly called the attic even though the house was built with an actual attic. These rooms were constructed approximately one-half the size of the front rooms with plain white walls, except the room that had been the curators’ kitchen where it still has old wallpaper, and poor carpet. It has been argued that after so many years, changes would have been made, however, there has been very little change in the house due to the poor economic standing of the historical society.
            The wing above the kitchen had its own staircase leading directly from the kitchen. The private stairwell was built with a locking door. This door was an barrier to keep the inhabitations of the rooms in their social place. Many people believed that this area could have been used for storage, because of the locked door and they possibly being attic rooms. Locked storage was certainly common practice of the time. Valuable goods were always locked away to keep visitors, and especially servants, from getting into them and stealing what the family had. It was most probably not the case in the Tanner home. The house was built with a lean-to, full basement, attic, locking pantry, and also the un-attached carriage house. These were more likely the areas that were used for their cache. It was believed at this time that each room was to be used exactly as it was intended. Multi-purpose rooms or changing of the idea were no longer the accepted practice. The idea that a room that was built for a servant actually being used for a different purpose would have been ludicrous to the Tanners.
There have been arguments that the rooms could also have been used for visiting relations. However, these rooms were above the kitchen, where noises and odors of cooking would have been prevalent. The best areas were for the guests[26], and these rooms obviously were not the best rooms. It would have been an breech of etiquette to allow guests to stay in the smallest of rooms, much less rooms that would have allowed those guests to hear and smell what was going on in the rooms immediately below. Breaching of boundaries where “scullery noises penetrating outside the … scullery, or, worse, smells wafting through the house”[27] were simply unacceptable to any person in the Tanner’s social class. A servant’s quarters were built above the kitchen because it “was not uncommon for kitchen help to sleep where they worked[28] or in the attic[29] which is exactly where this wing was built. The servant would have had their rooms “usually on the top floor of the house.”[30] It is also worth mentioning that the wing was built not only over the kitchen and dining room, but also over the scullery. A scullery was a workroom where “servants washed dishes and polished silver and brass,”[31] not for ladies in a well-off family to do their own dishes.
                        The Victorian family believed that everything, and everyone, should have their own place. They were an orderly society. It was imperative that a person within a certain social sphere should stay in that sphere. A person of high rank in local society needed to always portray their rank visually. This would have been indicative of their clothing, hairstyle, mode of transportation as well as housing. Someone with the high rank of the prosperous Tanners would have had the need to show their wealth by attaining a servant. Not only would they have had to hire someone, they would have shown the world by building the house with a lower wing, that was not only visible inside the house, but on the outside as well.
The staff of the “cross” in the house was built so that anyone near the building could tell that there were subordinates who lived there.  Inside the house, a locking door from the family bedrooms separated that wing. Segregation of family members and servants were of utmost importance. Contamination by anyone other than a family member in the family bedrooms would not have been tolerated. Houses were designed and built to keep “one group of inhabitants from impinging on any other.”[32] It was also important for a locked door to separate family members from anyone else so that the “segregation that permeated the Victorian house”[33] would keep social status sacrosanct. Behind this lockable door, one would have had to step down two steps from the family rooms as they entered the wing. A common belief was that one should have had to look up to one’s betters, literally. It was also necessary that a servant should be looked down upon. The lower class quarters were built so that they were literally physically lower than that of their superiors. 
The physical size of the rooms in the wing above the kitchen is another indicator of local servitude. It was very common for family rooms to be of a comfortable size, especially when numerous people would have slept in the same room. What was also common at the time was to build servant rooms to a very simple formula. This formula included small rooms with bare walls. The family would have better furnishings. The flooring material would have been of lesser grade if it were wood, rug or carpet for any servant room. Most assuredly during the time immediately before the Civil War, a carpet would not have been installed for a servant’s room, or if it was, it would have been a cut down, used rug from a family room that was no longer of great value. These rugs were quite costly and were also difficult to keep clean. The servant would have been expected to use their cleaning skills on the main house, not that of their own rooms. By the time that the Tanner home was built, it was common for family bedrooms “to be furnished to the standards of the reception rooms.”[34]  So, the poorer quality of the walling would not have been usual in any room that the family would have used. A servant’s area would have been small because the homeowner would “not bother to make their servant’s bedrooms and workrooms cheerful or comfortable.”[35] They would, however, have wanted better quality for themselves.
The original owners, William and Anna Tanner had a wonderful life, with many children. Those nine children that survived also had children. It was one of those grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. William Tanner that decided to give the Tanner House to the Aurora Historical Society. The society itself was created in 1909, but the endowment took place in 1936. The house was donated so that the Tanner family legacy would be remembered and appreciated by the residents of Aurora in perpetuity. There was no mention of remembrance or appreciation of any servant in the benefaction notes or accession records. There was not one mention of anyone other than that of the Tanner family. The gift was specifically to make sure that the builders, who were members of the social and income elite of Aurora, were commemorated. However, there was no mention that there was not any type of servant, either. Just because someone was not mentioned, does not mean that they did not exist.
The numerous members of the Aurora Historical Society have been extremely scholarly throughout the years. Men and women that have sat on the board of the Aurora Historical Society have had a range of professions and education. Besides the curators, assistant curators and board members, etc., there have been possibly hundreds of volunteers over the years. These people that have been so gracious with their time would not have had to have any type of background in history. However, they would have all had some sort of passion in history to have their precious and valuable time taken up for no pay. One volunteer position that has been used thoroughly was the position of tour guide. The tour guide paperwork for the upstairs states "there is no solid evidence that the Tanners had live-in servants."[36] This was written for, and used by, the tour guides for over seventy years even though there have been so many indications that there actually was a live-in domestic.
After weeks of research, definitive proof of a live-in domestic helper was found on June 30, 2011. In the census of June 14, 1860, on the original page number eighty; the family of the William Tanner household was listed. However, their last name was spelled strangely incorrect. The name was not spelled in any way that it made it easy to locate. During the 1800’s a man was paid per household to literally fill out family information and register said household in their Census book. Some of these men had great, beautiful, flowing script; others wrote in a straightforward, crisp block print. Sadly, others were written illegibly because of either poor penmanship skills, or because they were in a hurry, or both. What appears to have happened in the Tanner case, is that the man filling out the Tanner information wrote it as “Taner” or “Tamer” where the two “n’s” ran together to form an “m”. Then out of design, or by accident, the census taker crossed the “T” so that it became an “F”. So, Tanner became Famer in the 1860 census. What is obvious is that the occupation of the Wm. (short for William) was listed as “Merchant.” The wife’s name is ‘Anna” and all nine children are listed correctly. At the very bottom of the list, under the same household is another name. That name was “Margrett Molliter,” whose occupation at the same said house, was listed as “Servant.”[37] Molliter was the live-in domestic of the original builders, William and Anna Tanner. It is interesting to note that Margrett Molliter did not exist in many people’s minds for over seven decades. The proof was in the house all along, and yet still out of sight. A wing was possibly built especially for her.
The Tanner House was donated to the Aurora Historical Society over seventy years ago. There have been at least twelve professional curators, half that in associate curators and numerous board members. Many people have volunteered throughout the years to work in the office with the documents, or give tour guides through the mansion. This antebellum house was built during a time when servants were the norm for any wealthy family, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. It was obvious that the wing above the kitchen was built for servants to those inside, as well as outside the house. The location, size, and quality of the rooms indicated servants. The separation from the family rooms was another indication that a family member did not reside within those halls. Contemporary house plans showed that the rooms exactly in the same location were built specifically for a domestic to reside, not for storage. Social peers, as well as the siblings of the house builders had live-in help. People in the Victorian era always wanted to show off their wealth,[38] so it would have been abundantly clear that these wealthy homeowners showed off that money by hiring a live-in domestic. The number of surviving children that the Tanners had was surprising large, even for a family at that time. It would have been necessary that Mrs. Tanner had someone to help with either the children, or the household chores. The health of the family announces to the world that they did not have the stress of heavy household labor, someone else had to have done that work. The scullery alone shows that there was a household domestic. Why did it take so long for anyone to find the woman that was employed in the Tanner Mansion? The proof was always there, just not recognized. Margrett Molliter was the live-in worker for the Tanners; it is time that she was acknowledged as such.


The Aurora Historical Society. “Upstairs House Tanner Tour”. Aurora, IL: ND.

Baker, John Milnes A.I.A.  American House Styles: A concise Guide. New York: W. W. Norton
            & Company, Inc. 1994.

Breckon, Bill, Jeffrey Parker and Martin Andrew. Tracing the History of Houses. 2nd ed.
Newbury, England: Countryside Books, 2000.
Dennis Buck, From Slavery to Glory: African Americans Come to Aurora, Illinois, 1850 – 1920.
Aurora, IL: Aurora Historical Society, 2005.

Cirker, Blanche, ed., Victorian House Designs: in Authentic Full Color, 75 Plates from the
“Scientific American-Architects and Builders Edition,” 1885-1894. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, INC., 1996.

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. New
York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2003.

Kalman, Bobbie. The Victorian Home. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1997.
Molnar. Stephen and Iva M. Molnar, Environmental Change and Human Survival: Some
Dimensions of Human Ecology. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth U.S. Census of Population, 1860, Micro copy 653 191, roll 3,
volume 3, Kane County, Illinois

[1] The Aurora Historical Society, “Upstairs House Tanner Tour” (Aurora, IL: ND), 4.
[2] Dennis Buck, From Slavery to Glory: African Americans Come to Aurora, Illinois, 1850 – 1920 (Aurora, IL: Aurora Historical Society, 2005), 42.
[3] Andrea Kleppe, personal communication with author, July 21, 2011.
[4] Stephen Molnar and Iva M. Molnar, Environmental Change and Human Survival: Some Dimensions of Human Ecology. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000), 132.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 133.
[7] Ibid, 132.
[8] Dennis Buck, From Slavery to Glory: African Americans Come to Aurora, Illinois, 1850 – 1920 (Aurora, IL: Aurora Historical Society, 2005), 73.
[9] Ibid, 140.
[10] Steven Mintz, Moralists & Modernizers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995),
[11] Ibid, XX
[12] Ibid, 52.
[13] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth U.S. Census of Population, 1860, Micro copy 653 191, roll 3, volume 3, Kane County, Illinois.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Lucy P. Keller, personal letter written to Anna Tanner, December 8, 1844.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth U.S. Census of Population, 1860, Micro copy 653 191, roll 3, volume 3, Kane County, Illinois.
[19] Dennis Buck, From Slavery to Glory: African Americans Come to Aurora, Illinois, 1850 – 1920 (Aurora, IL: Aurora Historical Society, 2005), 26.
[20] Blanche Cirker, ed., Victorian House Designs: in Authentic Full Color, 75 Plates from the “Scientific American-Architects and Builders Edition,” 1885-1894 (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, INC., 1996), 20.
[21] Ibid, 28.
[22] John Milnes Baker, A.I.A., American House Styles: A concise Guide (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1994) 78.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid, 76.
[25] Bill Breckon, Jeffrey Parker and Martin Andrew, Tracing the History of Houses, 4th ed.  (Newbury, Berckshire: Countryside Books, 2003), 47.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2003), 31.
[28] Ibid, 38.
[29] Bill Breckon, Jeffrey Parker and Martin Andrew, Tracing the History of Houses, 4th ed.  (Newbury, Berckshire: Countryside Books, 2003), 46.
[30] Bobbie Kalman, The Victorian Home (New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1997), 13.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2003), 31.
[33] Ibid, 37.
[34] Ibid, 40.
[35] Bobbie Kalman, The Victorian Home (New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1997), 13.
[36] The Aurora Historical Society, “Upstairs House Tanner Tour” (Aurora, IL: ND), 4.
[37] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth U.S. Census of Population, 1860, Micro copy 653 191, roll 3, volume 3, Kane County, Illinois.
[38] Bobbie Kalman, The Victorian Home (New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1997), 13.

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