does it mean that the market mechanism does not work—that the offer of the going rate of wages does not secure a servant because servants do not move to the highest bidder? This complaint—which would be far from unanimous—would have economic significance because it would imply that wages do not allocate servants: there is, however, little empirical support for it.

From "Domestic Servants in the United States, 1900-1940" by George Stigler.

Did the number of domestic servants decline during the second half of the 20th century, and if so, what are the possible explanations for this decline?

Please post answers with academic references only.

  • $\begingroup$ Published in referred economics journals only or including scholarly works more generally like books written by scholars in other disciplines that are not economists? $\endgroup$
    – BKay
    Oct 4, 2020 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @BKay More general scholarly works are also fine! $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Oct 4, 2020 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ Did you check whether “domestic servant” is a category in employment data? $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2020 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianRomanchuk I did not. I don't do labor economics and would not know where to look. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Oct 5, 2020 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ In the US, Bureau of Labour Statistics is where the data would be. My concern is that this is too small a group for a category, and since the employer is a household, not captured in surveys. Also, would you consider “cleaning services” to be domestic servants? That employment is probably rising along with two-income households, and probably is tracked as a category. If there are no official data, we are stuck with estimates, and the estimation method is unlikely to be consistent over time. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2020 at 12:11

1 Answer 1


I think that what Stigler called 'domestic servant' would be nowadays considered 'domestic worker'. For example, according to the Luebker, Oelz, & Simonovsky (2013). Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection (a technically semi-academic source as it is a technical report but based on comments I believe this would be acceptable to you), implicitly equates domestic workers with servants (and provides statistics on domestic work). According to the report:

With respect to North America, national sources also show a relatively low share of domestic workers in total employment – 0.5 per cent in the United States (2010) ... For the United States, the 2010 Current Population Survey put the number of domestic workers at 667,000 men and women. This represented a substantial decrease, of roughly 140,000 workers, following the onset of the economic crisis; the same survey counted more than 800,000 in the pre-crisis years 2005 to 2008. Job losses among domestic workers were therefore quite substantial – an aspect that is not commonly highlighted in discussions of the employment impact of the global economic and financial crisis. ... Historical sources indicate that the number of domestic workers was substantially higher at the time of industrialization in the United States. The censuses of 1870 and 1900 counted 975,000 and 1,455,000 “servants”, respectively (see Rubinow, 1906). [emphasis mine]

Note that the number reported above by Rubinow roughly match statistics reported by Stigler.

According to the report indeed the number of domestic worker ('servants') declined in the second half of 20th century as in 2005-2008 the number of these workers was roughly half of what it was in 1900.

The data sources for US are listed as:

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey 2010 (Labor Force Statistics: tables 17 and 18 at www.bls.gov).

Additionally they frequently reference data from published papers/reports/books like the Rubinow in the excerpt above.

As to the reason what is the explanation of this decline - the authors do not mention specifically reasons for the historic decline in the U.S. (although for U.K. they cite changes to immigration policy which in past allowed servants to get settled status after 5 years), but the authors and also sources they cite argue that historically most domestic work was done by; a) women, b) immigrants.

There is a peculiar historical continuity with respect to the overrepresentation of international migrants among domestic workers. Based on United States Census data from the late nineteenth century, Rubinow observed (1906, p. 508) that “[a]s most means of employment are closed to the foreign-born (even English- speaking) women, almost every second woman is forced to become a servant”. At the time, the largest numbers of migrant domestic workers in the United States came from Ireland (195,000), Germany (161,000) and Sweden (45,800).

In the report they also argue that most of domestic work is still performed by migrants or people who face barriers into entry to other occupations. Hence, my first guess would be that the number of domestic servants declined because nowadays especially women but migrants as well face less restrictions when entering into other occupations (although to be clear this is my conjecture).


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