Butler history Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, April 2018, The Wisdom of Butlers Past

Steven FerryThe Wisdom from Butlers Past

by Steven Ferry

Part 11

After cleaning shoes, the next most important duty, apparently, of the butler two centuries ago, was cleaning knives and forks. The first of 6.5 pages of instruction is on the need for the proper equipment and the waste that occurs without it. In this case, to clean knives, one should have a smooth wooden board (without knots), preferably covered in leather. One then melts mutton suet (fat from around the kidneys), pours it on the leather, rubs two bricks together over the fat and mixes them together until no fat appears on a knife passed through the mix. Too much brick dust will scratch the knives. With a knife in each hand, not pressing too hard, slide them over the mix. This can be done for carving knives to sharpen them, too, and is preferable to a knife sharpener, which scratches the knives.

As for cleaning forks, fill a small barrel, such as an oyster barrel, with fine gravel, brick dust, or sand, mix it with hay or moss, and dampen. Simply plunge the forks in and out of the mix a few times to remove all stains. There are further instructions.

How were the knives and forks to be stored, ready for use? Rub the steel parts with oil and wipe off after a few hours; or dust with quick lime. Mutton suet or bran are also offered as alternatives, though the latter can promote rust.

These technologies and procedures bring home the reason so many staff were needed to run these large houses: no detergent! No shoe polish; no refrigerators; no electricity, etc. Almost everything had to be made by hand by the staff on site.

One could say that the advances of household tools a century ago allowed the great houses to continue to be serviced despite a steep drop-off in numbers of domestic staff. And today, the same applies to the advent of automation and artificial intelligence. Will this trend continue ad absurdum—to the point where there are NO humans involved in the running of these large households (and businesses and factories, etc.)?

Extracted from the 1823 book, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrancer, re-published in hardback by Pryor Publications.

You may obtain your discounted copy (with free s&h) by emailing the publisher: Mr. Pryor (

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