Butler history Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, March 2021, The Wisdom of Butlers Past

Steven FerryThe Wisdom of Butlers Past

by Steven Ferry


PART 46: Professional events require trained and drilled staff.

Another area of trouble was lack of training and drilling, the example given starting with an uneducated butler being assisted by uneducated waiters drawn from the stable hands and the hall boy, as well as two experienced footmen attached to the guests but who were not shown the ropes before the dinner started. All this in order to provide a good ratio of waiters to guests (in the example given, 6 staff for 14 guests).

The answer to such was to know the skills of each helper ahead of time and to show them the ropes as much as possible—easier than it sounds in the days before phones, emails, and text messages for instant relay of information. So it became better to have only skilled staff interacting directly with the guests and the rest assisting in the background. This gave rise to the other extreme: Having too few staff to provide proper service, so the staff were not “waiting” on the guests, but the guests on the staff.

Which brings us to the derivation of the words “wait” staff and “waiter;” which is “to be awake” and later applied to a watchman who is awake at night, observing carefully while waiting. Two centuries ago, multiple footmen would stand behind the guests throughout the meal, waiting to provide the next needed service at the direction of the butler. And so we see how footmen and their butler senior, who were the original waiters, gave birth to the concept of the modern waiter, and also, perhaps, why in modern times, so many people confuse butlers with waiters, not realizing that waiting at table is a very small (but important and traditional) part of the job description.



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 (alan AT



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