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Little Women author Louisa May Alcott was not a fan of 'Irish incapables'

Here ‘No Irish need apply’ column has surfaced in recent days.

KNOWN AS A feminist and an abolitionist, it comes as a surprise to see what author Louisa May Alcott wrote about Irish women in a 1874 column about servant girls.

PastedImage-59541 Source: Library of Congress

The piece, entitled the Servant-Girl Problem, includes a number of disparaging remarks about Irish people.

Writing in the Boston Transcript, Alcott advises readers to hire American-born women as servants so that they “never again have [their] substance wasted, [their] peace destroyed and their homes invaded by foreign incapables”.

PastedImage-99594 At age 20 Source: Wikimedia

Earlier in the article, she referred to the “Irish incapables” who were employed in her house, telling the story of Biddy who she admitted was “unusually intelligent” but that the “faults of her race seemed unconquerable”.

The article emerged this week as historian Liam Hogan set about trying to document the number of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ adverts which appeared in US newspapers.

During his research of all the main newspaper databases, he found 268 such ads.

His work came after a controversy between a historian and a High School student in the US debating whether ‘No Irish Need Apply’ (NINA) ads and signs ever existed.

Rebecca Fried, 14, unearthed hundreds of examples of NINA ads and published No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs” in the summer edition of the Oxford Journal of Social History.

She claimed her work disproved that of Professor Richard Jensen who claims that the “legend” of the NINA signs and ads fed into a “myth of victimisation” by Irish Americans.

On seeing Fried’s research, Jensen said most of the examples could be passed off as “misinterpretations” or “not relevant to the historical debate”.

He also said that the phenomenon, although present in some ads, was not as “ubiquitous” as other scholars believe.

According to Hogan, ”NINA adverts were very rare overall and NINA signs were so rare in the US that they are almost mythical, but as far as I can see, no other immigrant group in the US was singled out as much as the Irish in this way, for this long.”

The last advert he found dated from 1919.

Search Hogan’s full database of all NINA ads found here.

Here is the Louisa May Alcott article in full: 

“As one successful fact is worth columns of speculation, allow me to relate an experiment which I have lately tried with such happy results that other despairing ‘mississes’, have gone and done likewise. Last spring, it became my turn to keep house for a very mixed family of old and young, with very different tastes, tempers and pursuits. For several years Irish incapables have reigned in our kitchen, and general discomfort has pervaded the house. The girl then serving had been with us a year, and was an unusually intelligent person, but the faults of her race seemed to be unconquerable, and the winter had been a most trying one all around.

My first edict was, “Biddy must go.” “You won’t get any one else, mum, so early in the season,” said Biddy, with much satisfaction at my approaching downfall. “Then I’ll do the work myself, so you can pack up,” was my undaunted reply. Biddy departed, sure of an early recall, and for a month I do the work myself, looking about meantime for help.

“No Irish need apply,” was my answer to the half-dozen girls who, spite of Biddy’s prophecy, did come to take the place. I tried a fat Scotch woman, but as she could not go down cellar, upset the gravity of the children when she waited at table and thought our abode “the countriest place she ever saw,” she lumbered away after a short stay.

Another bout at general housework satisfied me that one person could easily do it if she was also not expected to entertain much company, and run errands, write several dozen letters a week and do the family sewing. “One other woman, to see to the food departments and leave me free after my morning work is done, is what I need. “Now where shall I find her?” was my decision.

Remembering a happy experience of other years, when we answered the advertisement of a housekeeper and got an excellent woman who did all the work for three dollars a week, I turned to the column of wants in the Transcript and found five advertisements of American women wishing places as housekeepers.

I answered several, saw one young widow with a child, also a pert spinter whose first question was, “Is your father a widower?” and several stout ladies who wished merely to order other servants about, and were altogether too elegant for our simple family.

Two remained that who seemed eligible, Miss Amelia C and Miss Annie S. Miss Amelia was too much dressed, and seemed rather afraid of work; so after a look at her I gave her up and went after Miss Annie.

I found a delicate little woman of thirty, perhaps, neat, modest, cheerful and ladylike. She made no promises, but said, “I’ll come and try;” so I engaged her at three dollars a week, to take charge of the kitchen department. She came, and with her coming peace fell upon our perturbed family – a peace that lasted unbroken for four months, in spite of much company, dangerous illness in the house, and many unforseen incidents.

My little Miss S was one of the family, for in the beginning I said to her: “I want some one to work with me as my sisters used to do. There is no mistress or maid about it, and the favor is as much on your side as mine. Work is a part of my religion and there is no degradation in it, so your are as much as lady to me, cooking my dinner in the kitchen, as any friend who sits in the parlor. Eat with us, talk with us, work with us; and when the daily tasks are done, rest with us, read our books, sit in our parlor, and enjoy all we can offer you in return for your faithful and intelligent services.”

She smiled, and looked as if she caught a glimpse of hope and comfort after much weary seeking for a home as well as a place. I think she found that I kept my word, and was a happy little woman all summer. I know that a great load was lifted off my shoulders, when day after day I found three nicely-cooked meals ready at the appointed hour, my kitchen always  neat, with no flies in uncovered milk, no dish towels under the stove, no silver in the sink, or the table looking as if set by a hurricane.

She did the marketing also, and the monthly bills showed a surprising difference for no spoilt messes went to the pigs, timely care kept things in order, and good judgement made economy a pleasant possibility.

When illness came, I had no thought for anything beyond the sick room; all went below as regularly as if I were still there. If friends called, my neat housekeeper could receive and reply to their inquiries. If I forgot to eat, she came to me with some tempting dish and begged me take it, with a look of sympathy that made it sweet; and when I asked how the family had got on, I found that all had fared well, and no sense of neglect or waste added to my anxieties.

Only one failing did I discover in Miss S. (I always gave her name as she gave me mine, and returned the respect she paid me as scrupulously as I could.) She was not very strong, for much work had done for her what it does for most American women in her case, and by lessening her health had impaired her usefulness. Finding that the washing was too hard for her, I got a stout neighbour to come in and do it.

The good Irish woman sniffed at first at my “lady”, as she called Miss S., but before the summer was over the kind soul gave in and said heartily:

Sure Miss, dear, it’s a nice little crater she is and mighty helpful to ye, lave alone her being a true lady. I’m wishing ye’ll get another as good when she goes.”

So did I, for alas, my little S did go, because she only came for the summer and preferred the city in winter. Her fame, however, had gone abroad and a friend, hearing her praises sung, came to secure her as a companion for her old mother. I could cordially recommend her to this easier place, for her experience as a teacher made her a good reader, her knowledge of needlework made her a good seamstress, and the thrifty household virtues of an intelligent New England woman made her a comfort in any home she might enter.

Before she left, however, half a dozen of my neighbors, who, by the way, had foretold the utter failure of my experiment, came to see, talk with and try to tempt Miss S to come and do for them what she had done for me.

But she preferred the city and went, taking with her the respect, gratitude and regard of the whole family.

Cheered by my first success, I tried again, and found no lack of excellent American women longing for a home and eager to except the rights, not privileges, which I offered them. Every one whose advertisement I answered replied to me, and one person came to see me, so anxious was she to secure a place where she could be “treated like a lady, though she did work for her daily bread;” but a young daughter must be with her; and though I longed to take in the homeless souls, we needed but one, for I could not give up the work that is my best medicine for both mind and body.

So I took Miss J., a pretty, soft-eyed woman, whose modest dress and gentle manner won me at once. She was a farmer’s daughter seeking to support herself, and had lived seven years in one place as housekeeper for a clergyman, and for two years had the entire charge of a motherless little boy.

All these experiences had given her power and skill of different sorts and the refinement of feeling which is so grateful in those we live with. She, too, had worked hard and overtaxed her strength; but was ready to do anything in return for kindness, respect and the protection of a home.

We liked her even better than our S., and the prospect of a lonely winter was made endurable to me by the presence of one who could be both helper and companion. She did the cooking, washing and ironing, though I preferred to help with the latter, as it was better gymnastics for an arm, cramped with too much pen-work, than any movement cure ever invented.

As I found her stronger than Miss S and able to do much that I never felt willing to ask of the other, I gave her four dollars a week and felt that it was money well spent.

Unfortunately, a sudden change of plan made it necessary to shut up the house for the winter and disband our forces. I had feared that Miss J would find it too solitary, and was both touched and pleased when she said with real regret:

Oh no, I’d give anything to stay with you till spring or longer. It is the sort of place I wanted and never hoped to find.

I made known the case to a friend and in a week five townswomen came to inquire about my housekeeper for this second success converted several of the most unbelieving matrons. A place was soon found, and when I said goodbye to my friend as well as helper she paid me the best compliment I ever received: “I thought, perhaps, you wrote one way about work and tried another; but you don’t; and if ever you want me I’ll come again with all my heart.”

Now this experiment is worth telling, because it has been successfully tried with three different women; and there are plenty more ready to do their best in families where they can be properly treated. Some ladies may object to having a stranger at the table, yet is is better to have a lady there than an ear at the keyhole and an Irish tongue to gossip of family affairs to the neighbours’ girls.

Some would thinking that this helper would be in the way if she sat in the parlor, but a well-bred woman knows by instinct when to go and when to stay. Miss S. gently vanished when visitors came in, or if some duty kept her there I introduced her, and so prevented any feeling of awkwardness on the part of guests, or that sense of exclusion which is so hard to a social or sensitive woman.

Miss J always sat in the dining room, which in the evening was lighted; the folding doors left open and the music or chat of the parlor free to her as to us. It was pleasant to me to see the neat, pretty woman sitting there, enjoying the books, brightening at a friendly word, ready to lend a hand wherever needed, and so happy in the atmosphere of freedom which made labor light and life less sad and solitary for her.

In a large and fashionable family this may not be possible, and I leave such to their own slendors and worries. But in that great class of families where small incomes make economy necessary, help of this sort is most needed and may easily be found if the heads of the family are willing to pay for it in something besides money.

These women long for homes, are well fitted for these cares, love children, are glad to help busy mothers and lighten domestic burdens, if, with their small wages, they receive respect, sympathy and the kindness that is genuine, not patronising or forced. Let them feel that they confer a favor in living with your, that you are equals, and that the fact of a few dollars a week does not build up a wall between two women who needed each other.

Dear ladies, don’t say this is sentimental or impossible, but try it in all good faith, and take the word of one who has known both sides of the mistress and maid question, that if you do your part faithfully you need never again have your substance wasted, your peace destroyed and your home invaded by foreign incapables.

Read: Direct provision student who received 575 points told to accept college offer

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