“Good evening, good evening! Now. We have much to do, so let us begin, yes?”
This is how ‘Mrs. Williams,’ the fictional housekeeper and domestic staff hiring manager, greets tour guests in the service hall in the basement of the 1883 Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion, home to the Driehaus Museum today.
I was tasked with creating a living history tour to add a fun, interactive, and educational option to the Museum’s offerings. However, little information survives about the Nickerson family’s real servants. After extensive research into the experience of a immigrant working in domestic service in Chicago during the same period as the Nickerson Mansion was built, I created the character of Mrs. Williams. In addition to the script, to assist with actor training and continuing education, I assembled a packet of relevant historic information from primary research sources about the the domestic servant class during the Gilded Age.
In both of the tours Mrs. Williams, played by an actor in period costume, engages guests immediately by considering them as applicants for a position in the mansion. Before the tour begins, guests choose which position they would like to apply for, such as ladies’ maid, cook, or footman. Then the group is whisked through the house’s back staircases and former domestic staff quarters while being informed of their duties, pay, and living arrangements, as well as plenty of Gilded Age-era Chicago gossip and fascinating cultural trends (such as phrenology, a la russe dining, and fashion).
The 2012 Summer Servants’ Tour was instantly popular. Due to its success, for the winter holidays I adapted a new version to explore social customs and servants’ responsibilities during a typical nineteenth-century Christmas season. Both received favorable reviews on TripAdvisor and in the local media, such as the Time Out Chicago.
In July 2013, Vince Gerasole of CBS Chicago visited Mrs. Williams, played by Tasia Hoffman, at the Museum. To view the video segments, click here.