Housekeeper ads illustrated insecurity of pre-Sixties life

A few evenings ago, following a casual discussion at a social event, I went looking for archival newspaper articles about “Rooster Town”, a neighbourhood of shacks on the south side of Winnipeg that was cleared away in the Fifties to make way for Grant Park High School, the adjacent athletic grounds, and eventually Pan Am Pool.

As fascinating as the story was, my eye was soon caught by another story, accompanied by a picture of a young woman in hospital with a bandage around her head. Above the photo, a caption: “Why Was She Shot?” Below it, the headline: “Just Like Dream, Says Gun Victim”.

The gun victim was 23-year-old Analise Zahn, who arrived in Canada in October, 1951 after escaping from East Germany to West Berlin, and then emigrating to Canada where she found work as a housekeeper in the Averbach household on Bredin Drive in East Kildonan.

On the evening of Dec. 17, barely two months after arriving in Canada and knowing few people here, a .22-calibre bullet entered the house through a basement window and struck the side of her head while she was doing the ironing. Not knowing the source of her injury, it wasn’t until she was eventually taken to St. Boniface Hospital that she realized that she had been shot.

The only hints as to how she might have come to be shot: her own recollection of a dark sedan driving slowly past the home about 20 minutes before the incident, and unconfirmed reports that two rifle shells were found in the back lane.

After those initial reports were published, the story went dead. Neither the newspapers nor Google yield any information into Analise’s fate.

A newspaper search for the address, though, yields something a little more interesting. The Averbachs regularly advertised in the Winnipeg Free Press for a domestic: at least twice during 1950, twice more in 1951, regularly every subsequent year through 1955, and for one last time in 1957.

One of those ads was placed on Jan. 21, 1952, just a month after Analise was shot: “Reliable girl for housework in lovely new home, all electric appliances, private room and radio, no cooking, liberal free time. Ph. 501 842, 330 Bredin Dr.”

Clearly, Analise had moved on.

Looking through the same classified ads, there was obviously an active market in 1952 for domestics.

Some advertisers only needed part-time help, such as one River Heights resident who was looking for a “reliable woman to take charge of evening meal, 3 to 7 Mon. through Fri.”

Others wanted someone who would be present around the clock, such as this advertiser: “Young married couple. Both working, living in new modern home, 1 child, need preferably middle aged woman to live in.” Another ad reads, “Reliable girl for light housework, 1 child, small home, must sleep in [employer’s residence].”

To some degree, would-be employers competed with each other to make their homes seem more attractive than others, using terms like “liberal free time”, “no waxing”, “no cooking” or “top wages” to differentiate themselves.

A surprising number of advertisers also added conditions such as “must be plain cook”, which speaks volumes to Canadians’ love for flavourless food in those days. Others promoted themselves as providing “a good home”, suggesting in some cases that the employers intended to take on a semi-parental role.

By the early Fifties, addresses, where given, tended to be in the suburbs. In earlier years, however, housekeepers were common even in what would now be considered as more modest parts of town, illustrating the changes in Winnipeg neighbourhoods over the decades.

“Wanted. General Servant,” read one ad published in June 1917, directing applicants to a neighbourhood that now has a sketchy reputation. “One willing to go to Winnipeg Beach. Apply 228 Spence.”

Another, the same day, directed applicants to a thoroughly middle class St. Boniface neighbourhood: “Girl wanted. Small family. $20 month. 68 Monk [sic] Ave., Norwood.”

Even after a century of inflation, this wage would still only be equivalent to $335 per month in 2018.

Some employers had unique needs. One advertiser in April 1920 sought a “refined woman in small home as companion, and for light housekeeping” for a family of two on Rosedale Ave. in Fort Rouge, promising “Sundays and most evenings free.” A year before, another advertiser claiming to be a widower was specifically looking for a “homely housekeeper, about 34”.

Some advertisements highlighted the city’s social tensions. One blunt advertisement published in March 1917 read, “Wanted, woman to wash every Monday; no foreigners need apply. 34 Middlegate, Armstrong’s Point.”

Yet others perhaps accidentally highlighted the vulnerability of the young women who took these jobs. “Schoolgirl will give services in return for board, room and slight remuneration,” reads one published in August 1929. “Danish housekeeper with baby, wants position, home more than wages,” read another slightly desperate advertisement placed in August 1916. “Elderly widow wishes a situation as housekeeper to widower or bachelor,” reads a third ad placed in April 1922.

These advertisements reveal a truth about the past: many of the women who worked as domestics in Winnipeg did so for lack of better options.

Some were teenagers living apart from their families for the first time, and needed some way — even if a risky way — of avoiding homelessness. Others were single mothers or elderly women with little to nothing in terms of a social safety net to resort to.

Once a stronger social safety net reduced the kind of desperation that pushed women toward domestic service, cheaper household appliances rendered human servants uneconomically expensive, and Canadians became accustomed to low-density suburban living and the additional privacy it offered, the era of keeping a servant around the house came to an end for all but the wealthiest of families.

Below, you can read some of the ads that appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in Nov. 1920. These offer rich insights into the insecurity that many women faced in the era as well as into the ethnic and religious hierarchies of the time.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Housekeeper ads illustrated insecurity of pre-Sixties life

  1. Charlene says:

    My mother worked as a maid in the early 1950s. From what she told me (she’s been gone 14 years) the Averbach family was typical, and for the very reasons you cite. There weren’t many jobs available back then for women, especially young immigrants and farm girls whose English might not be adequate to work in business, but at the same time it wasn’t considered appropriate for married women to work outside the home. Service was one of the few jobs any woman with a strong back could do in the few short years between leaving school/arriving in Canada and marriage. Of course there were positions that regularly fell vacant because the couple didn’t offer fair pay or the husband was a creep, but even the fairest employer had little chance of keeping a maid forever.

    By the way, the meaning of “homely” has changed rather significantly over the last century. It used to mean “home-like,” ie. not glamorous or overly fixated on her own appearance. The man advertising for a ‘homely’ maid might very well be hoping for a future wife, as opposed to a man-chasing flapper with painted nails and a bob!

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