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Illustration by William Thomas Smedley, 1906
Illustration by William Thomas Smedley, 1906
La Toilette by Raimundo Madrazo, c. 1890–1900
La Toilette by Raimundo Madrazo, c. 1890–1900
A maid cleaning in Denmark in 1912.
A maid cleaning in Denmark in 1912.

A maid, or housemaid or maidservant, is a female domestic worker. In the Victorian era domestic service was the second largest category of employment in England and Wales, after agricultural work.[1] In developed Western nations, full-time maids are now only found in the wealthiest households. In other parts of the world, maids remain common in urban middle-class households.

"Maid" in Middle English meant an unmarried woman, especially a young one, or specifically a virgin. These meanings lived on in English until recent times (and are still familiar from literature and folk music), alongside the sense of the word as a type of servant.[2][3]


In the contemporary Western world, comparatively few households can afford live-in domestic help, usually relying on cleaners, employed directly or through an agency (Maid service). Today a single maid may be the only domestic worker that upper-middle class households employ, as was historically the case.

In less developed nations, various factors ensure a labour source for domestic work: very large differences in the income of urban and rural households, widespread poverty, fewer educated women, and limited opportunities for the employment of less educated women.

Maids perform typical domestic chores such as laundry, ironing, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, cooking, and caring for household pets. They may also take care of children, although there are more specific occupations for this, such as nanny. In some poor countries, maids take care of the elderly and people with disabilities. Many maids are required by their employers to wear a uniform.

Legislation in many countries makes certain living conditions, working hours, or minimum wage a requirement of domestic service. Nonetheless, the work of a maid has always been hard, involving a full day, and extensive duties.[citation needed]


Maids were once part of an elaborate hierarchy in great houses, where the retinue of servants stretched up to the housekeeper and butler, responsible for female and male employees respectively. The word "maid" itself means an unmarried young woman or virgin. Domestic workers, particularly those low in the hierarchy, such as maids and footmen, were expected to remain unmarried while in service,[4][5] and even highest-ranking workers such as butlers could be dismissed for marrying.[citation needed]

In Victorian England, all middle-class families would have "help", but for most small households, this would be only one employee, the maid of all work, often known colloquially as "the girl".

Historically many maids suffered from Prepatellar bursitis, an inflammation of the Prepatellar bursa caused by long periods spent on the knees for purposes of scrubbing and fire-lighting, leading to the condition attracting the colloquial name of "Housemaid's Knee".[6]


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See also: Migrant workers in the Gulf region, Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, and Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia

Foreign women are employed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Japan and United Arab Emirates in large numbers to work as maids or other roles of domestic service, and are often vulnerable to multiple forms of abuse.[7][8][9]

Southern Africa

In some areas in the region the word "maid" is avoided. This is most likely due to the fact that it sounds like a racially derogatory term in Afrikaans. The Afrikaans word for a mite (small arachnid) has been used demeaningly to refer to woman of colour. The english word for a friend: "mate" is also avoided for this reason.


George Clive and his family with an Indian maid, painted 1765. As she appears to be caring for the child, she may be an ayah.
George Clive and his family with an Indian maid, painted 1765. As she appears to be caring for the child, she may be an ayah.

Maids traditionally have a fixed position in the hierarchy of the large households, and although there is overlap between definitions (dependent on the size of the household) the positions themselves would typically be rigidly adhered to. The usual classifications of maid in a large household are:

In more modest households a single maid-of-all-work or skivvy was often the only staff. It is possible this word originates from the Italian for slave ("schiavo"—"owned person").

In popular culture

Further information: Maid fetish

One of the most in-depth and enduring representations of the lives of several types of maid was seen in the 1970s television drama Upstairs, Downstairs, set in England between 1903 and 1936. The lives of maids were well represented in the Downton Abbey series, set in England between 1912 and 1926 and shown from 2010 onward.

The American television drama The Gilded Age, set in the 1880s in New York City, depicts the lives of maids living and working in the great houses of the era.

The main characters in the NAMIC Vision Award-nominated television series Devious Maids are four housemaids.

See also


  1. ^ "Occupations: census returns for 1851, 1861 and 1871".
  2. ^ OED, "Maid"
  3. ^ In Anglo-Cornish dialect "maid" is commonly used to mean "girl"; Bal maidens were women working at the mines of Cornwall, at smashing ore &c.
  4. ^ David Hume, Essay XI
  5. ^ Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, p.139
  6. ^ "Housemaid's Knee (Prepatellar Bursitis)".
  7. ^ ""As If I Am Not Human" - Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia". 7 July 2008.
  8. ^ Chamberlain, Gethin (13 January 2013). "Saudi Arabia's treatment of foreign workers under fire after beheading of Sri Lankan maid". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  9. ^ Human Rights Watch (14 July 2004). "'Bad Dreams:' Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia". United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Archived from the original on 12 March 2020. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  10. ^ A Parlour Maid's timetable is summarised in this webpage extract from a book.
  11. ^ "Victorian Life Style". Archived from the original on 2013-02-20. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  12. ^ "".