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Primary Source of the Month

"High Life Below Stairs," by John Collet, London, England, 1763.
"High Life Below Stairs," by John Collet, London, England, 1763.
From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Accession #G1991-175. Gift of Mrs. Cora Ginsburg.

John Collet’s High Life Below Stairs satirizes the behavior of servants in their own quarters (below stairs) imitating the fashionable attire and behavior of their masters.

In the center of the image, a lady’s maid is having her hair done by a footman. She wears fashionable clothes, particularly the fine apron of cotton lawn over her skirt, red shoes, and a ribbon around her neck, but she sits beside a table with a torn and tattered cloth and rests her foot on a broken earthenware basin. The man dressing her hair wears a fashionable ring on his little finger, which contradicts the suit of livery that clearly identifies him as a servant. The woman standing at the table wears a plain striped scarf fastened around her shoulders with an artificial flower ornament. Perched on her nose is a pair of spectacles, available to a wider variety of customers—even servants—with the eighteenth century growth of the precision optical trade in England. The couple on the left takes advantage of what the market has to offer in the way of leisure activities. Most conspicuous here is the English guitar, an extremely popular instrument for genteel ladies during this period. Collet’s use of the instrument hints at the pretension to gentility that the availability of such goods could bring to the lower classes. The buckles on the man’s shoes and breeches also point to relatively easy access to consumer items. Collet satirizes the musical couple by depicting the dog “singing” along with them. The dog stands on several pieces of music and print, ironically titled “Solomon in all his Glory.” The little girl’s doll rests on a copy of Samuel Richardson’s popular novel Pamela in High Life. She looks up at the adults, while placing a fancy feather in the simply dressed hair of her doll. Even though the primary purpose of the painting is to mock those who aspire to genteel behavior and appearances, High Life Below Stairs provides visual documentation of the ways the eighteenth-century consumer revolution made material goods available to people lower on the social and economic scale.

Source: Buying Respectability: The Consumer Revolution in Colonial Virginia (Staff Resource Manual developed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Department of Historical Research, 2000), p. P-5.