Tidbits for History Writers: The Servants’ Staircase

Stairs2My latest post on my Tidbits for History Writers series is about staircases.

Featured on the Victorian Home episode of Hidden Killers, hosted by Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb (which is where this phenomenon was brought to my attention), the stairs were a deadly feature of homes past.

Yeah, yeah, Veronica. Everybody knows that …

The reason I’ve decided to write about this topic is because, even though I knew this was a fact of life in centuries past, I never knew exactly why stairs were so dangerous. High and narrow, yes. Long skirts, obviously. Long hours and tired servants, sure.

But there was something else about stairs that it never occurred to me to realize. I’m hoping it never occurred to some of you, either … otherwise that would make this post pointless, and myself pretty thick : )

Before I get to that, though, a brief look back in history. Prior to the mid-sixteen-hundreds, servants and masters didn’t live quite the separate lives they did up until about the second world war. The worlds of Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, with hidden staircases, servants’ doors, and silent bells, was the eventual result of the work of one Sir Roger Pratt (b. 1620 – d. 1684). An oft-forgotten figure in history, Pratt was an architect who first conceptualized homes built to separate nobility from servants.Downton Abbey

As you can imagine, three hundred and seventy years ago, there were no building regulations or standard sizes for anything. Especially in highly populated places (like London), where real estate was had at a premium, buildings were thrown up quickly, with staircases made high and narrow. This led not only to a steep climb, but also to narrow platforms for the foot.

But what builders also never paid attention to was the regularity of the stairs themselves. Their height was uneven, with some being fractions shorter, and some fractions taller. The effect this has on the human brain is something I’d never considered. Check out this YouTube clip to see what I mean:

Climbing stairs is something we do automatically, without even thinking. Our brain goes on auto-pilot, because we’re performing a repetitive action. But if we’re not being careful, any irregularities may throw us for a loop.

And here’s the thing: people who lived 100, 200, even 300 years ago were no different than we are today.

So the next time you’re looking to throw a bit of history into your historical writing, why not write in an anecdote about the most irregular staircase in your Victorian manor house, or note that the Lord of your Regency country home recently had the servants’ stairs re-built after too many deaths caused by that notorious seventh step?

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