The valet (rhymes with pallet) is a personal manservant who tends to his master’s every need, from a clean room to seeing to his clothes to making sure that his entire day goes smoothly from the moment he rises to the time he goes to bed. Also known as a gentleman’s gentleman, the valet is the closest male equivalent to a lady’s maid.
Mrs. Beeton describes a valet’s duties in her excellent 1861 book on household management:
His day commences by seeing that his master’s dressing-room is in order; that the housemaid has swept and dusted it properly; that the fire is lighted and burns cheerfully; and some time before his master is expected, he will do well to throw up the sash [open the window] to admit fresh air, closing it, however, in time to recover the temperature which he knows hismaster prefers. It is now his duty to place the body-linen on the horse before the fire, to be aired properly;
to lay the trousers intended to be worn, carefully brushed and cleaned, on the back of his master’s chair; while the coat and waistcoat, carefully brushed and folded, and the collar cleaned, are laid in their place ready to be put on when required. All the articles of the toilet should be in their places, the razors properly set and stropped, and hot water ready for use.
Gentlemen generally prefer performing the operation of shaving themselves, but a valet should be prepared to do it if required; and he should be a good hairdresser. Shaving over, he has to brush the hair, beard and moustache, where that appendage is encouraged, arranging the whole simply and gracefully, according to the age and style of the countenance. Every fortnight, or three weeks at the utmost, the hair should be cut, and the points of the whiskers trimmed as often as required. A good valet will now present the various articles of the toilet as they are wanted; afterwards, the body-linen. Neck-tie, which he will put on, if required, and, afterwards, waist-coat, coat, and boots, in suitable order, and carefully brushed and polished.”
Other valet duties:
- As his master goes out, the valet hands him his gloves and hat, opens the door for him, and receives his orders for the rest of the day.
- He puts his master’s dressing-room in order, cleaning combs and brushes, folding clothes and putting them in drawers.
- If his master has no clothes sense, the valet will select suitable clothes, making sure they are clean, particularly the collars, and maintained in good repair.
- He consults with the tailor, perfumer, and linen-draper.
- He awaits his master’s return, making sure that his drawing room is picked up by the maids, and dusted and swept by them, and that the room is made ready with a lit fire and candles.
- The valet stands ready to help his master dress for dinner or any other occasion.
- He makes sure that the washing table is ready, filling the ewer and carafe with fresh water, and placing the basin towels, brushes, hot water, and shaving apparatus near at hand.
- In case of wet weather, when his master has returned from riding, the valet lays out a change of dry linen and clothing, and is ready to assist his master out of the damp clothing.
- He helps his master prepare for journeys, packing enough linen and other clothing for the trip. At the Inns, he takes charge of his master’s comfort as he would at home, and has everything ready to assist his master in dressing and undressing.
- If no footmen is available during the journey, the valet will also see to these services, even at table.
The valet keeps his master’s clothes in good repair:
- Hats are kept well brushed on the outside with a soft brush, and wiped inside with a clean handerchief.
- Clothes placed in a wardrobe are covered with brown holland or linen wrappers to secure them from dust.
- He places boots and shoes cleaned by the under footman in the dressing room.
- Slippers are aired by the fire.
- As soon as his master finishes shaving, the valet will clean the razor and brushes.
- Before he hangs damp clothing by the fire, he rubs the cloth with a sponge until the smoothness of the nap is restored. If the clothes are allowed to dry before brushing, then later brushing might not remove the roughness.
Valets in humbler households:
The butler in a second or third rate establishment takes on the duties of the house steward, valet, and footman as well. He is likely to pay market bills, assist his master in dressing, serve at table and oversee the wine and silver, and superintend other male servants.