Behind-the-Scene Butler’s Tour at the Biltmore

DSCN2841

This is the part of the Biltmore Estate that most people don’t get to see: the service entrance in the back. We started here on our Butler’s Tour of the Biltmore Estate that took us behind the magnificent stairwells and grand rooms to the 21 small bedrooms that housed the maids (males lived off-site), the dumbwaiters that made their jobs possible, and the basement and sub-basement that used state-of-the-art technology that kept the house running. I imagine these are areas that the Vanderbilts never saw for themselves, but it gave me a much better view of life at the estate they called home.

Unlike on Downton Abbey, it was Mrs. King, the head housekeeper, not the butler, who was in charge of things. We saw the primitive tools the staff used to keep the 250-room house clean. The Bissell sweeper that they ran across what seemed like acres of rugs. The foxtail dusters and washboards and irons that were constantly in use. Mrs. Vanderbilt changed attire 8-12 times a day. Imagine the work that went into keeping her wardrobe (and her hair and body) fresh!

We got a glimpse into Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom from the back curtain that lead to her bathroom and dressing area. We saw the rooms full of steamer trunks that had to be packed and shipped every time they left for Europe. We toured the kitchen and the rooms full of dishes, accessible by a vertical ladder. Imagine trying to carefully transport dishes and food throughout all the dining and breakfast rooms in the house. Dumbwaiters helped, but it still seemed precarious to me.

Mrs. King ensured that all of these tasks were accomplished by her 40-person staff. The picture I’ve posted here was taken from her bedroom, overlooking the servants’ entry and courtyard which gave her a bird’s-eye view of the comings and goings of her staff. If it gives you any idea of how esteemed she was, her wages were $300/mo. compared to the Chief Butler’s paltry $150/mo. Mrs. King stayed with the Biltmores for approximately 20 years, finally retiring to Florida where our tour guide says she bought an orange grove and opened an inn she named The Biltmore.

It was all quite fascinating, but oddly, the Butler’s Tour did not focus on the butler at all. I’d like to follow the trail of Mrs. King and see how she enjoyed her retirement. She seemed much more interesting to me than the Vanderbilts themselves. An orange grove in Florida, huh? Maybe I should think about that for my own retirement.

How would you spend retirement after running an estate like this for years?

18 responses to “Behind-the-Scene Butler’s Tour at the Biltmore

  1. Mrs Vanderbilt changed 8 to 12 times a day ?! That’s almost every waking hour. Presumably that’s what you do if you’re a rich socialite. Odd that they called it the Butler’s Tour. I guess Head Housekeeper’s Tour doesn’t have the same ring to it. Good on her, buying an orange grove. It sounds like a warm and well deserved retirement.

  2. I have a hard time relating to that kind of work let alone living there. I wouldn’t want to work in the service industry after doing that work for 20 years, but I guess that’s what she knew best. An orange grove in Florida sounds wonderful as long as I had someone who could run it. I’d probably kill the orange trees. Very interesting description of the tour and your reflections on it.

    • I don’t think I’d want to live in the service insudtry after years as a housekeper, either. But I guess if that’s what you know, it would seem natural to continue on with that line of work.

      I’d kill the orange trees, too, but it sounds heavenly to spend your days in an orange grove.

  3. Interesting piece of history. I understand that the Biltmores were generous and philanthropic and so shared their privileges, otherwise it’s difficult to warm to such opulence. And yes, orange groves for me to as long as I wasn’t required to work them 🙂

  4. I’m surprised she would think to open an inn and run it after 20 years of working house duties. But perhaps she figured it would be the best use of her skills and she would be the one running things to her liking. Were those $300/mo converted to today’s worth? I don’t know what the market value of a modern-day housekeeper is (especially for a grand place like the Biltmore Estate) but based on her retirement plans, it seems like a comfortable amount.

    • I don’t know what it would have equaled in today’s wages, but it was a hefty amount even then. But I guess when you’re practically bazillionaires, you pay your staff well. Mrs. King kept things running even when the Vanderbilts weren’t there.

  5. What a great tour! I cant imagine what life must have been like, either for Mrs. V, or the staff, what a different world! I’d like a fox tail duster, tho, that would be cooler than my lambs wool duster… thanks for this really amazing post! ♥♥♥ ;^)

We'd All Love To Hear Your Thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s