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?