Monday, February 3, 2020

Robert Roberts - author, abolitionist, butler

Robert Roberts (c1777-1860) was a free African American who wrote the marvelous The House Servant's Directory in 1827. 

This book is our key to Federal era dining and caring for homes of the upper and middle class.  His intent was to teach the "general rules and directions for servants to go by as shall give satisfaction to their employers, and gain a good reputation for themselves."  He had an excellent reputation in his work, in his community and among abolitionists.  Roberts arrived in Boston from Charleston SC in 1805 and when he died in 1860, he left an estate over $7500 (current value over $232,000).

In October 1825, Roberts contacted former Gov. Christopher Gore (1758–1827) to offer his services when his contract with Nathan Appleton (1779-1861) ended. Appleton complained to Gore, but Roberts had made his decision and impressed Gore to hire him.  Until Gore's death in March of 1827, Roberts was his butler at his country seat "Gore Place" [photos] in Waltham, Mass., which included a state-of-the-art Rumford kitchen in the basement. 
He probably wrote the book while working for Gore, who wrote a letter to the publisher that was included in the intro to the book. It came out a couple weeks after Gov. Gore's death.   “I have read the work attentively, and think it may be of much use.  The directions are plain and perspicuous; and many of the recipes I have experienced to be valuable. …” The book, first published in 1827, was very popular and reprinted in 1828, 1837 and 1842.  A British manual by Cosnett, The Footman's Directory had been printed in 1823 (for those of you who want the Georgian era instructions).
Roberts was also an activist and one of the founders of “a meeting [of]... colored citizens of Boston, February 15th [1831], at their school-house, for the purpose of expressing their sentiments in a remonstrance against the doings of the State Colonization Society...” Roberts was selected Chairman of the group. [Garrison]

Gore Place is offering what sounds like an interesting free program on Roberts as abolitionist on several dates, starting this month.  To Do the Good I Expected: Robert Roberts, Author, Domestic Servant, Abolitionist—a Special Tour at Gore PlaceHERE
20 pages on Roberts in the Gore Place curriculum guide 125 p. The Federal Period p33-56  HERE
Biography from Feeding America MSU website HERE
Biography from intro The House Servant’s Directory 2015 HERE
The house servant's directory 1827 HERE
Cosnett, Thomas.  The Footman’s Directory.  London: 1823 with suggestions for "my young friend" to prepare for "gentleman's service." book HERE
Garrison, William Lloyd.  Thoughts on African Colonization ... 1832 included writing by Roberts.

©2020 Patricia Bixler Reber
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