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To the manor born: The Golden Age transformed to a self-service society

During the enforced idleness that came with a cold, rainy, dreary holiday period in which the sun seemed to be in permanent hiding, we watched reruns of the second season of the wildly popular PBS series, “Downton Abbey.”

I had not previously seen any of the programs, but the splendid photography of England’s Highclere Castle and the lush, verdant countryside, all the more breathtaking in high-def TV — combined with a large cast of well-developed characters, opulent costumes, and a rigid pecking order of class/customs/manners/protocol — quickly sucked me in to what is basically a magnificently-produced soap opera.

The Brits do nothing better than preserve, honor, and portray all the minutiae of centuries of their history (I still recall, decades ago, working my way through the thousands of pages of Winston Churchill’s “A History of the English Speaking Peoples”), and this series gives a lavishly recreated glimpse into the post-Industrial Revolution era of the early 1900s, when aristocracy still flourished.

Aside from the imposing homes, furnishings, dress, and finery, what boggles one’s mind in our present era of self-service everything is the incredible roster of servants at every hand for those of the upper class.

There were maids, several levels of cooks and food preparers, butlers, valets, footmen, gardeners, chauffeurs, blacksmiths, mechanics — there were people to dress/undress the lords and ladies each day, to brush off lint, polish shoes, dust, fetch wood, build fires, clean windows, serve tea, beat the underbrush to scare up pheasants for gentlemen to shoot, loaders to reload guns and hand them to the gentlemen, and on and on.

And within the ranks of all those support staff, there was a pecking order — everybody kowtowed to somebody else a step higher in the chain of servitude.

We can’t imagine such today. Perhaps the oil rich in the Arab world, or noveau riche tycoons of China, India, Mexico and other countries where there is still a huge poor population, have servants on such a scale.

(Mukesh Ambani, head of the Reliance Industries petrochemical empire and the fifth richest man in the world, has built a 27-story house in Mumbai, estimated to cost $2 billion, for him, his wife, and three children. One would expect they don’t themselves dust, cook, clean.)

And while there is no comparison to the grand life of Downton Abbey or Mukesh Ambani, those of us in the dinosaur generation can remember an era in the U.S. when a service station stop for 19-cent per gallon gasoline would bring an attendant to pump the fuel, clean windshield/windows/headlights, brush out the interior, check fluid levels/tire inflation, and carry on a cheery repartee at the same time — all at no extra charge.

Do you even know, today, a station where someone will pump your gas? I don’t.

Who could have imagined back then that we’d one day be a nation of gas pumping, drive-thru using, supermarket item scanning, self-servicers?

Or that the inexorable spread of technology/self-service would eliminate millions of jobs in the process?

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