Robert Roberts
c. 1777-1860

Passionate in everything he did, Robert Roberts inspired others to do their very best. Believing that every man and woman should do their best in whatever job they held, Robert Roberts inspired domestics, or butlers and maids, to take pride in their work. He, himself, served elite families in Boston. And when he was hired to serve as butler to senator and governor of Massachusetts Christopher Gore, Roberts drew from his years of exemplary service to write a book of recipes and instructions for being a top-rate servant. He published his book, The House Servant’s Directory, in 1827. It was one of the first books published by an African American.

The House Servant’s Directory gives instructions for cleaning knives by rubbing them with a soft brick. It tells how to create a mixture of oil and turpentine to paint on the front of a stone chimney. It states the importance of trimming the wicks in oil lamps. As Robert Roberts explained, “I have been in some houses where the rooms were almost filled with the smoke and stench of the oil, and the glasses of the lamps clouded with dust and smoke, from the cottons being uneven, or left up too high; this is a very disagreeable thing indeed.”

Roberts also included numerous recipes in his book that maids and butlers such as Anna might have used in the kitchen. Recipes are featured in the book to make delicious lemonade, apple cider, or a cooling cinnamon water to drink on hot summer days. Roberts also listed recipes for making soap, dye to color red hair black, furniture polish, and even strong cements and glues, all made from commonly found products of the day.

Robert Roberts flung himself into other passions as well. He was an active abolitionist. He fought hard against the efforts of the American Colonization Society to send free blacks to Africa where they would be powerless to help bring an end to slavery. At the time of his death, he was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Boston.

For more information about Robert Roberts, visit these sites:

Feeding America

Gore Place

Selected Sources:
Roberts, Robert. The House Servant’s Directory: An African American Butler’s 1827 Guide. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2006.