A butler is a household servant, usually at the head of a large staff of residential workers. In the past, houses of great wealth would designate one to each major department of the house. There may have been, for examples, butlers for the stables and carriages as well as those to oversee the kitchen and wine cellar. In this type of arrangement, a housekeeper would oversee the staff of butlers. In fact, housekeepers were so central to the staff of a household that they often made recommendations for the hiring of butlers. Just as every household is run in a distinctive way, so as to best serve the needs of the residents, so are the tasks assigned to each butler.
The word is a derivation of the Old French bouteillier , which means “cup bearer.” The root word bouteille means “bottle.” It is clear, by the history of the word, that the original butlers were individuals whose main purpose was to serve wine at meal time. It is believed that wine was a great sign of wealth in ancient times. In fact, wine may have been a way of holding assets. Therefore, the position of a bouteillier was likely a very esteemed position.
A major distinguishing factor for a butler is his attire. A senior butler, for example, would wear a special uniform. His garb would look nothing like that of a livery man or a junior servant. While this is true in the traditional sense, a modern day butler may simply wear either a business suit or business casual attire. This, of course, is always left to the discretion of the employer.
It has been known for a butler to become somewhat famous for his abilities within a household. In fact, Stanley Ager, butler to the St. Levan family of St. Michael’s Mount, was so well-regarded that he published a book about his work after retiring. Ager’s Way to Easy Excellence includes detailed chapters on his particular way of running a home. In many circles, Ager’s guide has become a gold standard for the work. In Ager’s day, a butler entered the household service career at the bottom and had to work his way to the top. However, in modern times, people often attend schools to prepare for the work. The International Institute of Modern Butlers as well as The Guild of Professional English Butlers serve individuals in this profession.