What is a Butler?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

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.

Some butlers have the responsibility of overseeing the wine cellar.
Some butlers have the responsibility of overseeing the wine cellar.

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.

Butlers may be in charge of purchasing their own cleaning items.
Butlers may be in charge of purchasing their own cleaning items.

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.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments


I can’t picture a butler working in the stables. I always envision butlers wearing white button-front shirts with black pants and jackets, and this just doesn’t fit with someone who has to work with horses all day.

Do stable butlers have to dress formally, even though they will be dealing with dirty animals and a really smelly environment? Are they allowed to wear attire that better suits their situation?

I have never seen a butler working anywhere but inside a nice mansion. Thinking of one working in a horse stable just throws off my whole perception of butlers.


@Perdido - It is nice to be waited on, but to me, it always seemed like a waste of money to employ a butler. My dad hired one after he started making a ton of money, and I can tell you that it made me feel very uncomfortable.

My mother had always trained me to pick up after myself and get my own food and drinks at the table, so having a butler all of a sudden contradicted this. It really confused me for awhile.

My dad thought that having a butler made him appear important to his coworkers and friends. I would have gladly taken the butler’s salary and performed his duties for my father, had he been willing to let me do this.


I visited my wealthy friend in California, and I got to meet her butler. It was so weird to me that she has one, because she came from a poor background. Now, she is rich enough to employ a butler, along with a staff of other servants.

The butler offered me some wine, and he even recommended certain kinds. When the dessert was brought out, he offered to get me a new wine glass filled with a different type of wine that would go better with the dessert.

I was floored by all this attention and service. I do everything for myself at home, and it was nice to have a butler around who was an expert on wine and had excellent manners.


Wow, I had no idea that the job of a butler was so distinguished! I just always assumed that they answered the door and took guests’ coats, and that was about it.

Come to think of it, though, every butler that I have seen on television has been very proper and well-groomed. They almost always have a British accent, though I’m sure this isn’t always the case in real life.

I would imagine that a butler must make pretty good money, since he has to go through training and wear a suit all day. Generally, the more proper and formal you have to be in your job, the more you get paid.


@jholcomb - I love Jeeves and Wooster, too, but you are actually mixing up a butler and a valet. Some households would employ both, but as a single man who kept only a flat, Wooster had only a valet.

Basically, a butler's responsibility was to the household. He would be in charge of the footmen, if there were any; he would answer the door and telephone, etc.

But a valet was responsible for his employer's personal needs. He would consult about what the master would wear that day, attend to his wardrobe (brushing and ironing clothes, for instance), etc. Especially for a single man, a valet might also prepare a light meal, like an omelet, if the gentleman wasn't going out that night.

You can get a really good idea of the difference by watching Downton Abbey. Carson is the butler and you see him tending to household duties; Barnes (not sure if that's the right name) and Moseley are valets.


My favorite butler is Jeeves! Anyone else like the Jeeves and Wooster series? He is so much smarter than his foppish owner. (Who, interestingly enough, was played on the BBC by a young Hugh Laurie - yes, back in the day, the guy who now plays House had a problem being typecast as an "upper class twit.")

It's interesting that a butler was considered "a gentleman." Not, perhaps, in quite the same way as his employer, but they had their own clubs, for instance. It was such a different era. Being a butler was quite a respectable position.

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