Balthazar bathroom attendants, Downton Abbey and the nature of human progress

November 5, 2013

Here's what Downton Abbey has to do with the Balthazar bathroom attendants. (Nick Briggs/AP)

First things first. Henry Blodget is completely right about bathroom attendants.

The Business Insider publisher wrote a piece Friday about New York restaurant Balthazar’s practice of having an employee standing in the rest room all day, wiping down the sink and helping customers who have just relieved themselves dry their hands. As Blodget writes, the practice is weird and creepy and uncomfortable, particularly in a small rest room.

Keith McNally, the owner of the restaurant, apparently was persuaded; he is eliminating the bathroom attendants so that Blodget and other Balthazar diners can now wash their hands in peace (after some hand-wringing over whether Blodget’s post cost three hard-working Balthazar employees their jobs, McNally made it known that other roles will be found for them inside his restaurant empire).

On one level, this is a silly little story that says more about the narcissism of the media types who eat at Balthazar (a Google News search turns up a whopping 1,500 results on the subject) than anything meaningful.  But  before the story is finally flushed down the drain, there is one aspect of the tale that speaks to something a little bigger.

The fact that Blodget (and all right-thinking people) are a little unnerved by bathroom attendants is a testament to the age we're living in: one where attentive personal service can be actually a disadvantage for a business. Consider some of my own personal preferences which seem to be widely shared:

I much prefer booking my own train tickets and hotel reservations on the Internet to calling an 800 number and talking to a human being.

I hate buying gasoline in New Jersey, where by law an attendant must fill your car up for you. I'd rather just pay at the pump and do it myself.

I don't like it when I stay at a nicer-than-usual hotel and they all but insist on carrying my bag to my room for me. If I just have one small bag, I'd really rather carry it myself, thank you very much.

When you see the world of early 20th century Britain portrayed on Downton Abbey, it is the opposite extreme. For the ultra-wealthy, there were servants everywhere, helping with the most menial tasks, like getting dressed. Even middle-class Britons had household help. Agatha Christie, born in 1890, later recalled that she couldn’t have imagined being so rich as to afford an automobile, nor so poor that she would not have servants.

But in the last century, per-capita incomes have risen dramatically, making the cost of hiring a servant higher. Meanwhile, technology has made the need for a house full of workers lower. Washing machines, modern kitchen equipment, clothing that you can put on without the assistance of a manservant or lady in waiting — all of these things made it practical even for affluent families to do without an army of servants.

At the same time, we’ve gotten more egalitarian as a society. Cost constraints aside, most people would find having a servant help them dress as uncomfortable today as Henry Blodget finds having a bathroom attendant help him wash his hands.

This is probably a case where preferences have evolved with practicality. As the 20th century progressed and wages rose, fewer people could afford servants and home technology improved, and so in contrast to Agatha Christie, someone growing up in modern times is unfamiliar with the experience of having people around all the time.

This is what progress looks like! And with the change at Balthazar, a century-long trend reaches its apex.

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Neil Irwin | November 5, 2013