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A charwoman, charlady, chargirl or just char is an old-fashioned or obsolete occupational term. It referred to a paid worker who came into a house (or shop or office, etc.) to clean for a few hours a day or week, as opposed to a maid, who lived as part of the household within the structure of domestic service. Nowadays this work is done by a cleaner, who may work independently, perhaps cash in hand, or through an agency.
The term "charwoman" was used as an official job title in the United States before 1960, which included use by municipal and state governments and by federal agencies such as the Department of Commerce and Labor (such as in the Bureau of the Census and the Bureau of Immigration).
Charwomen were often commonly referred to as scrubwomen. The word has the same root as "chore woman", one hired to do odd chores around the house.
A char or chare was a turn (of work) in the sixteenth century, which gave rise to the word being used as a prefix to denote people working in domestic service. The usage of "charwoman" was common in the mid-19th century, often appearing as an occupation in the UK census of 1841, but it fell out of common use in the later decades of the 20th century, often replaced by the term "daily (woman)". Unlike a maid or housekeeper, typically live-in positions, the charwoman usually worked for hourly wages, usually on a part-time basis, often having several different employers.
The position often features in fiction, particularly British literature.
A Victorian example is Ebeneezer Scrooge's charwoman Mrs. Dilber who appears in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In the short story "The Diary of Anne Rodway", by Wilkie Collins, Anne investigates the murder of her friend Mary and learns that the suspect's wife is a woman "ready to turn her hand to anything: charing, washing, laying-out, keeping empty houses...."
In 1926, Lord Dunsany's fantasy novel, The Charwoman's Shadow was published to good reviews. A charwoman - Sarah Cobbin - is a critical character in the detective novel, Part for a Poisoner (1948) by E.C.R. Lorac. In the comic strip Andy Capp (from 1957), Andy's wife Flo is a charwoman. Another well-known fictional charwoman is Ada Harris, the central character in Paul Gallico's novel Mrs 'Arris goes to Paris (1958) and its three sequels.
The charwoman featured in performances too, first on stage, and then in radio, film, and television. The best example of this is probably the series of films that featured the funny and feisty Irish charwoman Mrs. Riley, a creation of the music hall comedian Arthur Lucan. He was an early drag artist, playing opposite his wife Kitty McShane , who depicted Mrs Riley's daughter. The public's enthusiasm for these impromptu stage characters prompted the couple to make the pair a part of their repertoire and this led to sixteen Old Mother Riley films, from 1937 to 1952. In the radio comedy series It's That Man Again (1939-1949), Dorothy Summers played the part of Mrs Mopp, an office char whose catch phrase was "Can I do you now, Sir?" (i.e., "May I clean your office now, Sir?" but with an obvious double entendre).
In 1963, Peggy Mount starred in Ladies Who Do, in which a group of charwomen go into high finance under the guidance of the eccentric Colonel Whitforth Robert Morley, in order to save their old neighbourhood from a team of ruthless developers led by Harry H. Corbett. In 1966-67, Kathleen Harrison starred as a charwoman who inherits ₤10 million from her employer, on the television series, Mrs. Thursday. Mabel Wheeler was the lowly charwoman and a main character in the sitcom You Rang, M'Lord? (from 1990).
Outside of British creations, a charwoman appears in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915). U.S. comedian Carol Burnett made a charwoman character into a signature routine during her television career with Garry Moore and later on her own popular long-running variety show.
- Washerwoman, a laundress
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