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The term "footman" has two primary applications. Most commonly, the word applied to a male servant employed by a household, palace, or persons of grandeur. He would typically serve beneath a butler, acting as an assistant to him as well as to the household, but was once considered more of a luxury to employ than cooks, maids, and other female servants. Though common among wealthy families in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, a footman is a less common employee today, found primarily in only the wealthiest of families, such as royalty.
The name is likely derived from the duties he performed. He was employed to run alongside carriages and perform other livery duties as well as wait tables, open and close doors, or run errands. Unlike a butler, whose primary job is to welcome guests, a footman could perform various duties within a household. In many cases, he would be duty bound to a specific person within a household acting as a private servant rather than a general household servant, adding to the lure of luxury and status.
A footman in earlier centuries would be highly prized for good stature and good looks. They were often required to dress in impractical clothing in comparison to the duties they performed. It was important that they look good, however, especially in the presence of visitors.
The term has also been applied to soldiers, or infantryman, who served on foot rather than mounted on horses. Typically, these soldiers would serve higher ranking military officials in several capacities, and as a result, the word likely became applied to domestic servitude. Coincidentally, if a household employed more than one, they would have rankings similar to in the military. The highest-ranking footman would be second to the butler and could act accordingly in the absence of the butler.
This word can also apply to a piece of furniture made of brass or steel, similar in design to footstool, that was commonly used for keeping dishes warm in front of fires. These specific period pieces, which would be difficult to locate before the 1800s, would be considered antique fireplace tools.
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