Word historyThe name derives from the attendants who ran beside or behind the carriages of aristocrats, many of whom were chosen for their physical attributes.
Originally the term, also called running footman, applied to a non-mounted soldier, or foot soldier (infantryman). Later, just as demobilized officers frequently kept on a good batman as private servant, the word got applied to a household servant, who usually serves—standing—at meals while the master and guests remain seated. The roughly synonymous term lackey may have a similar etymology.
ServantsMale servants were more highly paid than female servants, and footmen were something of a luxury and therefore status symbol even among the servant-employing classes. They performed a less essential role than the cook, maid or even butler, and were part only of the grandest households. Since a footman was for show as much as for use, a tall footman was more highly prized than a small one, and good looks, including well-turned legs, which were shown off by the traditional footman's dress of stockings worn below knee breeches, an advantage. Footmen were expected to be unmarried and tended to be relatively young; they might, however, progress to other posts, notably that of butler. One 19th century footman, William Tayler, kept a diary which has been published. He was, in fact, married; but kept his marriage secret from his employers and visited his family only on his days off.
Once a commonly employed servant in great houses, footmen are much rarer today, as few households can afford large retinues of servants and retainers.
The first footman is the highest ranking and serves as deputy butler; he acts as butler in the butler's absence.
In a larger household, various footmen may be assigned specific duties (for which there may be a traditional sequence), such as the silver specialist, but usually the footmen perform a range of duties which include serving meals, opening and closing doors, carrying heavy items, or moving furniture for the housemaids to clean behind. The footmen may also double as valets, especially for visiting guests.
Sources and references
footboy in Italian: Footman
footboy in Dutch: Lakei