While we all know what the butler did in the clichéd old mystery novels, its more interesting to know what the butler did in traditional old-fashioned homes that had a small army of domestic servants.
The old-fashioned butler was always a man, and he was the head of the male servants in a household. While the popular image of the butler in fiction and movies portrays him as a single man, butlers could be married often to the housekeeper or to some other female member of the domestic staff.
The word butler derives from the same original root word as bottle, which gives you an indication of the traditional role of the butler. The butler was the man who was in charge of the bottles, i.e. the wine cellar. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a butler as a man-servant in charge of wine-cellar and plate, head-servant. In a nutshell, the butler took charge of caring for and selecting the wine, and took care of the silverware. The butler usually oversaw the other male domestic staff, and you could describe his role as more managerial.
Both these roles indicate the position of trust that the butler was originally held in. In the Renaissance and earlier days, you had to really be able to trust the person who poured your drinks, as this person would have ample opportunity to slip poison into the wine, and a less-than-loyal person could be bribed to do exactly this. While the risk of being poisoned by the local equivalent of the Borgias faded away over time, the responsibility of the butler remained the same, as did the trust and loyalty. The role of caring for the silver also indicated the position of trust and responsibility the butler was given: the family silver was often the most valuable asset in the household.
As part of caring for the wine and the wine cellar, the butler would have to know everything about storing, selecting and serving wine and other alcoholic drinks. The butler would often pour drinks from a cask or large bottle to an attractive decanter for serving (e.g. whisky) and the butler often had a number of tricks for cleaning glass decanters to keep them fresh and sparkling.
The butler would not just keep an eye on the family silver; he would also polish it, and old-fashioned guides that gave instructions to the butler would often include recipes for polishing silver. Many old-fashioned methods are still in use today regular buffing does wonders for keeping tarnish at bay but others (the ones that contained alarming ingredients) have fallen into disuse.
In many novels set in the 1930s, readers often encounter man-servants who are classified as butlers but whose roles extend beyond the traditional role of the butler. This servant should really be classified as the gentlemans gentleman, and while he was often called a butler, he also played the role of valet, chauffeur and footman, and sometimes the role of housekeeper and maid. Jeeves, the gentlemans gentleman created by P.G. Wodehouse to wait on Bertie Wooster and to haul the young idiot out of whatever problem he had got into, is the best fictional example of a butler of this type and is probably the one who springs to mind first when butlers are mentioned. Another notable fictional butler is Bunter, who is the super-competent sidekick to the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers novels.
Butlers today can be attached to a single well-off household or can be hired for a special occasion or location. Modern butlers still wait on tables and serve wine, but like the gentlemans gentleman, they also take care of managing households and valeting work.