Adrien Petit, a native of the Champagne district of France, first came into Thomas Jefferson's service on May 22, 1785. He had been maître d'hôtel, or butler, in the household of John and Abigail Adams at Neuilly.
When the Adamses departed for London in 1785, Jefferson inherited Petit, who first served as his valet de chambre1 and, in that capacity, accompanied him to London in 1786. On his return to Paris, Jefferson discovered the "embezzlements and depredations" of his butler Marc.2 Marc was immediately dismissed and Petit rose to the top position, at a wage of 72 livres ($12) a month.
Petit was maître d'hôtel at the Hôtel de Langeac throughout the rest of Jefferson's residence in Paris. When Jefferson accepted appointment as Washington's secretary of state, he determined to have Petit "in the same capacity as housekeeper,"3 asking William Short to persuade him to leave France for America. This Petit was reluctant to do, but he finally agreed and arrived in Philadelphia on July 19, 1791. He governed the household staff, for a wage of $18.50 a month. At one point in this period, a domestic dispute arose between Petit and Jefferson's coachman, Francis Seche, and his wife. Petit threatened to return to France if they were not removed from the household. Jefferson, who wrote, "I have had such long experience of the fidelity of Petit, and value him so much," dismissed the Seches.4 Petit served as Jefferson's maître d'hôtel until the latter's retirement in 1794, when he returned to France.
Jefferson particularly valued Petit's honesty and fidelity - essential qualities in his position. A French maître d'hôtel was administrator of the entire household staff and was responsible for the purchase of food and supplies for the household. Because he selected the provisions at market and oversaw the dessert course, he was also expected to have culinary talents (Jefferson once wrote that "indispensable qualifications" for a maître d'hôtel were "honesty and skill in making the dessert."5) Petit's recipes for coffee and ice cream, for instance, were preserved, while a later butler, Etienne Lemaire, left recipes for pancakes as well as meat courses.
- Lucia Stanton, November 10, 1989; revised April 29, 2011, Anna Berkes
Kimball, Marie. Thomas Jefferson's Cook Book. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976. This book mentions Petit briefly and contains Petit's recipes for coffee and ice cream.
Stanton, Lucia. "'A Well-ordered Household': Domestic Servants in Jefferson's White House." White House History 17 (2006): 4-23. Text available online from the White House Historical Association. Although this article deals with a slightly later period than Petit's service with Jefferson, it provides a useful portrayal of the domestic environment of Jefferson's household.
1. Petit briefly left Jefferson's service in November 1785 for employment as maître d'hôtel to a Paris banker.
2. William Short to William S. Smith, August 6, 1786, in PTJ, 10:213-214. Jefferson later compared Marc's and Petit's household accounts. Under Petit's regime the cost of the main meal of the day was twenty percent cheaper. See MB, 1:646-647
3. Jefferson to Short, March 12, 1790, in PTJ, 16:229.
4. See Jefferson to George Taylor, Jr., August 13, 1792, in PTJ, 24:295, and MB, 2:880.
5. Jefferson to Philippe de Létombe, July 29, 1801, in PTJ, 34:685.