43

In the second book, when Harry tells the Weasleys about Dobby, Fred says that "whoever owns him will be an old wizarding family, and they'll be rich", and George adds that house-elves "come with big old manors and castles and places like that".

Other mentions of owners (or masters) of house-elves in the books include Barty Crouch who is presumably well-off, Hepzibah Smith and the Black family, who are known to be very rich, and the house-elves of Hogwarts (which surely has some important numbers in their account at Gringotts).

Also, no mention of house-elves is done in the context of poor families, or even what could be middle-class families.

So, how come house-elves always seem to be associated with riches, when their work is not paid? Were they paid servants in some distant past?

To partially answer or offer perspective, I don't really follow the theory that the elves actually "come with the castle/house/manor", because it is explained more than once that the elves are bound to serve a family, and I take that to mean they keep serving them even if the family moves to a different house.

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    Presumably they cost a lot to purchase up front... – NominSim Jul 8 '13 at 23:17
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    It's most likely a correlative relationship. If we go off the principle that in modern wizard law that new house elves can't be purchased anymore (though current slaves remain as property) then perhaps its just that since these families have been established so long, it is natural that they have accumulated significant wealth in the process. What I find a bigger issue is that from what I remember from my own reading of the books, Hogwarts still possesses house elves. I'm not confident in this to label it as an answer, just thought it was an interesting enough theory for the conundrum. – Robo Stalin Jul 8 '13 at 23:56
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    Also, it's really really screwed up and dark that slavery is just fine in the Wizarding world... – Robo Stalin Jul 8 '13 at 23:58
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    @RoboStalin you sound like Hermione. – Kevin Jul 9 '13 at 1:51
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    @Kevin I'll take that as a compliment. – Robo Stalin Jul 9 '13 at 8:48
43

I have no canon information, but I think we can reason this out:

  1. Servants are more useful if you're rich- Housework is hard. It's even harder in a large house. If you have an estate, you will pretty much need to hire people in order to keep it tidy. Why hire someone when you can get a house elf and not pay them?

  2. You still have to feed them- If you are a single parent with three kids, you don't want to account for another mouth. They may not eat much, but they have to eat something.

  3. Prestige- Not only for the family, but also for the elves. Hogwarts elves were, apparently, happy in their work (despite what Hermione may have thought). To be associated with a rich, powerful family may be a source of pride for them (Dobby notwithstanding).

  4. Economics - There is likely an up-front cost for a house-elf. It is likely very high. I doubt an average middle-class family can afford to purchase the life of a sentient creature.

  5. Scarcity- We don't know where house-elves come from, or what their society is like beyond what the wizards see, or even their lifespan. Do they reproduce? How frequently? How long is it before the child is independent? Is that child also sworn to the house of his/her parents? These factors might make it difficult to acquire a house-elf if you don't already have one.

  6. Principles - If you are a middle class wizard, chances are that at some point you had to work really, really hard. Maybe you have qualms about unpaid labor? There is a tendency in the Potterverse for wealth and prestige to be associated with evil. Maybe good people are less likely to employ slave labor?

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    Good list, is there any reference to any possibility that simply selling or acquiring new house elves as property is just illegal in the wizarding world now? That would go a long way to explain why newer "middle class" wizarding families might not be capable of getting their hands on them. – Robo Stalin Jul 9 '13 at 0:17
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    No reference, aside from the fact that there is not any talk of purchase, as I recall. And all the house-elves we meet are firmly attached to their families. Except Dobby. – Adele C Jul 9 '13 at 1:23
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    For what it's worth, house-elves definitely do reproduce (though "how often" isn't addressed that I've seen). "[Kreacher's] life ambition is to have his head cut off and stuck up on a plaque just like his mother." -- Ron, OotP Ch4. – Joe White Jul 10 '13 at 3:23
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    You never know, he could have been spawned or constructed and then adopted... : P – Adele C Jul 10 '13 at 3:26
  • Two things, from what we can see, wealth in the Potterverse are not always evil (Read Sirius [Who can buy a Firebolt] and Harry, who has a small fortune from his familial invention of the Wiggenweld(?) potion and hair potion. Also, Harry's family IS old, and relatively prestigious (Having Harry, and his inventor ancestors). Dobby may have had pride in that, but otherwise, +1~ – Anoplexian Mar 17 '16 at 22:19
27

There really isn't any reason to complicate this beyond "house elves come with big manors".

The key is to realize that house-elves are like serfs, not slaves. They're not free, but they aren't property, either. Instead, they're bound to a property, in a totally practical sense (as opposed to a magical sense, though with house-elves there's doubtless a magical component, too): They can't move away from that property unless their liege-lord/master says so, and they are obligated to work at that property, unless their liege-lord/master says otherwise. What happens if the property they're bound to is sold is anybody's guess: if you take even a superficial look at the history of serf-hood, you'll realize that it was ComplicatedTM. Basically, the answer to "Do they stay with the property (and serve the new owners) or do they go with the original family?" is "Yes."

But in any case, what this means is that the way for a family to acquire house-elves is to acquire a place that has house-elves, and since those kinds of places tend to big, expensive manors, it follows logically that you need to be rich to acquire them.


I don't really follow the theory that the elves actually "come with the castle/house/manor", because it is explained more than once that the elves are bound to serve a family, and I take that to mean they keep serving them even if the family moves to a different house.

If you're talking about old enough money, serving a family is functionally equivalent to serving the place they live. The two are not separable, at least not in the usual fashion. Think "awarded a noble estate", not "bought a house on Elm Street".

  • But any family, old as it may be, can move, right? – Janoma Jul 10 '13 at 1:05
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    @Janoma: well, maybe, but the point is, they wouldn't move, at least not unless absolutely forced to (by financial ruin or similar cataclysm). If your very identity is "Lord of ThisPlace", you don't just up and move away from ThisPlace. The most you do is get a house "in town" and find a manager for the estate. – Martha Jul 10 '13 at 14:14
  • This answer is a lot more logical than the higher voted ones. I know it's a few years old by now, but Elves being parts of noble estates makes far more sense than anything else. It's important to understand how England worked to fully understand this. – Gorchestopher H Mar 9 '16 at 17:38
16

It's possible that placing house-elves with wealthy wizarding families with long histories in the wizarding world is wizarding tradition or perhaps even wizarding law. On the fourth floor of the Ministry for Magic is the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures Office for House-Elf Relocation. This suggests that the Ministry has some sort of policy or policies in place for placing a house-elf with a family. In Chamber of Secrets, as noted in the original question, house-elves are associated with wealthy families and/or old manors or castles. This would explain the presence of approximately 100 house-elves at Hogwarts -- Hogwarts is over 1000 years old. Wealth would explain why the families in question own house-elves while the impoverished Weasleys cannot. It's possible there are high taxes or assessments placed on owners of house-elves by the Ministry of Magic, which would explain why the Ministry has such a vested interest in where a house-elf is placed (i.e. the Ministry would want to place the house-elf in a home or work placement where it is almost guaranteed the Ministry can levy their taxes and collect that revenue). Canon doesn't dictate this, but there's a reason why the Ministry has a vested interest in where house-elves are placed, and, as always, revenue is always a priority for a bureaucracy. An idea anyway, as canon doesn't address this directly.

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    Taxation did not occur to me. Good point. – Adele C Jul 9 '13 at 2:35
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    Now that you mention this, the Ministry may even direct elves to rich families / old houses / places of strong influence in order to have them spy or at least observe – Zommuter Jul 9 '13 at 6:04
  • An interesting suggestion. House-elves are extremely loyal to their masters and families -- would they be likely to act as spies for the Ministry? – Slytherincess Jul 9 '13 at 7:36
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    They would, if the Ministry were their masters and they are ordered to act as if the family were their masters. Remember Kreacher, ordered by Regulus not to tell about the lake, even to other family members (which still sounds weird to me as an order). – Janoma Jul 9 '13 at 12:01
4

Although the house elves themselves aren't paid they would have been exchanged for money which would likely only be affordable for the rich families. Furthermore there would probably have been a social stigma involved with having slaves if you were rich so the more well off would have purchased house elves to prove their wealth. It was also a common trend that pureblood families were rich, probably due to inheritance, and amongst their inheritance would be the house elves.

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    You might also want to mention the cost of having an extra mouth to feed. – Valorum Feb 6 '15 at 0:14
3

Since house elves are a kept magical creature, the long established familes would be the only ones having them since there are no 'wild' house elves, they would be keeping them for generations (as shown by the house elves heads on the Grimald Place wall).

Due to their usefulness and powers that can arguably be superior to wizards, they would be loathe to part with even one for monetary gain, even if it was possible ('bound to serve one family'). They could go between family members, but they could never leave, unless they were freed.

The Hogwarts house elves make it clear they consider freed elves shameful, and Dobby's cheerfulness and seeking to make a money for himself un-natural, so they'd be shunned by the rest. His cheerful attitude was un-natural, if you took Winky's freedom as a 'normal' reaction.

Given this attitude towards freed elves, it's unlikely, if Dobby had lived, even if he found other freed elves, he would have ended up having any offspring.

Elves considered their families exsisted to serve their Wizard family; Winky probably wouldn't have children, even if she found another freed elf, because:

  • They no longer have the motivation to provide more servants through having another generation born (logical elf motivation; providing for your family in the event of your death). Having children was decided by the masters probably, and she wouldn't feel worthy anymore, if it wasn't.
  • The Hogwarts elves made it clear they did not consider freed elves appropriate; they were social pariahs, having been so bad they were cast out from their home. It's unlikely they would have had a child with something so inappropriate, and even then, since one parent isn't free, the child would be born owned by Hogwarts in all likelyhood.
  • Their child would be born into the world, having no one to serve ('no purpose'); with Winky suffering this, she would not want her own hand to cause her own child to suffer such a terrible fate in an elf's eyes.

So, with the two house elves freed we know of, it's cannonically clear no born-free elves on the table anytime soon.

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