“Au pair” is French meaning “on equal terms”. The first recorded use of the word “au pair” is dated back to 1897, when it appeared in Girl’s Own Paper. It referred to English girls who traveled to France and taught lessons in English in exchange for French ones. This emphasis on teaching soon shifted to domestic duties and childcare.
The au pair system also has roots in Switzerland where, at the end of the 19th century, large numbers of single young women moved away from home to take jobs in the cities. The church, among others, anticipated that a decline in morals would accompany this independence and therefore encouraged the young women to live and work in families, not only for the sake of their morals, but also because then they would acquire useful household skills. The focus on language came a little later, as German-speaking Swiss girls would be placed in French-speaking families so they would learn Switzerland’s second language.
In the early 1920-s the UK began au pair exchanges with Switzerland, then with Austria in 1930. The number of au pairs increased dramatically after WW2. Today there are hundreds of thousands of au pairs in Europe, it has been estimated that there are over 20 000 in Greater London alone. In 1969 the European Council in Strasbourg adopted rules to regulate young people's stays as au pairs in foreign countries. Though it has been a European concept for a long time, the USA has adopted it as well as Australia at a later date (Griffith & Legg 1997).