A dumbwaiter is a small freight elevator or lift used to connect two floors, often carrying food or goods from one floor to another. Not intended for use by animals or people, a dumbwaiter can be a type of portable serving stand or table. They are often found in restaurants, or older private homes, and are a means of conveyance between a kitchen and a floor above or below. A simple dumbwaiter includes shafts, ropes, and pulleys, while a more modern one can include electric motors like a smaller scale passenger elevator.
The simple dumbwaiter, the kind common throughout Europe before the 1930s, consists of a metal or wooden frame, like a box, suspended in a shaft. The shaft allows for movement between two floors, and the frame is generally suspended by a rope and guided by rails in the shaft. The dumbwaiter would lie at rest on either floor until a system of pulleys was activated from the top or bottom floor. The ropes and pulleys would move the dumbwaiter from floor to floor with people tugging on the ropes to move the box along.
These primitive dumbwaiters were common in European restaurants and big-city restaurants throughout the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often the food orders would be shouted down the shaft, and the dumbwaiter would bring ingredients, food, supplies, or entire meals. Dumbwaiters at this time relied on rope that was prone to stretch until it tore and pulleys on thin or shallow wheels that were easily pushed off track. Often a dumbwaiter would slip its shaft or pulley, and land with a crash, delivering food in an unintentional mess.
Beginning in the 1930s, the dumbwaiter took on a more modern look. They began using electric motors and automatic moving systems. Some modern dumbwaiters can carry vast weights, greatly outperforming the unsteady dumbwaiter of the early 1900s. They are used in office buildings, factories, and shops to move products, and hold a more safe and usable place in today’s work world, though less prominent one.
The word dumbwaiter can also refer to a piece known as a Lazy Susan, which can be one of many things as well. A Lazy Susan can be a tray placed on top of a table to help move foods during large meals or on large tables, or a revolving corner cabinet in a kitchen containing foods and spices. It can also refer to a 1957 play by Harold Pinter, titled The Dumb Waiter.