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What is a Dumbwaiter?

By Matthew F.
Updated: Feb 21, 2024

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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon217733 — On Sep 26, 2011

A dumbwaiter is a small elevator that lifts objects between floors of a residential or commercial building. Thomas jefferson is the known inventor of the dumbwaiter.

By golf07 — On Sep 03, 2011

The first time I heard of a dumbwaiter was on a tour of the home of Thomas Jefferson in Monticello.

We took a trip east one summer and saw many historical sites, including a tour of Monticello. As we were going through the tour, the guide pointed out the dumbwaiter and explained what it was.

I was completely fascinated by this, and thought what fun it would be to have one of my own. Jefferson liked having them because it cut down on the number of servants that were needed and made it less congested when he was entertaining.

Whenever I read about a dumbwaiter in a book or see it on a TV program, I still think about the first time I saw one, and how it would be a great thing to have even today.

By MissCourt — On Sep 02, 2011

@w00dchuck41 - The price changes drastically depending on how many stops you want. My grandma has dumbwaiter in her house and she cut the cost in half by only having it stop of two floors. Commercial dumbwaiters are the most expensive, even if they only stop on two floors.

If you really wanted one, building your own wouldn't be that hard. It's just a miniature elevator. You could probably find a tutorial online somewhere on how to do it. Dumbwaiters are fun so a lot of people want them. I doubt your bill would come close to $5,000USD since the parts for one are so cheap.

By w00dchuck41 — On Sep 02, 2011

Dumbwaiter lifts are still available for those that want them -- but the dumbwaiter prices are a little steep.

I looked at several companies that make them and a plain residential dumbwaiter can be from $2,000 USD to over $5,000 USD. I like the idea of a dumbwaiter, but there's no way I'd pay that for one. I'm okay with carrying my groceries -- the exercise is good for me.

I bet that you could custom-make your own dumbwaiter system for way less. At least that way you would have the money for things to lift in it. I hope that they become a little more mainstream so that the prices drop. Right now they are still a specialty item for the rich and retired.

By zeak4hands — On Sep 01, 2011

I've watched two crime shows that have dumbwaiters in them, which is where I first heard about them. They are basically just a little elevators, but I would love to have one in my house!

I know that some hotels still use dumbwaiters, but I can't think of any where else that would use them. Usually the kitchen is on the same floor as everything else now -- so restaurants wouldn't need a dumbwaiter elevator.

Do any companies still sell home dumbwaiters? If I wanted a manual dumbwaiter, could I still get one?

By Sara007 — On Aug 31, 2011

Does anyone know if you can still have dumbwaiters installed in your home?

I can imagine how great it would be to have a way to send laundry and snacks between floors without actually having to run up and down the stairs all day. I would need one very sturdy though, and hopefully with an electrical system like a real elevator.

In my home we have the laundry room set up in the basement, and it can be a pain going up a few flights with fresh laundry. Plus, my kids are always having friends over and I would love to be able to outfit them with snacks without having to interrupt their playtime.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 30, 2011

My grandmother has a very old Victorian home and there is still a working dumbwaiter in her residence. My grandma mostly uses it for sending up meals to my grandfather who has some mobility issues.

The great thing about the dumbwaiter in my grandparent's place is that it is a fairly stable contraption. As far as I know there has never been food spillage in all the years my grandparents have been using it.

I suppose my grandpa is lucky, because the dumbwaiter comes up a stone's throw away from his sitting area, so it is very easy for him to grab his midday meal when it is sent up.

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